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!