Get your dungeon synth digest with Toadlickers, Hole Dweller, Vervamon, and Borg. Some good stuff to get into your system. Ok, maybe not all as dungeon synth as it should be, but it fits. And it’s cool so… enjoy.
Header image: Temple of Mokva in Abkhazia, an ancient working temple. According to legend, the king of Leon refused to pay the builder, claiming the surroundings were not visible from the tower. After the builder climbed up to look at the surroundings, and prove the king wrong, the king removed the ladder to let him starve. The temple was looted by the Turks and rebuilt in the 19th century.
Toadlickers – Hangover Songs
Label: Knekelput Recordings
I’m not sure if you could call Toadlickers dungeon synth, but it’s definitely using the format to amplify its comical storytelling. Ok, so let’s imagine a goblin tavern, deep under the surface of the Forgotten Realms or any other fantasy realms. Drunk goblins roll around, frolicking and fighting, gobbling food and tittle-tattling in guttural tones. Then the band called Toadlickers starts playing. The rhythm is a bit martial, repetitive, but also jolly and a bit incoherent. Fighting ceases, and the noisy masses rise to their feed to do the goblin dance. Yes, you can think about the Labyrinth movie with David Bowie as the Goblin King. Opening track ‘Now I want to lick some toads’ is an instant classic, as is my favorite ‘Too Many Mushroom Candies.’ It sort of sounds like the famous ‘Silvester Anfang’ is being played by… well, drunk Goblins. Smash your tankards, hop without a care around and sing along with Toadlickers.
Funny thing is, there’s a long-standing dichotomy in fantasy with there being good and evil. But what if these are just perspectives, and evil creatures are just as many beings that want fun, fulfillment, and a lot of liquor?
Hole Dweller – Flies the Coop II
Label: Dungeons Deep Records
This ‘demo’ release by Hole Dweller can be called the last of an era. The act released a new EP recently, and the sound has changed remarkably. Good on Hole Dweller, less good for the fans of these iconic releases. This demo fills the hole between the first and second release (‘Flies the Coop’ and ‘Return To Roost’). Adventuring? No thank you, would Bilbo have said. However, the protagonist of Hole Dwellers’ pastoral dungeon synth saga responded with a resounding yes and has gotten himself into an adventure. The music is filled with joy and passages that speak of the tranquility you will find in the realms of Middle Earth. Some jokes are for insiders, like the title ‘The Hospitality of Elves is Nearly That of Halflings.’ It’s what makes this record such a lovely endeavor to retreat into.
I particularly relish the song ‘With a taste of Miruvor’, which has a slow beat, and repeats it’s energizing sounds. It soothes, but also breathers live back into you as you listen. Hole Dweller likes to create ambient sounds, like a woodpecker hammering away on a tree trunk, the sound of the wind, and a hazy sound to the synths that playfully unfold the songs. As an act, Hole Dweller, much like Toadlickers, offers new pathways for dungeon synth to explore without ever really deviating from its original journey.
Vervamon – The Path Through The Evergreen Forest
Label: Knekelput Recordings
Vervamon is too old, too cold. Dungeon synth, produced between 1999 and 2010, but finally released into this scene ready to devour ay original material. Vervamon debuted this record during the North-East Dungeon Siege live stream, with this fantastic video (below). So all in all, this is a release that captures some original atmosphere and sounds.
So, that makes Vervamon the sound of the ancients and it is highly distinct from most music you’ll find labeled dungeon synth from that era. It takes great stylistic liberties, even approaching religious music in the tonal arrangements on opener ‘Snagdaa’. I read ‘Snaga’ for a while, thinking this was a Gemmell reference. ‘The Path Through The Evergreen Forest’ is, however, more of a narrative than a record. Tracks like ‘Dwalende Gedachten’ contain a lot of samples and less music. When it comes up, it guides the listener to the next installment. I particularly like ‘Sneeuw en spar (eerbetoon aan de duistere troon)’. Maybe because it is a tribute to Darkthrone. I like Darkthrone a lot. My favorite track, however, remains ‘Woundmannen’. That’s the one from the video, but it’s also the most consistent and powerful.
‘Ancient Shores’ ends the old work on this record, the last two tracks are newly released. They didn’t do much for me, it was too much the sort of dark ambient you can play in the background. It sounds but doesn’t have the same storytelling strength. It makes me think of some of the tracks created by From The Bogs Of Aughishka. That’s good. It’s a fascinating journey, but not for purists… or the weak of will.
Borg – The Sacred Mound (by J. Morlak)
Borg is a relatively new kid on the blog in the dungeon synth landscape, but ‘The Sacred Mound (by J. Morlak)’ is far from an early release in his works. Sure, the artwork stands out like a sore thumb, referencing early 90s paint/WordArt craftsmanship, but the music is surprisingly handsome. We discussed earlier the jolly tavern sounds of Toadlickers, and Borg in a way is similar. It’s synth-driven folk music, with a highly immerse vibe. Certainly, it sounds Nordic, with bold and clean sounds, but enriched with various percussion sounds, it’s a joy to listen to. Some songs really feel magical, but also from remote worlds we know little about. ‘Palace of the Amfibian Lords’, for example, feels oriental (using the term very broadly to indicate some sonic influences here), where other songs play with nature sound imitations (such as ‘Gently Sway The Forest in the Wind’).
I’ve been curious to find out more about the title, as there’s a name mentioned there, but I haven’t been able to link that to ‘The Sacred Mound’, which does happen to be a 1993 Icelandic family film (I would hope to watch it, but can’t verify it as yet). Letting go of that, it’s a fantasy record that tells tales of the magic that is in nature and transforms the way we think about dungeon synth as a musical form. It can be playful, like the title track, or epic like your Northrend entrance soundtrack in World of Warcraft, in ‘Bows For Strings And Arrows’.
Seregost is first and foremost a work of love. Love for the genre of dungeon synth, love for the fantasy and music that has inspired it. Words of thanks are levelled at names such as BasilPoledouris, GaryGygax and Robert E. Howard, but also at Mortiis. The grandmaster of the dungeon synth genre will likely nod in approval of this spawn of darkness, building on his creativity.
‘Halls of the Nameless King’ follows the narrative of a man wandering into the halls of a forgotten castle. We call him The Wanderer, who discovers mysteries untold and enemies fierce in his journey into the depths of hell itself in this forgotten castle.
We start with ‘Through the Darkwood’, which allows us to traverse through an ominous landscape. Subtle baselines hint at a threat from beyond and calm, repetitive melodies dance between the trees. The wind rises, blowing up a fierce gale when sturdy bassoon-like synths herald the emergence of the crumbling towers. Voices sing in awe of its solid might. Behold, the castle is here. ‘Silent stands the stronghold’, keeping its secrets, and repelling you with its stone might. We have become the wanderer.
As we enter the castle gates to ‘An Ominous Enclave’, the synths become less ethereal, more solid and sonorous. The listeners are taken through the old keep and the music builds up the tension gradually, giving that vibe that something may be very much amiss, or perhaps not so much. In the ‘Chapel to a Forgotten God’ we have some more light in the music, though perhaps it is only the illusion of might from ancient ritualistic symbols in this room. The organ sounds do bring a sense of humility to you as you step through these ancient halls. But suddenly, ‘Hidden Passages Reveal’, which the subtle bass flow and the gentle keys manage to convey very successfully.
Yet as we enter the ‘Hall of the Nameless King’, the sound swells to a more regal tone and atmosphere. But here, something stirs and the adventure comes to a climax. The drums sound, the synths herald ‘Behold, the Warlord’ and more is yet to come. The music becomes more adventurous here, more building towards a crescendo. But this is a false ending, as a ‘Stranger Things’ like end leaves you hanging on for more yet.
Dungeon synth is a music style, bubbling under the surface of contemporary music. Born from video game soundtracks, obscure synth music and black metal introductions, it has grown into a whole different underground world. Vaelastraz is one of the mysterious creators, offering his otherworldly sounds to the faithful.
Vaelastrasz is one of the acts that have expanded the scope of dungeon synth from dusky crypts, dusty tombs and crumbling ruins, to otherworldly phantasies. His special focus is on the famed Warcraft video game branch, but his music is much darker than the often light-hearted atmosphere of the game itself and delves deep into the mythopoeia of its universe.
Vaelastrasz has been kind enough to share more about his music, vision and genre, where he is one of the rare artists who actually play live and who has in fact performed at the first (as far as I’ve been able to discover) dungeon synth festival. Join us in the dark reaches of Azeroth.
I wanted to start by asking you who Vaelastrasz is and how the project got underway? How did you get into dungeon synth?
There’s a lot to unwrap with my origins. Referring to the character it’s based on, Vaelastrasz is a notorious raid boss from the classic version of World of Warcraft. Notorious in the sense that his difficulty was able to make raiding guilds disband, garnering the nickname “The Guild Breaker”. Lore-wise he was a member of the Red Dragonflight, a faction of dragons that wish to protect life on Azeroth, before being corrupted by the Black Dragonflight.
As for the person behind the project, well, I’m just a small musician from the suburban hellscape that is the Washington DC metropolitan area. I started toying around with making fantasy ambient music around early 2016 under a different name that housed basically any idea that I threw at the wall at the time. I didn’t think much of it until I got a message from a Dungeon Synth artist named “Shelter Ov Shadows” who encouraged that I release this music under a different moniker to garner more attention.
I picked Vaelastrasz for a couple of reasons. The main one being that within the world of “Dungeon Synth”, it astounds me how little to no representation Warcraft seemed to have back in 2016 and even now. How is it that one of the most popular fantasy-inspired Video Game franchises of the 21st century gets no love while there are projects for Elder Scrolls and Dark Souls? Maybe Warcraft isn’t “dark” enough for people to write music for, but nevertheless I’m still dumbfounded by its exclusion.
How I got into Dungeon Synth is oddly enough through my love for Drone Metal. I was familiar with the genre, but never really enjoyed most of the albums I’d listened to at the time. Whether it be Mortiis or Burzum’s prison albums, I never initially had a strong standing on the bigger hits of old school Dungeon Synth. It wasn’t until I discovered this duo from the UK, Trollmann av Ildtoppberg, that made me fall in love with Dungeon Synth. Their combination of deep bassy drones and minimalist synth work made me more immersed compared to any other Dungeon Synth album. Listening to “The Forest of Doom” for the first time was quite the experience.
What I got from that music is that you can create more by doing less. Trollmann were inspired by the Fighting Fantasy books but listening to that music made me think of different worlds, universes, stories, etc. I wanted to do something like that.
I was curious if you are still a Warcraft player, having myself played these games and read their books since the beginning. On the side, do you know Aardtmann op Vuurtopberg?
I still like to play Warcraft 3 when I have the time. I am privileged enough to still have the original games and not have to look at the horrid remaster that Blizzard put out recently. As for World of Warcraft, I never cared for it after Wrath of the Lich King as the games had gone downhill since in my opinion. I try to play a little bit of each expansion for the sake of it. I thought Mists of Pandaria and Legion were fine, but the rest I can do without. Their recent expansion, Battle for Azeroth, is a boring heap of dogshit for all I care. I tried playing Classic WoW when that became an option, but I had become so encumbered with other events that the nostalgia quickly wore off by the time I reached level 11 or so on a character. You can’t relive the past.
Haha, yeah you’re not the first person to tell me of Aardtmann Op Vuurtopberg’s existence. I’ve only ever listened to one of their albums, “De Berg van Verdoemenis”, and didn’t think much of it. A nice little tribute if anything.
What do you think about the connection between DS and video games? Many people talk about the connection with black metal, which is obvious, but for me, the link to video games has always been the first thing that stood out. Yet, also here it is a matter of nostalgia for old RPGs.
I’ve always thought that it was very apparent with how Dungeon Synth and video games, especially video game soundtracks, tend to overlap. You listen to an older release like Middles Ages by Caduceus and you’d think it was some Black Metal fan trying to recreate the Donkey Kong Country soundtrack. I know a lot of non-Black Metal fans who enjoy Dungeon Synth because to them it sounds like a soundtrack to an unreleased video game.
Which always brings a hilarious crossroads within DS. There’s a lot of traditional people who vow against video games have it strictly be “Ambient Black Metal”. Then there are people who were raised by tabletop games and RPGs who would rather let the past be the past and let go of the Black Metal roots. It’s pretty funny. One should always find a balance between the two in my opinion.
What sort of equipment do you use to create your music?
I usually run rather cheap Casio keyboards that you can get at big retail stores and run it through a Hotone reverb pedal. Most of my albums were done with the CTK-1100, but now I have the CTK-2550 to mess around with. For live shows, I tend to have a couple more pedals with me, more notably a Ditto Looper and the Electro-Harmonix Freeze pedals to help me with loops and drones.
You are one of the few ds artists that play live. What made you decide to take it in that direction?
Initially, the first couple of live shows that I did around 2017 were at the request of my friends, but as my peers started to seriously get into performing live with their DS projects as well as the rise of the Dungeon Siege music festivals, I had a growing urge to really want to bring my music into a live setting. Dungeon Synth live is completely new territory for a lot of us in the Dungeon Synth scene and we have our own special ways of showing what can be done.
Over here, we have not had such events. Can you describe what a dungeon siege event is like? In general and what it is like when you perform?
Dungeon Siege, specifically Northeast Dungeon Siege as well as last year’s Dungeon Siege West, are these annual Dungeon Synth-oriented festivals in the US. A bunch of artists and fans from around the world come to interact with other like-minded DS fans. It’s truly an amazing experience to play with and hang out with other Dungeon Synth acts. I feel a lot more comfortable performing in front of people who truly understand the craft.
But these events are usually more than just music, right?
Yes, there’s also pre-show tabletop gaming sessions on some nights and an array of vendors and labels.
Do you think touring with a band in a different style would work? For example, a package with a black metal band, or is DS a different audience?
It really depends on the style. If it were a Dungeon Synth and Black Metal tour, which I believe Mayhem and Mortiis are planning on doing that exact thing in the future, then those would work fine with each other. I used to be in a Funeral Doom band and we toured with a Thrash Metal band. Suffice to say that there was at least one show where they definitely did not want us because we weren’t their thing.
I guess the best way to put it is that the two styles really need to have some sort of overlap. If you were to do a Dungeon Synth tour with some sort of Tech Death Metal band than people would probably eye the crowd and ask what the hell was going on.
Do you feel there are limits to what is dungeon synth and what isn’t? As an example, Fief sounds vastly different to me the traditionalists. I have seen many discussions on the ‘purity’ of the style. How do you feel about this?
In regards to experimentation or branching outside of the norm vs the pure, traditionalist, old school-inspired acts, I think there needs to be a steady balance between the two (just like what I said regarding Black Metal-inspired vs Gaming-inspired Dungeon Synth). I think there are many ways to experiment with Dungeon Synth, but some people are way too over their heads when it comes to seeing what other genres they can mash Dungeon Synth with. There’s this small thing brewing with people trying to combine DS with Hip Hop, calling it “Dungeon Rap” or “Crypt Hop”. I don’t think it’s Dungeon Synth, just people trying too hard to incorporate fantasy ambient melodies with poorly made Memphis Rap. I have some friends who dig it and create it though so more power to them, but it’s just not for me.
But pushing the limits is good. People want to keep at it with the old ways but by the time that you’ve heard the umpteenth Les Legions Noires ripoff or the same minimalist pad-heavy Winter Synth ambient tunes, then it becomes tiresome and boring. Something fresh needs to happen every once in a while. A lot of these purists have the right idea that we shouldn’t veer off from the path, but some of them have this inane unwillingness to accept even the slightest of change.
I agree that Fief is a fine example since they seem to play around more with folk influences compared to other bigger names in recent Dungeon Synth. It’s different enough to carve out its own little path within the genre, but not different to the point where self-indulgence takes hold on an artist. Mainly due to the fact that folk music and Dungeon Synth are extremely compatible with one another.
Can you define what DS is? What are its base characteristics?
What is DS? That’s the million-dollar question right there, haha. I guess my naive definition of what I think Dungeon Synth is is that it’s a branch of ambient music, whether it be fantasy ambient or dark ambient music, that has some sort of narrative or story behind it. You’re supposed to be immersed in whatever world that a Dungeon Synth album or song is trying to invoke, like an epic adventure to slay a dragon or being entrapped within a desolate cave.
Now how one goes about doing that is all up to them, whether it be artists inspired by Black Metal, Folk, Classical, Darkwave, etc.
DS has really emerged into daylight the last two years, and although events like Dungeon Siege have yet to make it overseas, how far do you think this can go?
How far will this go? We’re gonna get a Dungeon Synth act headlining Coachella. My money is on Diplodocus. But in all seriousness, there is a pessimist side of me that feels that the bubble will pop eventually and the general interest of this will wane down. However, the scene itself feels like a giant family. A really weird, fucked-up family mind you, but a loving and caring one too. I can’t predict the future of where Dungeon Synth is going to go, but if it does end up declining then I can at least say that I’ve met a lot of amazing people within it. The real Dungeon Synth is the friends we made along the way.
I wanted to take this back to your last album. Can you tell a bit more about The Birth of Naxxramas and the story this record shares?
The Birth of Naxxramas is kinda like a concept album where there’s a different melody representing a tier from the raid Naxxramas, as well as the last song being a call back to one of my earlier albums, “The Plaguelands”. On that album I had a song called “Naxxramas” but I thought that something as big as Naxxramas deserved something more than a song.
The melodies were leftover recordings I had made for the album before that, “Adventures of the Red Whelpling”. I wanted that album to be my big album, but it didn’t garner an immediate huge reception among people. As much as I love Birth of Naxxramas I don’t like the fact that the album was only really fueled by pettiness and anger that my previous album wasn’t as well-received. At the time it was much-needed motivation, but looking back my head was in the wrong space because of certain people saying that Whelpling was underwhelming to them. At the end of the day, I still have no clue what people want or expect from me when it comes to making music
The first track, Frostwyrm Lair, was originally a 17-minute track that was supposed to be on Whelpling, but I never liked the 2nd-half of the song. I thought the intro could lead to something better so I scoured through the remaining recordings that I had from the Whelpling sessions to see what ones I could work with. After that, it was sort of like playing a matching game. What goes next? Which melody should come after? Can I place this melody here? Once I got all the pieces connected everything else came naturally.
The ghostly crooning was provided by my dearest companion and fellow Dungeon Synth artist MorsCerta. I typically don’t collaborate with other Dungeon Synth artists mainly due to weird trust issues. Even though I mean no disrespect to them and I just said that some of them are like a family to me, there’s just a weird mental block that I have when it comes to working with other artists. Mors Certa and I, however, had grown really close at this point that I decided to ask if she’d be willing to provide her voice for a couple of parts on it. I didn’t want it to be anything big since she was busy with her personal life so I only asked her to provide a lovely little choral section for her parts and it turned out well.
Previously, there was a note with this album, stating it was possibly the last one. You’ve dropped two more since, what made you consider ending the project there?
At the time I felt like I just wasn’t good enough or on par with other artists. I’m a competitive individual that wants to strive to be better each time and when I see peers rise above and garner more love, it either lights a flame or makes me feel defeated. I’m easily influenced by what I see posted online and the less I see of me, the more I feel that people just don’t care about the project. Artistic fulfilment should be the goal, not whether you get more than 10 people supporting you on Bandcamp, but unfortunately, that was where my mindset was at the time and still goes to sometimes.
But I ended up making more music because melodies keep on springing up in my head. I don’t want to keep them in my head forever. I have the need to make music whether or not people are really listening to me. Truth be told, there’s no way I can ever announce an album to be my last album. If I ever do announce it, then my mindset that day was probably filled with the insecurities that I just vented about. If I were to ever release a final album then I would never announce it as such. I would just simply release it and quietly walk away
Well, you have announced a new record actually, so what can we expect from it?
The same meal with a little different seasoning. Keeping up with repetitive melodies and drone, but trying to experiment with a little bit more just like my previous releases. There’s a couple of songs that were mostly inspired by stuff like Om, which means I’m messing around with bass-driven melodies. My new album, “The Temple of Ahn’Qiraj”, is of course based off of the zone of the same name and trying to capture the atmosphere of a desert ruin with an ancient being inside of it all has been a challenging and fun task.
It’s definitely the most psychedelic album I’ve done, but it’s not like I’m making this acid trip-filled experience, haha. This project has always been an experiment of what I can do with drone and Dungeon Synth. This will definitely fit in well with the rest of my discography.
As the Warcraft storyline deepens and expands, do you find there is enough inspiration left for you there for more?
Absolutely. One of the reasons why I picked this project was because of my initial love for the Warcraft universe and lore. It’s deep and rich enough to make more music for. There’s a lot of areas and personalities that I haven’t touched upon yet that I would like to explore more of. I’ve made two albums concerning the Old Gods (Yogg-Saron and N’Zoth) which is about to be three upon the completion of my recent album and I’d like to make other “biographical” albums so to speak. For example, I’ve always loved Kael’Thas and would love to make an album about him. Arthas is an obvious choice as well, but I’ve already made the Plagueland albums and Naxxramas so I don’t want to go back to that well just yet. I’ve always wanted to do a piece about the history of the Defias Brotherhood, but can never get the feeling of it. There’s a lot more to explore and make with Warcraft.
So to close, what future plans do you currently have? Are you planning to tour when all of this is over?
The future is very unpredictable, especially now with the current pandemic. I am a rather spontaneous individual when it comes to what I want to do with the project, so, for now, my plan is to just focus on releasing the new album and see what happens. As for tours, I’m not entirely sure but I do hope other acts come through here sometime soon so I can have a chance to play with them.
If you had to describe Vaelastrasz as a dish, what would it be and why that?
Haha, I don’t know if I can think of any specific dish or meal to really describe what I do. You know what? I’m the stick of gum that doesn’t lose its flavour! You can keep on chewing and chewing, but I assure you I won’t turn into a soft, flavourless gob haha
Label: Pacific Threnodies Artist: World Untouched By Mankind Origin: United States
It sounds like a surprisingly pleasant promise, the name of this project. World Untouched By Mankind, that could be an imagined place where humanity simply never dwelt, but also relates to places in the deep of the forest where we simply haven’t found anything to reap. That is the ambiance and feeling presented on this release by creative entity Night.
The hazy music by this artist meets the particular sounds of the nascent dungeon synth genre. Other projects of the artist include ProcerVeneficus, ambient black metal, MurkRider, HoodedArcher and Startrhall. The record ‘The Forests Are Old With Grief’ was recorded at the same time as ‘Of Starfire and Blackshadows Crawling’ by the Procer Veneficus project and has lain dormant until now, but no longer.
The most uncanny tunes resound when the title track opens with cold synths. This is an instant reconnecting moment with the original synth albums by Burzum. You may have all sorts opinions about that, but when it comes to catching an atmosphere, that maybe some of the best stuff. Yet, World Untouched By Mankind, chooses a more soaring, continuous flow-of-sound approach as intermission moments. More or less stripping the last vestiges of black metal away, Night has arrived at the pure sound of the most praised dungeon synth artists. Bare and boldly stated, without ever really needing to be understood, evoking the natural mysteries.
Where the initial tunes may feel very foresty, it feels like submerging in underwater tunnels on ‘Cold Caverns of Time’. Cold, synth drones and a dazed, warped feeling captures the listener as the dark tunes flow forward. The mesmerizing tones take you so far away from everything familiar and earthy, which is a vastly unknown pleasure for most in this time and age.
It’s music that sometimes helps to take you away from the dull, mundane affairs that fill our daily lives. We don’t all get to be sassy Instagram models, parading the luxurious holiday places or the exceptional bits of nature, some of us just need to join the daily drag. So do I.
These are tunes that take me to those places though, to the magical bits of nature that I can only dream about most of the time, the vast mountains and deep forests through synths, ambient and other forms of music. Follow the path, sometimes it’s overgrown and hard to find, but it’s there and leading far from the regular throng of people that stick to their Netflix and literary thriller reads.
Kaya North – Tribal Mountain
Label: The Eagle Stone Collective
There’s hardly a more awe-inspiring image to present than a sheer face of rock. The pillars on this cover, truly captivate me and so does the mild drone that sets on as I launch this release by Caleb R.K. Williams. Under the name Kaya North, Williams is releasing a project of improv music, next to the solo work, Eagle Stone, Old Green Mountain, Uktena Kult and Cosmic Canyon (and probably a dozen other). All projects of ambient, nature-inspired. This record just offers the drones with little ripples, like the tiny holds and nooks you’ll find in the rock. It’s booming, with the odd sound of a circling bird of prey resounding through the booming tunes. There’s a tension in the sound, that you recognize when you’ve ever climbed a rock face with little between you than the rope, a next clip a meter or three ahead and your trembling fingers. It’s a feeling you can barely describe, but you can capture it in sound it turns out.
Black Hill & Silent Forest – Tales of the Night Forest
The artwork by Kapiller Ferenc is easily confused by me for that of Costin Chioreanu. It depicts nature as something idyllic, something almost perfectly outlined in the green, vibrant and natural colors he uses. It’s perfect over by this release of Black Hill & Silent Forest. A duo of projects that mash into the postrocky storytelling on ‘Tales of the Night Forest’. Like a gentle, babbling brook the guitars flow by. The lack of drums help to diminish any ostentatious flourish in the music, keeping the flow tranquil and soft. From the elusive ‘The gathering of deer’ to the melancholy of ‘An old owl calling’, the album keeps you in a state of flux, just as a witness to the beauty and pleasant harmony of the forest. An absolute pleasure to dwell within the tunes of Black Hill & Silent Forest for a while, no matter the pressure you’re currently feeling.
Kalmankantaja – Tuulikannel
Label: Illuminandi Service
Kalmankantaja translates as ‘death bearer’ and is a black metal band from Finland, who uses a lot of synth and atmosphere in his music. An odd including perhaps in this aural traverse, but his easy flow makes his work as immersive to me as the others, so I gladly sidestep tot the shimmering stream of black metal that opens ‘Tuulikannel’ with ‘Aarnihauta’, a track that will last up to 14 minutes. The progression on both tracks is slow, with the occasional guttural scream emerging from the murky mists of the forests the sound appears to emulate. On the second track, we encounter a melancholic dirge, that repeats and meanders onward for minutes. Even when the music swells to a more rocking sound, there’s always that hint of continuity and an endless stream moving forward on ‘Tuulikannel’. The vocals sound hateful, but this is merely a crust to the deep greyness of the music. Which is wonderful…
Sun Through Eyelids – Glacial Iridescence
Origin: New Zealand Label: ΠΑΝΘΕΟΝ
But let us step back into nature with Sun Through Eyelids. A deep ambient act, consisting of Tom Necklen and Meghan Wood. On ‘Glacial Iridescence’ they take you to an eerie polar landscape or an Alpine glacier, where they freely explore sounds and let nature offer its healing magic to the listener on the drony tunes of ‘Shelter of the Taiga’ or ‘Subarctic Oasis’. Booming sounds, with reverb attached to its edges, gets complemented with distant music and cold keys, maybe with a mouth harp here and there? It sounds like the buzzing of an insect as astral waves wash over you. Yet as you stick with the sound, your blood seems to thrum in your veins and your ears feel like they are in the middle of the sound instead of simply receiving it. An almost transcendental experience looms, with the sound of water, birds and nature, all acting in harmony and pure majesty together, not needing humanity one bit for its perennial cycle and balance.
Oneiromancer/MAW – Oneiromancer/MAW
Origin: USA Label: A Moment of Clarity Records/Orb Weaver Collective
Oneiromancery is a form of divination based on dreams, which is quite an apt name for the act that provides the first side of this record. Titled ‘Dukkha’, it’s a slow waxing and waning of tumultuous drones and odd chanting, which feels as if it gets lost in the sounds of the wind. The droning keeps intensifying, forming a wall that drowns you in it, drowns the noise in your head and takes you to a place of tranquility. A valuable experience, when you’re caught up in thinking instead of doing. Subtle melodies weave through, but not at regular speeds but briefly rising from the noise and sinking again. ‘Naljor’ by MAW then just slithers by mostly, in near silence, with far-removed sounds, but ending in what feels like a guitar wall. A mystical experience, all in all, this release.
Label: Skyggeraich Productions Artist: Warden Origin: the Netherlands
Warden is an act I found under dungeon synth, but his/her music is much more connected to ambient and drone music. Sure, there is a certain mysticism to his work that invokes images of the realms of our imagination, but also something very earthy and desolate clings to the notes on ‘Krochtenmagii’.
This is the third record by Warden, released in the same number of years. The production is not as high as with some dungeon synth artists, which is probably a clear cause for the high quality and narrative experience the music offers. Let’s delve in.
The image of mountains of the cover perhaps captures the droning wind and sonorous booming that opens the album. Is surges on till the next movement engages, with more soothing, harmonious sounds and the flow of water casually in the background. Then swelling it grows into a wall of sound and as the story with the music tells, time is by that point utterly lost.
By the 20-minute mark, you’ve reached a state of calm, that only the emptiness of nature can evoke. Sure, it’s an inhospitable place that Warden has taken you to, but it’s also filled with peace. In the very last movement though, we enter the realm of the dungeon synth. The wind and water are gone, yet an earthy, cavernous feel remains. After moments in this safety, the music slowly fades after what seems like a lonely journey through the wild.
Label: Out of Season Band: Sequestered Keep Origin: United States
Magical sounds, lost keeps
Like most dungeon synth artists, the man or woman behind SequesteredKeep remains a mystery. What I managed to find out, is that he/she is a metal music as well. This Barbarian Skull interview is probably the most information available. Check it out, they do great stuff. Anyways, the moniker Wanderer is used for the genius behind the project.
The logo of ‘Wandering Far’, designed by Dan Capp from Wolcensmen, and all previous records since ‘Might of an Ancient Tale’ looks very fitting. Sequestered Keep hails from Salt Lake City in Utah, so that much is clear. Remarkable, since the music reminds me of lush forests in ancient England more so. The artwork as well, though that is in Germany… A rocky ruin, called Drachenfells, painted by CasparScheuren in 1852. A fitting cover.
The sound of Sequestered Keep is clean and regal. Calm tones, that are more used like a paintbrush, than the angry sketching of a pencil. Everything smoothly flows into one another, from ‘Once a Warrior of Forestcloaked Mountains’onwards. This one feels like an indoor song, near a fire in ancient stone chambers of old castles. The gentle picking of a harp resounds, as the wavery synths come in. By the time you get to the title track, the sounds resonate in sonorous harmony and connect smoothly to display the outdoors, the wide-open world.
In a similar manner, the booming effect on ‘Firelight Swordshadows’, feels as if the darkness obscures the sound, hies it from a clear perception in shadows. We get more light-footed on ‘Elvenwoods’, where light pierces through the leafy, natural roof. One imagines as if here the gentle flutes are playing, in a bright mood. The next dish serves melancholy on ‘Battles in Falling Mist’, a slow and gentle tune with a certain calm grandeur to it, while never really expressing fierce clashes. Now we come to the special part, with a dungeon synth Bathory cover. ‘Hammerheart’ achieved a special place in many metal-fan hearts, therefore this version brings it to the very essence.
Label: Dungeon Synth Compilation Artist: Anglachel, Il Cinghiale, Morgan Muir Woods, Anglezarke, Mörkt Slott, Conqueror’s Mourn, Erang, Machina Coeli, Vandalorum, Krampusnacht, The Inquisitor Origin: Various
The Dungeon Synth Compilation is a bold project, to unleash a compilation every month of the last year. Records that revolve around a concept or story, oozing that uncanny feel of abandoned crypts and dark passages. Old ruins and abandoned tombs are part of the visions invoked by this music.
This edition, titled ‘Codex of Lost Voices’, revolves around the library. A place once filled with tomes and manuscripts is a magical place filled with mystery. Here this record takes us, to a place where the lure of secret knowledge is a deadly trap for those too eager to withstand its call. Writings that consume the souls of those, trying to harvest their knowledge, as depicted in the artwork by JDecker.
The opening tune comes from Anglachel, whose languid tones and twinkling keys, are playfully filling the silence of the abandoned structure, as the listener strides towards it. Imposing, but also tickled with curiosity, we enter to ‘The Journey of Vindyamar’. A grand hall stretches out with ‘Brittania’ by Morgan Muir Woods, with grand arches and a trudging, booming rhythm. The contribution following is by Il Cinghiale, bringing a bit more of an organic, folky sound with fingerpicking guitar (it’s always tricky to really resolve the origin of the sound), with a thick echo. I feel the incredible sad melancholy of an abandoned place of knowledge with this tune, titled ‘Tale of Hiems’.
Here The Inquisitor picks up with the brief ‘The Winter Hare’. Classical, wavery synths merge together and form a tapestry of sound. The music truly flows, offering an intermezzo from the empty halls. Vandalorum then steps back to ambient with sparse keys, to really evokes the feeling of abandonment, loneliness in these vast halls. A feeling Krampusnacht mainly prolongs with ‘Nos Galan’.
From there on, songs from Anglezarke, MörktSlott and Conqueror’sMourn stick with a dowsed, atmospheric demonstration of their skills. Never does it really demand your attention, but it always sets the mood like a set of scented candles. The more pronounced notes by Mörkt Slott and horn-emulations by Conqueror’s Mourn create a certain build up for the song, which all leads to MachinaCoeli’s ‘Creation’, which is the most futuristic-sounding song on the record, with some interesting use of bells and chimes, to create a very different moment in the journey. The tones filled with echo are there still, but the energy is higher, seeming to take us to the crescendo of the record. It’s climax if you will.
Erang then takes us to the the aftermath, with warm and regal tones. The whole sound has a taste of nostalgia, the last look over your shoulder at the great times. That’s what makes this so good. Nothing but praise for the person who put this together to weave a story with songs that are not naturally connected. Great stuff.
Judging by the currency, the artist Oghoryt hails from Poland, but apart from that, no information is available. I’ve tried ye olde googles, but the mastermind must be busy in his laboratory, creating new sounds to bespell and bewitch the masses, like he does on these two releases. In autumn, the record ‘My journey through the sleeping forest of the past’ was unleashed, soon followed by ‘In the cave plunged through the magical power’. I’ll give both a spin.
My journey through the sleeping forest of the past
This release has a magical, hand-drawn cover of gold on black. It shows mountains and a thick pine tree forest, castle gates and a peculiar tower. Illuminated by the gold in the middle, we find the magical path. The music itself is condensed to a bare minimum of droning effects and very muted keys on ‘The wizard who stole the stars’. It’s so subtle, you might just pass it by as you stumble past like loud big-folk do.
‘A village of shady dwarfs hidden in a mountain cave’ puts up a bit more sound, mostly using the droning, metallic clang of the synths to put up a feeling of secrets and magic. Repetition is key for the tunes of Oghoryt, with ever rehashing of the same sequence in a sense. The sound is solemn, with a stately quality to it on the final track, titled ‘Witches’ Sabbath of purple froggy swamp’. It’s a journey for sure, but way to brief.
In the cave plunged through the magical power
Intense soundbites open up the second EP, titled ‘In the cave plunged through the magical power’. A crackling, lo-fi sounding drone is added to the music, which works much like an unnerving buzzing in the lower realms of the sound.Oghoryt sounds less gentle here, grander and more open on ‘I’. The buzzing is accompanied by even some slight bombasticism in the sound. In ‘II’ we ever so slightly move back to that intricate, minimal sound of the first EP, which made this act so alluring to me.
Oghoryt shows a lot of potential for the dungeon synth scene. Let’s hope for more soon!
The music, generally called dungeon synth, is on the rise. One artist who has been endeavoring the create these otherworldly sounds for a long time is Grimrik. The artist released his first project in this style more than 20 years ago, in the wake of the second wave of black metal.
The connection between black metal and dungeon synth might seem fickle, but a while ago I started looking into this and wrote the ‘Bedroom Dreaming’ article, which was overall met with a nice reception. Dungeon synth finds its roots in atmospheric tracks and side-projects from artists like Burzum, Satyr’s Wongraven and NeptuneTowers by Fenriz, but one can easily look further back and see many similar musical releases (often considered oddities). Considered the father of the genre is Mortiis, who used to play in Emperor. In the mid-nineties, he started shaping the sound. At that point, Grimrik already started to release music within the confines of this movement and has busily been exploring this magical realm.
Grimrik has various projects and due to the general anonimity of artists within dungeon synth, it’s tricky to find them all. One thing I found particularly interesting is the use of the word ‘sidegenre’. It makes a lot of sense, as dungeon synth is an aspect of black metal. Since the genre has been rapidly growing and even made it to Roadburn with a performance of Old Tower, let’s illuminate these dark dungeons with one who has dwelled there for years. It’s an exciting time for dungeon synth, but also for Grimrik, who has re-releases and exciting new projects coming out soon!
For those who are unfamiliar with you or your work, could you briefly introduce yourself?
I started making my own music back in the early/mid 90s. My first release worth mentioning was a (solo) side project called Nazgûl (1996), which was musically quite exactly what is now called‚ dungeon synth’ (re-released 2016 by DeivlforstRecords).
After 1997, I quit releasing music for a while and made only some (more electronic) stuff for myself and drafts for songs that later became and will become alive. In 2013 – after meeting Murgrind – I started being active in publishing again, the project Arath released its first album (classic dungeon synth as well). This debut album was elected the best DS album of 2013 by the world’s largest DS scene which was quite a motivation!
Nevertheless, I soon felt the need for a new solo project which turned out to become Grimrik ( Albums so far: Eisreich , Die Mauern der Nacht ). Different than in the 90s, I now have lots of interest in the production side of music and this definitely influences the music I make. For an example, while making synth music I find it very useful to know exactly what each knob and fader on a synth does and how compression and EQ-ing work for example. Besides producing my own music, I did a lot of complete audio masterings for Deivlforst Records in the last years (examples: Thangorodrim, Wolcensmen, Murgrind, Medhelan). In the beginning of Deivlforst Records, I also did some layout works for them.
Just to clarify, any intro is my words and opinions. In no way do they necessarily reflect those of the artist.
Tunes while you read:
Into the dungeons with Grimrik
What is your musical background and how did you end up making music?
The music that influenced me most is probably Black Metal and its sidegenres. I can’t deny that I also always liked electronic music also very much. Making music came naturally back then in the 90s, if you were into metal, everybody also wanted to make their own. So I started drumming, ‘singing’ and playing keyboards in metal bands first.
After that era, I first didn’t find enough sense in releasing stuff anymore and experimented with other types of music. Those didn’t turn out good enough for me though. The initial breakthrough for more activity came with meeting Murgrind, whose music inspired me to make DS again – which led to all following developments. I can’t thank him enough for lighting up the flame in me again!
What inspired you to go in the dungeon synth direction? Which musicians inspired you?
Back then definitely the ‘classic’ artists like Mortiis, Pazuzu, Summoning, Die Verbannten Kinder Evas, black metal intros, outros and interludes and Wongraven – no surprises here.
What is dungeon synth for you? What makes the genre so particularly attractive?
This is a very difficult question to answer! For me it will always be a sidegenre to black metal, because I got into it this way, but much more on the fantasy side, less ‘evil’ and less bound to certain ‘beliefs’.
The genre is very attractive to me as it is still very underground despite its recent growth in popularity. It can be done on a DIY basis by anyone and is able to transport spirit and atmospheres that no other music can. It is really hard to describe, it is more a ‘feeling’ than it could be rationally categorized.
Outside of music, what are things that inspire your love for the genre?
Fantasy literature, mythology, nature, ancient history, philosophy, own insights, weird theories, visual components. I wouldn’t name particular books, I prefer to keep that a secret.
We got in touch through my attempt at introducing dungeon synth to a broader reader population. What would be the artists you would name for a listener new to the genre and why?
Let me start this answer with a short introduction. The genre and scene grew a lot in the recent years and already can be divided into some subgenres. I personally prefer the more sophisticated, more ‘composed’ music that is also written and produced with lots of effort (still DIY at home) – and is also more linked to the origins of the genre, but taking them to a more nowadays level.
That said I’d recommend the following contemporary albums: Murgrind – Inheritor of the Forest Throne, Thangorodrim – Taur-nu-Fuin Medhelan – Fall of the Horned Serpent BarakTor – March of the Triumphator Splendorius – Norfaragell-Thul Skarpseian – Fragmenter av Trolldom OldSorcery – Realms of Magickal Sorrow I
could recommend some more, but these are probably the best of the genre for me. Another (double) album I would recommend to get quick access to some facets of the genre is ‘Arath – Treasures from the Dungeon Vol. 1 & 2’ which is a collection of songs Murgrind and me made over some years, showing a variety of different atmospheres, sound choices and production levels, while all songs are DS.
If I should choose ONE classic 90s DS recording to recommend and which stands for the genre it would be ‘Mortiis – Ånden som gjorde Opprør’
What sort of instruments or programs do you use to make your music?What would anyone starting out need?
Main DAW: Propellerhead Reason with some extra ‘rack extensions’ (special VST-Format for Reason), Hardware controllers & sequencers Current Synths: Yamaha CS1X, Kawai GMega, Roland JD-XA, Kawai K4, Elektron Analog Rytm, a modular (Eurorack) synth, Waldorf Streichfett.
Next buy: Arturia Matrixbrute. All you need to start is a DAW that has some good sounds installed or free VSTs plus a MIDI-Keyboard plus, on the production side, the will to learn how to record and mix and master.
How do you go about making music, where do you start from?
It depends. Sometimes I do some improvisation and just try around playing some sounds, sometimes from this whole new songs evolve. Sometimes I have a certain mood, melody or something else in mind and I try to transform this into a song. Usually, I make drafts that I work on further again and again at a later point. This includes (re-)arranging, changing sounds, enhancing the mix etc.
Do you start with a concept or with music and how do you shape the eventual work?
Sometimes I start with the music from which the inspiration for a topic comes, sometimes the other way round (see also question above).
Dungeon synth seems to be even more in love with the cassette format than any other genre, how did that happen?
I think there are several reasons for that. Nostalgia, handling and playing a cassette evokes feelings of a now long gone past for the older of us. For the younger it is possibly some kind of ‘weird relic’ of their parent’s centuries, totally unnecessary when it comes to pure reason – but reason often doesn’t transport feelings, but using ‘ancient’ technology does. Also playing a cassette means limitation, but in a world where you can get nearly every music track just by a simple click on the internet and can make your own tracklist, you often do want to be limited to the artist’s choice of tracks, their order etc. This goes along with the get-all-you-want, but virtually, options of the internet-age, people like to go back in time by intention and feel a real item in their hands, which was – in the best case – designed with passion and effort. Also, you can actually own a collection of ‘hardware’ items that can be looked at and browsed through, designs are connected with memories of the music etc.
Same goes for vinyl, that also has a huge renaissance, but is much more expensive both to produce and to purchase so more rare in extreme underground scenes. A cassette limits the sound – but this is often wanted and even seen as an enhancement. What is really important for both tapes and vinyl is that they are analog. In a world becoming more and more digital, many people do like the ‘limitations’ of analog media. I am totally happy with this as I grew up with all music media types and love them all. They all have their pros and cons – but only physical is real!
What future plans do you have right now as an artist and label owner?
Anything good coming up? Concerning Grimrik, my album ‘Die Mauern der Nacht’ was just released on red/black vinyl by NeuropaRecords (Belgium) and on tape by Out of Season with ForeignSounds/ChildrenoftheNight (US). I am extremely happy with the physical results, all editions look incredibly cool. Responsible for this are the labels involved which put a strong focus on quality work, Dan Capp, who’s layouts he did for this album are truly great. I also did some conceptual work for every physical release. What makes me kind of proud is that these labels released some much bigger artists before – like CarpenterBrut, Ulver, and Mortiis for example. ‘Eisreich’ will be released on vinyl by Deivlforst Records soon (probably March, three different vinyl colors…)! The third Grimrik album will be hopefully (and finally) finished soon. Additionally, I have some more Berlin-School, hardware-only music almost finished that should be out in 2018 as well. Plus another secret project and possibly some new songs by Nazgûl… So, if all plans will work, there’s a lot to come!
Anything you’d like to say, that I didn’t ask?
A thing that been on my mind for long: The Grimrik project is not political at all, it neither carries nor supports any political ideologies.
Final question, if you had to compare your music to a type of food, what would it be and why?
Let me answer this only for my last album ‘Die Mauern der Nacht’ only and based on feedback many people gave me. Seems it is best compared to a (possibly French) 5-course menu, the opposite of fast food. It demands attention to detail and quite a lot of patience. It grows on you while listening to it and makes the best sense when consumed completely, then it can feed your brain. You get the whole concept from start to beginning, taste all spices that were carefully thrown into each course. If consumed in a hurry or incompletely, it will definitely leave you unsatisfied and you won’t like it. This makes it less accessible to many, but I was often told it rewards those willing to go through it as intended with a great experience.