Music is what connects us from the far ends of the earth. No community embodies that as strongly as the dungeon synth community, which interacts through online platforms, enabling acts from far away places to emerge. Varkâna is one of those unlikely acts to find on your path, experimenting with dungeon synth and its cousin dark ambient to create sonic experiences from his homeland Iran.
Now, the freedom to make music is different in some places. Varkâna may hardly deal with themes and subject matter that is controversial in the Persian realms, yet creating music is an act of rebellion in itself I found out. We spoke, at length, about dungeon synth, the underground and his own projects (find out more here).
Dungeon Synth from the Persian Realms of Djinns and mysteries
First, how did you get in touch with dungeon synth music? And what was it that made you fall in love with it?
My first exposure to Dungeon Synth was Mortiis, I used to be an avid Black Metal fan and it was around 8, 9 years ago that I stumbled upon Mortiis and Summoning of course as a teenager and I just fell in love with the way it sounds and the amazing use of synths, I remember I always wanted to hear more keyboard and synths in Black Metal and here it was the perfect creation.
Later on, I found Depressive Silence and fell in love with it immediately, Forest of Eternity is definitely one of my favourite DS tracks of all time and a huge influence to me, alongside Paysage d’Hiver‘s Die Festung the use of synths in that record is just mesmerizing.
What I love about Dungeon Synth is first of all the amazingly supportive community which I’ve not seen in any other scene, also as a musician I always looked for a platform to make a certain kind of ambient ritualistic music and I think that would be impossible without incorporating Dungeon Synth elements. There’s this thing about DS that makes it distinctive from any other genre, the fact that this wide range of sounds from video game music to dark ritualistic drone music unifies under the same banner as Dungeon Synth is just amazing and it’s something you don’t always get when dealing with other genres.
Ok, based on your answer I want to back up a little because I hear a lot of conflicting stories about music accessibility, censorship and metal from Iran. How available is extreme metal to you and how much freedom do you have to create your own?
So let me put it this way. You need a VPN-connection. A lot of stuff is censored here and if you use your regular connection, it just doesn’t work and you get nothing. There’s that, but once you have VPN you can use Spotify, YouTube, Apple Music… Whatever. You can’t buy music though, you can’t do that. You can pirate music though, and listen to it and that’s still good.
When it comes to making music, you can probably get away with it. You can’t release music though, especially if it’s extreme metal. You can’t have a gig like play live music. You can record though, there are many studios. These are home studios because there is a massive underground in Iran. It ranges from hiphop to black metal, but it’s all underground because it is not allowed. Yet, you do it anyway, because you don’t give a fuck.
You mentioned the singer of From The Vastland, who left the country due to a lack of freedom (ed. though not listed in the question, I mentioned my interviews with From The Vastland and Avarayr). He is right, freedom doesn’t exist here. You’re constantly exposed to propaganda and surveillance. But it’s not like 1984 here, they are not constantly on top of you. You can still make your music in your own house. Most artists I know do it this way, which is why all my projects are either duos or solo projects. It’s hard to get a band together.
What is it that defines dungeon synth for you, as in if the style had borders, where would these run?
There’s a couple of things that make dungeon synth what it is and are inseparable from the genre. The first one is the extensive use of synthesizers and keyboards which the familiar atmosphere of the genre is shaped around that. The other thing is the DIY aesthetics that are all over the place.
Musically, to me, anything from the 90’s RPG video game soundtracks to Old Sorcery and Varkâna is considered Dungeon Synth although I wouldn’t consider Varkâna pure Dungeon Synth, it’s something more like post Dungeon Synth (of course that’s not a term) but you can get the general idea.
To me, original pure Dungeon Synth is Depressive Silence and Mortiis and then comes stuff like Old Tower which is newer but it’s definitely still Dungeon Synth. I have no opinion on the new Comfy synth stuff that recently appeared, I haven’t really listened to it.
But yeah I think Dungeon Synth is really a vast genre and isn’t limited to just a few things like other genres there’s really no defining exactly what is considered Dungeon Synth although it’s easier to classify some stuff than the others.
Where does it originate from and can you tell me a bit more about what it is that makes this genre so compelling to you? What is its charm?
As you may know, dungeon synth has roots in black metal and dark ambient. This happened in the late eighties and nineties, like Mortiis. There’s also this label from Sweden called Cold Meat Industries, which signed acts like Mortiis and Aghast. They had a significant impact on forming the genre. And Burzum, the first two albums Varg recorded in prison are also are very big.
What is compelling to me… As a teenager, I listened to a lot of folk and metal music and when I found out about dungeon synth, I was blown away by the way it sounds, artists like Depressive Silence and Mortiis. Not just because it was medieval, but because it’s the only synth. The atmosphere the synths create is something so different to anything else. There is other medieval music you can listen to, but none has the charm that dungeon synth music has. It’s very graphic, and you can picture yourself in its setting and it seems it is meant to be that way.
You’ve mentioned community. I’m curious about what makes the community so special. As I’ve been a member of the Facebook group, I’ve noticed for example that it sort of ‘self polices’, but in a democratic way. It has its little upheavals, but everyone is very involved and the focus is also very much on being non-political.
The great thing about the community is how close everyone is to each other, everybody supports each other’s projects and are willing to do all they can to keep the genre going.
Also, I think everybody tries their best to keep the drama to a minimum but of course, it’s inevitable at some points.
The DS scene uses the possibility of online in combination with that small scale. There are clear ‘boundaries’ on what fits in and what doesn’t. Or do you feel that’s a wrong assumption? I mean this in both genre stylistics as well as things like politics and ideology.
In terms of politics and ideology, I think you will find that artists’ beliefs vary like in any scene (such as hardcore punk) and I’m sure there are artists and fans out there with some unsavoury beliefs, but they wouldn’t be accepted into the wider community of the scene like most DS artists. For the most part, it’s about the music and the general atmosphere we want to portray/embody. Honestly, DS has no agenda in terms of a united opinion on politics or political ideology. The community is open to all kinds of people and is very open-minded, freedom of expression is generally encouraged and artists’ interpretation of what DS is, or can be, can vary greatly like any genre.
Well, in terms of the music, I think it’s a positive thing that the music is filtered and the community is mainly focused on the actual genre. In the case of the next topic, I think being “PC” is a new trend in media that you can see everywhere with the DS community being no exception. Whether it’s a good thing or not, I’m not in a place to say but that doesn’t make it necessary for individuals and artists to be an advocate for such destructive ideologies as Nazism. Naturally, many only want to cause controversy and stir the pot and don’t actually subscribe to the beliefs they “promote” in actuality.
When you discovered all this music, how did you convert it to something that is your own? You’ve had quite a few projects going, most notably Varkana, which taps into something distinct.
I have lived in Iran for my whole life, so naturally, I have been exposed to Persian folklore, mythology, traditional music since birth. Thanks to this, I feel like it subconsciously influences my music, most notably Varkâna. I use thematically Persian elements in my album/song titles and themes, but this just flows naturally from within me without being forceful. I have always listened to a wide range of eclectic music, so I have drawn inspiration from everything from film scores, Mortiis and Depressive Silence, early electronic and synthesizer music, hardcore punk, shoegaze, post-rock, classical music, synthwave and so on. Similarly to how my “Persianness” is expressed in my music, my music taste also presents itself in my music very organically and the influence is most definitely the foundations of my music.
Had dungeon synth in some ways helped you to explore your ‘roots’ if I can use that word? And how did you figure out in what way you could implement them in your music?
I must say that I was always a massive mythology nerd and read about Persian mythology, history and Zoroastrianism well before I got into DS. but for me, DS and Black Metal are the most fitting ways to incorporate all these readings and concepts into music.
To me, it seems that what you put into the music thematically will dramatically change the way music sounds. Most DS is originally heavily reliant on Tolkienesque, western high-fantasy and RPG’s, so to me, there’s a different flavour to your music. I would argue it’s similar with black metal, where the feisty Norsemen or Celt fantasy (I even heard a Viking metal band from Tunisia) has been sort of played out. How do you feel about the idea of bringing something new to the genre and shifting the frontier as a way of saying?
Well, personally I really enjoy the fact that my music is unique and this approach to DS is not commonplace. But also there are some people who believe this is inferior (especially Cosmic Terror) to the original sound that you’re expecting to hear when you have DS in mind. Again one should keep in mind that DS is a cluttered genre as I mentioned before so it’s kind of hard to keep track of what “true” DS is.
I would like to ask you something more about which different projects you’ve got going on now and what each of them is about.
I’d say Varkâna, Sun Addicted Family and Beam Keeper, but SAF and Beamkeeper are kind of on hold right now and Varkâna is my main project. I’d say Varkâna is a form of extreme transcendental music that relies heavily on being “Iranian” and delves into Iranian mythology and theology. SAF is a more modern approach to black metal and shoegaze and is heavily influenced by Surrealism, Space and our very own existence and at last Beam Keeper is a form of appreciating the 80’s films and music.
With Varkana, you’ve just taken a different turn with a Lovecraft inspired record. Where’s the connection thematically there?
Well, I always really liked Lovecraft and his writings and I thought maybe I can turn them into a Varkâna album, I felt like the atmosphere would be perfect for a new and different release something that still sounds like Varkâna but it isn’t, thematically to me this is the most experimental Varkâna album and I don’t think anything like this is gonna happen any time soon. But musically there’s new stuff coming that I think will appeal to both new and old Varkâna fans.
How would you define dungeon synth, if any definition can be made?
In my opinion, Dungeon Synth can be found in many things (film scores, retro video game music etc) as long as there is a certain feeling, sound or aesthetic quality to it. It is not so much about there being a checkbox per se, but more a general ‘vibe’ or atmosphere.
This means that there is a great deal of creative freedom allowed in the genre, with little to no pigeonholing in what defines something as being DS or not. There are all kinds of Dungeon Synth being made all the time in different themes, from Dinosaurs to Space for example.
Looking at contemporary DS, you can see a lot of growth and expansion in terms of the different branches of the genre, There are noticeable differences in the subgenres within, with the original medieval/ dark ambient sounding DS, rooted deeply in Black Metal only being the starting blocks. Many acts don’t even subscribe to the traditional notion of BM style DS, and nowadays more and more fans are coming to the DS scene without prior interest or exposure to BM. Over time, Dungeon Synth has changed from an offshoot of Dark Ambient and Black Metal into its own distinct genre with its own intricacies and varieties within itself.
What future plans do you have currently as an artist? And are you willing to shed some more light on those hinted-at releases?
Well, I’m currently recording a new atmospheric black/doom album with Eve Hodgkins of Eternal Obsession on guitars and some other musicians including my old friend Harpag Karnik, the album is thematically similar to Ahrimanic Chambers and Rite.
If Varkâna was a dish, a type of food, what would it be and why?
This is a very tough question, I think it would be Persian but something that’s a bit more westernized haha. Like some sort of chicken kebab maybe?