Writing about music, especially about whole genres, is always a risky endeavour. You’ll fail to mention a reader’s favourite band, the favourite album. You’ll make a reference someone feels is laughable, or miss one someone else feels is crucial.
You will GET IT WRONG.
So, this is not an article about Dungeon Synth. It’s an article about What I Like About Dungeon Synth.
A New Chapter In A Very Old Book
What I Like About Dungeon Synth is, primarily, the music and the wide range of emotions it encompasses; the bombast and the subtlety, the melancholy and the fury, the epic and the transient. It blends genres that are dear to my heart, from medieval airs to black metal malevolence, into something that is neither new nor old but atemporal. By stepping out of time Dungeon Synth can use multiple, opposing streams of influences and styles, to create a single entity and, by doing this, it embodies something that is often deliberately avoided in more mainstream music; conflict.
There is conflict in the very name of the genre; dungeon synth. The two words conjure up opposing imagery, simultaneously evoking the dank stone of some ancient oubliette and the silvered chrome of futuristic machinery. This is also What I Like About Dungeon Synth and this blend of the old and the new carries on into the twin threads that, I believe, have led to the genre’s explosion of popularity in recent years. If you’d just care to step inside…
Firstly, Dungeon Synth in its basest form harks back to the era of tape trading and home made inlays, produced in limited numbers and available only to initiates through arcane means like fanzines and physical post. Now, however, even long-defunct projects have wholly embraced online platforms such as Bandcamp and Youtube to propagate digital copies alongside the often-elaborate physical releases. Obviously, Dungeon Synth is by no means the only esoteric musical genre to benefit from the ease and ubiquity of online platforms but it is one of the few where such availability is at odds with the often elitist and wilfully-obscure nature of the artists in question.
Secondly, Dungeon Synth is wrapped in multiple layers of the past, pulling a hauntological cloak about itself and gaining a glamour which appeals very strongly to a certain kind of person (myself included). The thematic obsession of Dungeon Synth is almost always that of ancient times, even if they are sometimes an ancient future, that aligns with reality but dips very heavily into fantasy. The truly medieval blends with Tolkein-esque tales of trolls and sorcery, which then smears into the sometimes-naive aesthetic of early Dungeons & Dragons and the creaking strains of 8-bit computer game music (an influence which brings its own layers of hauntology with it). Even the most modern Dungeon Synth artists pay
homage to the ‘The Masters’ like Mortiis with his so-called Era 1 series of “dark dungeon music” and Satyr’s Wongraven project (the black metal connection is made explicit here; Mortiis was the one-time bassist of Emperor whilst Satyr leads Satyricon).
For me, this conjures powerful magics; the sense of barely-understood ‘comfortable-separatedness’ I used to feel as a child when browsing my battered copy of Death On The Reik, with its Kafka-esque plot and leering monsters, or playing the brutal, barely-comprehensible Shadow Of The Beast (a landmark of computer gaming whose eerie soundtrack would have its own impact on the Dungeon Synth scene).
Strange Eyes From The Trees
Yet all of this is as nothing if the music doesn’t hold up to scrutiny and there is only one way to find that out. What follows is a short overview of some of my favourite Dungeon Synth (and related) albums. I’ve linked to the artists’ Bandcamp pages wherever possible.
Thangorodrim – Taur-nu-Fuin (2016)
From its opening note to the final plink of synthesised harpsichord, Taur-nu-Fuin is a near-perfect exercise in archetypal Dungeon Synth that wears its Tolkien influences on it sleeve; Thangorodrim is a cluster of volcanoes in northern Middle Earth whilst Taur-nu-Fuin, “forest under nightshade”, is more commonly known as Mirkwood. Thangorodrim take a number of stylistic cues from the equally Tolkien-obsessed, but far more bombastic, Summoning, using them to build a melancholic atmosphere that is suffused with the sadness of a fading world cut through with war and loss.
Fief – II (2016)
Fief’s second album builds on the medieval strains of synthetic harp and lute from the first release but builds it into a far more idiosyncratic sound, one that stands in opposition to much Dungeon Synth by being almost jaunty. If you understand what I mean when I say that stand-out track “A Good Inn” is the sound of every tavern along the Sword Coast, then this album is for you.
Secret Stairways – Enchantment Of The Ring (1997)
Taking influences from the realms of prog and kosmische as much as the more traditional electronic sounds, there are snatches of both early 70s Tangerine Dream and Popol Vuh’s soundtrack work throughout the album, Enchantment Of The Ring manages to still remain very much its own entity. Opening track “What Lies Beyond The Door” is one of the most achingly mournful tracks out there, with heart-breaking guitar lines soaring above funeral march drums.
(Sadly, Matthew Davies, the band’s sole member, was lost to suicide in 2011. All funds raised by Bandcamp sales of his music will be passed to charities he supported in life)
Jim Kirkwood – Master Of Dragons (1991)
Continuing the theme of prog-influenced sounds, Jim Kirkwood shows that Tolkien is not the only source of inspiration for Dungeon Synth by taking us into the sinister, decaying world of Michael Moorcock’s Elric of Melniboné. Elric’s conflicts, both internal and external, are perfect material for the themes of Dungeon Synth – a powerful sorcerer, yet cursed with physical frailty, he is the rightful ruler of the ancient dynasty of Melniboné but, alone amongst his kin, finds their decadence and indolence contemptible – just as the magic-as-science undertones of Moorcock’s world lends itself to the eerie synths and effects Kirkwood employs.
Elric – Elric of Melniboné (2017)
Sticking with Elric as an inspiration we move to the opposite end of Dungeon Synth’s stylistic palette. Rather than the lush, orchestral sounds we’ve heard up until now, Elric (the band) use a minimalist 8-Bit style to hark back to the themes of early computer games such as Dragontorc and Fairlight; as we see again and again in Dungeon Synth, this layering and interblending of influences comes to the fore.
Chaucerian Myth – The Canterbury Tales (2016)
No discussion of Dungeon Synth could be complete without mentioning the work of Chaucerian Myth. With a track for each of the twenty-five tales, The Canterbury Tales adapts Chaucer’s classic work into a three-hour-plus epic of Dungeon Synth and related styles. More than a simple gimmick, each stylistic deviation both echoes the tale it represents and keeps the music fresh over its extended run-time.
For those of you not yet ready to dive headline into the sword & synthesisers realm of Dungeon Synth, there is a crossover that may ease your journey into the parallel time stream…
For the past five years of so, Erang has been building his own Land Of The Five Seasons; a collection of interlinked albums and artworks that map out a musical world of haunting strings and bombastic percussion in minute detail. Yet, recently, something strange has been happening. Shimmering, neon vortices have opened up in the sky to the sound of a more inhuman, glacial rhythm. Arpeggiating basslines and 4/4 drums have replaced the blaring horns and rattling snares as that most post-modern of retromusic, Synthwave, has pushed its way in through the rift.
This move, maintaining a dual musical personality, is perhaps less surprising than it seems at first glance. Both Dungeon Synth and the more 80s-inspired Synthwave look back to a never-was history constructed of cherry-picked memories that are, themselves, built on fabrications.
Who knows, perhaps a glimpse into the Anti Future will, like Will Byers, see you swept off into a mirror-world you never dreamed existed…