A change is coming over the remote, weird and singular genre of dungeon synth. New scenes emerge and offshoot subgenres and crossovers are emerging. The latest that has become a topic of discussion is that of comfy synth, a stylistic indication that in itself sounds cringeworthy. But what is it we’re talking about and does it fit within the framework of dungeon synth? Or is it a different thing altogether?
Defining the dungeon synth genre
Toilet Ov Hell described dungeon synth as ‘the pinnacle of basement music dorkery’ and in a way, it’s a fitting description. The style is notoriously hard to define and almost requires a listening journey all the way into the regions of black metal only to wander down a dark forest of ambient black metal (which is, as substyle, probably more befitting of the title bestowed upon dungeon synth) only to wander down into an abandoned keep’s dungeons and find what dungeon synth means. Ok, so I ended up in the basement anyways… You can’t win ‘m all.
Bandcamp Daily was a little more succinct but used a similar introduction as I did here. It’s because dungeon synth is inherently entwined with narrative, atmosphere, emotional engagement and fantasy. For some, like Grimrik, it is always connected to black metal. When I wrote about dungeon synth for the first time, I was tempted to not approach it seriously” (which is a weird form of excusing oneself for liking ‘the weird’) but to me, it’s always about ambiance and narrative. Vaelastrasz expressed the same opinion in the interview I conducted, linking it explicitly to the ambient genre.
Winter synth, dark ambient, dungeon synth
The issue is that dungeon synth got it’s name much later than it emerged and is hard to pin down. If we look at the originators, there is a clear penchant for repetition, minor key and simplicity. But as dungeon synth is now seeing a conservative phase (much like black metal started to show in the later nineties, these definitions by Balbulus are very helpful:
- “Dark Ambient” is often used as an umbrella term for all of these styles, however in its purest form it focusses on subtle textures and soundscapes, creating a less musical approach by utilising low rumbles, drones, clankings, creakings, whispers etc.
- “Dungeon Synth” tends to be less texture-based, with the focus being on retro-sounding synths creating epic medieval/fantasy-inspired music, frequently utilising brash synthesized orchestration. The music usually has an oppressive and closed-in feel, as of a castle or dungeon (hence the name), or of vast armies marching to war. There is often an inherent naive or amateurish quality that adds to the “retro” charm.
- “Winter Synth” tends to have a more open expansive feel, with the hypnotic quality of an open landscape. By its nature, it is slightly more minimalistic than Dungeon Synth, and as such, there is theoretically a greater overlap into the realms of dark ambient and drone. The most common themes are snow, ice, forests and mountains.
It helps to see where we’re going with comfy synth, so let’s look at some of the artists and see if it helps us towards a definition and allocation.
Comfy Synth releases
Some of my favorites, who either fit in this genre or just skirt the edges, are by Fief (also considered forest synth) and Earthencloak. What is notable about Earthencloak is that it deals with ‘kabouters’ (often translated into gnomes, but that’s not quite the same for a Dutch guy who grew up with Rein Poortvliet works), which have the comfy side, but also face dreadful enemies in the shape of trolls. The dark is never far away… The releases I mention are personal picks, that I have often seen mentioned in the community. Saying these releases are popular is too casually done by bigger outlets and may distort the reality of such a microgenre as this.
Mushroom Village – Strawberry Fields
Nothing is quite as dreamy as the reverb on the warm synths that meet you as this record starts. A blanket of warm sounds covers you and there is not a single speck of a cloud in the sky. Mushroom Village is one of those acts that offer pure comfy synth, with minimal keys and easy melodies and flourishes. It shows a mushroom village on it’s cover and oozes coziness and classic, simple village life. Every title on its albums alludes to that feeling, making it a cohesive emotional experience. Some songs feel like the carefree tunes you’ll enjoy playing on your car stereo on summer days. That’s exactly what makes comfy synth so powerful.
Hole Dweller – Home To Roost
Remember ‘No adventures here, thank you!’, spoken by Bilbo Baggins? Imagine if Bilbo never really left and just stayed in the Shire, being a slightly strange hobbit with a lust for rambling, that still had some interesting adventures. That’s the feeling you get from Hole Dweller. On the first album, ‘Flies the Coop’, the hero Jammwine, goes on a journey but as I understand it from the songs, he doesn’t travel that far and soon returns home for a fine ale in the local tavern. Still, there’s always a hint of the adventure looming. If you read the books by Tolkien, the larger the world becomes, the grimmer it feels. Hole Dweller remains in the smaller world and holds on to the parts before the trolls and the old forest and grave hills.
Grandma’s Cottage – Grandma’s Cottage
No artist is as well established as comfy synth as Grandma’s Cottage, and it really requires little explanation why. The music is sweet as the piles of cookies my grandma would feed me as a kid, as I played in her garden and looked for mysteries. The album cover shows an embroidery of a lovely cottage, with snow-rimmed windows and a pleasant light shining from behind them. Some people claim to hear something scary in here, but I think that’s based on dungeon synth expectations. Grandma’s cottage is purely soothing on every song, each representing exactly what the titles say (they’re all cookies and you even get a Russian tea ball recipe with the album). It’s an idyll, that paints a picture of our romanticized childhood memories. Where staying at grandma meant a state of dreaminess (possibly a sugar high), of freedom and careless exploration.
The Friendly Moon – S/T
I’ve decided to include some material that I find less enticing and a little too sweet for my liking. The Friendly Moon is in that area for me. Then again, after a moment of reflection, I have to also admit that this is what soundtracks from some of my favorite Japanese RPGs sounded like. This act calls its style ‘sleepy synth’, because that’s what it focuses on. At times, the keys are a bit heavy-handed though (listen to ‘Snooze’). But that’s not the only peculiarity, as almost every song contains some musical break-out moments, where it leaves the synthy basis behind… almost. In that sense, this artist is close to being something different and it is where comfy synth is approaching the genre edge. This is fine, genre should never limit anyone doing their art and The Friendly Moon is aiming for something very specific that may even morph into midi-rock one day. What I find harder to determine here is what narrative is told, but perhaps it’s merely a meditation on a theme. That’s cool too, as it is a different form of storytelling.
Olde Fox Den – Roots & Tunnels
Origin: United States
This release is, to me, particularly interesting, because it focuses on the animal kingdom. In that, it is working the borderline between comfy synth and winter synth in my opinion. Thematically, it’s a story of nature, capturing the tranquility of the forest in mild field recordings and gentle synth music that more or less meanders around the central frame (which is for example a ‘babbling brook’). It’s interesting that the music also includes an oboe, flute, strings and horns to create a distinctly synth-like sound. In doing so, it even further complicates some genre borders with electroacoustic and I would dare say forest folk. But these are all musical directions that dungeon synth can borrow themes and inspiration from. It simply makes sense (and it is a very enjoyable record).
Sidereal Fortress – Alpestre
Again, an act that crawls close to the edge of dungeon synth thematically. Sidereal Fortress in many ways has the basics of dungeon synth as part of the sound it produces. Yet the light, major tone, and gentle flow of the sound have landed it in the comfy synth corner. Interestingly enough, music by this project has been released by two phenomenal dungeon synth labels, and here you can see how close things can be. The theme is here focused on the Alps, but also nostalgia. It harkens to an imaginary past, and the melancholy is tangible in the synth music. At times, the music is actually slightly darker. Check out ‘Altars of Eternal Frost’, for example, or the magical ‘Reverberation & Enchantment’. Guitars though, something purists don’t like in their synth, if I hear it correctly that is. The music is atmospheric and tells Alpine stories. It’s not very far from it’s cousin-genre.
3 Little Kittens – Meowing and Purring
We’re going to go over this one fast, because yes… I get that this makes a hardcore Mortiis worshipper cringe and doubt his life choices. But I’ve got a pile of Mortiis vinyl and I love cats, so I can enjoy this. Yet, what it lacks is that repetitive nature and dense atmosphere. In a sense, it’s children’s songs on a keyboard, but then about kittens. It’s minimalist though, it uses synths (kinda…) and is narrative. It’s just not as gloomy and complex as a dungeon synth fan would like, but does it really lack any of the ‘skill’ of most artists? I doubt it. It’s cringy though, and here I can really feel the ‘guilty pleasure’ element.
The Dungeon Synth Family
If we look at these releases and others, we see two directions that both point towards coziness (I know, I said it…): tranquillity in fairy tales and human nostalgia (including an anthropomorphized vision of the animal kingdom and nature). I guess those are loose pointers, but they serve to say what I feel is a key similarity. When we meditate on ancient ruins, we imagine a nostalgic past, we yearn for it as much as 3 Little Kittens yearns for the sheer joy of watching kittens play, The Friendly Moon meditates on peaceful sleep, or Sidereal Fortress dreams of the Alps. Others, in a way Sidereal Forest too, as do Hole Dweller and Mushroom Village, fantasize about a joyous fairytale land. Musically, none of them is radically different from classic dungeon synth (and I say this lightly, fully knowing the radical aural difference a dedicated fan of either will perceive). They all use synths or instruments to emulate the sound and texture, that we also find in dungeon synth. One could argue, that the minor/major key is the main difference, but instrumentation and theme is obviously another. But I feel the main conclusion to draw is this:
Anyone who enjoyed dungeon synth, winter synth, or what we now dub comfy synth (let’s go with something else, please) is that it reflects an experience that we can associate with fantasy. It’s the fantasy of a dark tale, a heroic journey and a forgotten ruin that we see in dungeon synth, but it’s also the snowy landscapes, the forces of nature when we look at a sea in turmoil or animals playing in nature (or in a tv documentary). But like anyone that enjoys the journey to Mount Doom, we all now and then want to return to the Shire as it was before. Full of silly, joyous Hobbits. But also our childhood, which was safe and full of mysteries and magic.
Two sides of the same coin
Bandcamp Daily was quite precise in the connection between comfy synth and dungeon synth if eels satyrical in the same overblown way. As such they are part of a whole even though they seem opposite. They are all part of the same place. They are all in our minds and they help us transport ourselves away from the daily dregs and mundanity of concrete jungles, repetitive jobs and office cubicles. Like every adventure, there’s is a dangerous journey, but also the safe harbour. Home. Where grandma’s cookies are baked. It’s part of the full story and for that reason, I can only welcome comfy synth to an ever-growing stylistic world, that I like to keep under the umbrella of dungeon synth.
Why that? Because to me, dungeon synth embodies all the fantastic, all the dreams and stories. It’s become synonymous with all its offshoots and subs. But then again, that’s my reading and your story may be different. Hope it gives you food for thought.