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Sidereal Fortress: Artistic Freedom & Dungeon Synth

Dungeon synth is a strange beast and each artist would appear to have his or her own views on it. Sidereal Fortress, which happens to be the name the artists wants to use for the interview too, looks at it with a wide-open view as part of ambient music. It allows him to approach the genre freely and create a quite diverse range of records, all worth listening to.

This interview started after I wrote a piece (that would appear to have gone slightly unnoticed) on comfy synth, the new threat to the purity of the dungeon synth genre. Or, if you look at it like Sidereal Fortress, a new dimension of a fascinating style.

Read on, and enter the world of Sidereal Fortress.

Sidereal Fortress – of crypts, forests and valleys

I wanted to first ask you about Sidereal Fortress, how did this project get started and what made you go into dungeon synth?
…as I explained in other interviews, Sidereal Fortress was born like a reaction. I used to be a creative musician, so when I felt that creativity was going outta sight from my playing, I immediately turned to something that could stimulate me without boundaries. Ambient Music, and especially Dungeon Synth, was the key. I found out that this style of music we used to listen to in the 90s…you know, Pazuzu, Burzum, Mortiis etc…had a ‘scene’, a following, and…yes, also a name, haha!

Tell me a bit more about your background as a creative musician? What sort of music did you make and what sort of education/training do you have?
About my background. I have been studying the guitar for many years, listened, and collected Metal stuff for all my life…so, not such a different background from other Dungeon Synth artists…

You mention here that you found freedom in dungeon synth (or ambient music in general). What sort of freedom do you mean by that?
Creative freedom, of course! Notice that listening and mastering Ambient Music takes your relationship with Music to another level. Higher? lower? I don’t know. But it’s DIFFERENT. Your musical perception and sensitivity get expanded, your mind and ears get open extremely wide. No school will ever teach you that…

Is that maybe also, because it is such a highly individual process? I mean, more than anything the music is your creation as such.
Absolutely! And no one makes the rules for you.

But also, dungeon synth is slowly closing ranks, there’s an ongoing debate on what is real dungeon synth and what isn’t. That’s why we already see discussions about winter synth or comfy synth, which I believe are cut from the same cloth. How do you experience that, since your music has been classified in the latter category?
Oh, that’s a long one. Ambient Music is closing ranks just if YOU want your ranks to be closed. Sidereal Fortress is actually a multi sounding project, I don’t pay too much attention if my stuff is True DS or False DS…you know, today I could be inspired by some raw, droning black metal stuff like Paysage d’Hiver, tomorrow it could be by Blackmore’s Night, just to give an example. But: most of all, I let the inspiration in from emotional states (including nostalgic), from hiking in the woods, from visiting abandoned villages and places…you know, all that can really stimulate the imagination. And you know what? I never felt so close to music as I do now. Dungeon synth and related stuff can really break every boundary of your creativity and imagination, giving back to music its very essence, making it become a real form of art. Not a scholarship or consumer product.

And continuing my initial line of questioning: What did you set out to do with Sidereal Fortress and what sort of stories inspired you and did you want to tell in turn to your audience?

Let’s look at the thematics because though you talk about freedom, there is consistency in your music and the direction you take it in. Sidereal Fortress is not an experimental project in that sense, but what is the story you are telling us?
Ah, I know what you mean. Anyway, a lot of ‘free form’ tracks are present in Sidereal Fortress…listen for example to my album The Hermit’s Hole. Also ‘La grotta di Merlino’ from the Vette Inquiete album is an actual free form one. The experimental approach you’re speaking of is, indeed, more present in my ‘kosmische’ project Il Generale Inverno. Sidereal Fortress explores most fantasy and traditional scenarios, instead.

Since my first EP, ‘Ruins’, my way of Dungeon Synth is inspired by places I visited, most ancient sites, abandoned medieval locations, woods, mountains etc…since there’s plenty of them in Italy and in Europe. The Hermit’s Hole, Vette inquiete” and also The Lost Woodsongs EP” are all inspired by obscure or fictional facts from Tuscany, the region where I live. With Vette Inquiete, I tried to translate into Music some less known Tuscan folk tales (you’ll find all of them explained in the beautiful tape edition that HDK released in 2018). The Hermit’s Hole, which I consider my only actual full-length album to date, is an even more intimate and spiritual journey in that sense. Just to make it clear: those releases are NOT intended to be part of a trilogy or series….they came straight from the heart and surely I will keep being inspired by the secrets of my homeland!

Italy, obviously, has a rich and long history. Are there particular eras or topics that inspire you?
Most still recognizable heritage that we have in Tuscany, meaning castles, towers, etc, comes from the Middle Ages and Renaissance, so they’re obviously the ones that most inspire me. But I also have a particular interest in Etruscan and pre-Roman sites and history! 

How did you get in contact with Heimat Der Katastrofe?
I don’t remember exactly…but surely it was because they listened to my ‘Ruins’ EP, back in 2017. They offered me the opportunity to write and record an album for their catalog, so I made ‘The Forgotten Tomb of Yshnak’ and the rest is history. Lately, another great label named Ancient Meadow Records contacted me and offered a tape release of The Hermit’s Hole plus some merch like stickers etc…they’re doing an awesome job, I’m so proud of this collaboration!

I’m interested to learn a bit more about the conversion process of those impressions and the inspiration into the music. How do you go about this? Is there a ritual or personal process you go through?I’m absolutely instinctive. Meaning that, in case of inspiration, I must immediately record the main idea just to fix it and capture the emotional state/moment as it is. I don’t see this process as an actual improvisation, I call it ‘straight composing’, do you like this definition? 

This is the only way to give people true inspired Music, not artifacts. My other project Il Generale Inverno is even more extreme in that sense since it’s actually full free-form improvisation.

So it’s for you really a matter of getting to your equipment when the inspiration hits you?
Ahahah, yes, when it’s possible. If not, I record the main idea whistlin’ at my phone.

I’m curious how you feel about the term comfy synth.
Comfy Synth…mmm…initially, that thing made me laugh, just because it seems to be the bright side of dungeon synth…but exploring that subgenre a little bit, I found out that it has its own sense: it’s not the opposite of dark ambient, it seems to be something like the nemesis. CS is just a shortcut neologism to identify a style of ambient music mostly based on the ‘nostalgic’ feel…hence topics like grandma’s rocking chairs, little peaceful animals like the ones in Enid Blyton’s novels, etc. Notice that some of my albums like ‘Racconti del Focolare’ and ‘Alpestre’ have curiously landed in the Comfy Zone…I think it’s because of that nostalgic pulse. Anyway, those albums have been released long before the term ‘comfy synth’ was crafted…

Well, I mentioned your project in a bit I wrote related to the genre. I forwarded the thesis, that it is not the opposite, but a different form of finding ‘escape’ to an imaginary realm. How do you feel about that idea?
It’s more or less what I said above: telling it’s just ‘dark ambient vs bright ambient’ it’s somehow reductive. Also, I heard a couple of albums that showcase very good compositional skills…so I think taking a listen to comfy synth is definitely worth it.

Each artist I spoke to this far has indicated that the community is one of the most important aspects of what they like about dungeon synth. How do you feel about that?
I don’t know what they mean exactly… Maybe they’re talking about feeling at home inside the DS community because there are no pop-stars among the artists, and every DS addicted frequents the same two or three closed groups. What I like about the DS community is that there’s respect between artists, almost no jealousy or other ridiculous stuff. That said, it’s not so different from other music-related communities…

Well, that’s something. So what sort of equipment do you use to make music?
I’m currently using two controllers and an Italian toy-synth from the 80s to which I added a line-out jack. Sometimes I also use a Yamaha acoustic guitar, a classical one, and rarely also some of my old strats.

Are you a bit of a gearhead?
Not that much, to be honest. I recorded my first EP ‘Ruins’ by using just a USB portable controller, believe it or not, ahah! Then I obviously improved my synth stuff buying two better devices…you know, to have more dynamics, an onboard arpeggiator, a basic mixing section, and other things. This allows me to make also improvised stuff like I’m doing with Il Generale Inverno. The toy synth is a curious story: I casually found that little monster at a fair, for just 5€…it’s a Bontempi, a legendary Italian brand from the old days. And, despite being just a little toy, it has very good sounds!

Dungeon synth is now more popular than ever. Cassettes sell out in minutes for example. Where do you think this is all heading?
Oh, this is a hot one!!! I know many artists do not agree with my point of view, but I think there’s an ‘underground hype’ out there. Music is losing its primary role, in favor of the collecting hysteria. There are beautiful albums, even little masterpieces, that go completely unseen…but when they get a repress by this or that label, they got sold out in 2 minutes. Curious, ah!? OK, labels have more visibility than an independent artist, but this sounds to me almost an apology…

Do you feel it disrupts the artistry? Have you felt this has affected your visibility as an artist?
Let me tell you this: if you feel that hype, marketing, and other shit like that is somehow affecting your art or artistry, well you’d better stop acting like an artist because you’re not. All this stuff regards making music as a job or a source of money raising, not art. Desmond Child maybe does not agree with my view, but I could understand him, haha! To answer the second part of the question, I’m not in the position to complain about my project’s visibility and other things like that, because Sidereal Fortress seems to be respected and welcomed by most of the community, including well-known labels. So I’m a pop star now, haha!

I gather you have your own dungeon now, as a wealthy star in the DS underground?
I’m more interested in doing my music the best I can, trying to keep the quality high. DS has that amateur, underground feel we all like…however this can’t be used as an excuse for masking an objective low quality. But returning to your question, in 2017 when I released ‘Ruins’ I noticed an interest, people were buying my digital EP, though I hadn’t any Facebook, Instagram, or label promoting Sidereal Fortress…it was exciting to see that, and still, it is! I’m obviously thankful to all those who support my projects!

How important is stuff like artwork and the creative side of a physical release to you?
…to be honest, when I started Sidereal Fortress I was focused 100% on Music and I didn’t give graphics and artworks a lot of importance. But yes, with time I learned that artwork is part of the concept and must reflect what you’re going to hear in the tape, cd etc. Then I started practicing with graphic software and I improved my skills a bit. However, we still have to keep in mind that we’re here to make music, not paintings or theater…

About the music, what is the purpose of your work, or in other words, how do you hope your listener enjoys your work? Is it about musicality or atmosphere?
This is the most difficult question I ever had to answer in an interview, really! The most important thing for an artist is always to go straight to the heart of his audience, to touch their feelings and emotions…no matter if with musical skills or just a sound texture. With Sidereal Fortress, I try to be balanced between the two…if you listen to The Hermit’s Hole from start to end, you’ll realize how much it depends on the single track: both  ‘Through ancient woods…’ are super-easy and quite repetitive tracks, but it’s exactly how I wanted those songs to be! At school, you learn that easy Music is almost shit, but the reality is a bit…different!

I read in Dungeon Synth Zine you were considering ending the Sidereal Fortress project?
Yes, I ended Sidereal Fortress one year ago after the release of ‘Odissea’. Back then I felt like I’ve told all that I had to tell with that ‘brand’. But thanks to some estimated DS artists and also some close friends, I found myself reconsidering Sidereal Fortress. That led me to publish The Hermit’s Hole with my usual moniker…and it has been the right move! That album got the interest of Ancient Meadow and a very good overall feedback…yes, I think it’s my best release to date.

Which artists or releases are currently inspiring you or which would you really recommend as you consider them to be particularly good?
Mmm…the dungeon synth scene is moving such fast that it’s really hard to find hidden masterpieces. Also, it’s quite rare that I make my DS Music getting inspiration from other DS. Morphic Sun is a less known artist that I’m following with great interest.

What future plans do you currently have for Sidereal Fortress?
Honestly, I don’t know. I have a few recorded tracks that maybe will be included in my next album, but not in the near future. Dungeon synth is the quintessence of introspective music like dark ambient and cosmic music are…but they’re also a research of the perfect dramatic and obscure symphony. The making of The Hermit’s Hole lasted almost one year, but things could be even longer…or shorter…who knows? By now, I will join the new chapter of a well-known compilation with an unreleased track. You’ll see…

If you had to describe Sidereal Fortress as a dish, like a type of food, what would it be and why?
Without any doubt, it would be a dish from the Tuscan tradition, possibly a mountainside one. Just because my region, as I told you before, is my main source of inspiration. Though I also did some ‘off-topic’ albums like Odissea and The Forgotten Tomb of Yshnak.

Maybe I will choose the ‘cinghiale alla bracconiera’, that we can almost translate as ‘the poacher’s wild boar’ in English!


Comfy synth: but is it dungeon synth?

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.

Dungeon synth or comfy synth, it both implies dreaming

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

Origin: USA
Label: Lafawijn/Cloisterphonics
Mushroom Village Comfy Synth
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

Origin: USA
Label: Dungeons Deep Records
Hole Dweller Comfy Synth music

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

Origin: United States
Label: Phantom Lure
Comfy synth at 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

Origin: Sweden
Label: Vicious Mockery RecordsGetting comfy and cozy with The Friendly Moon

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
Label: Cloisterphonics

This release is, to me,Olde Fox Village forest explorations 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

Origin: Italy
Label: Dungeon It! / Heimat Der KatastropheSidereal Fortress allows for Alpine dreaming

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

Origin: United States
Label: self-released
Meowing and purring with 3 Little Kittens

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.