“What the fuck’s that?”
I held up the CD case.
“You spent fifteen quid on that?
My old housemate had a point. The front cover of my CD displayed a bat-winged, humanoid creature with pale skin, prosthetic pointed nose and ears, clad in studded leather and a codpiece made from a human skull. Behind the creature, a crimson sun set behind the tips of a mountainous landscape. The music itself was part-medieval, part ambient, part synthesiser soundscapes to a fantasy epic, the music of a story. I had never had anything like it. Being a fan of industrial, black metal and The Cure, I had no idea how to react to the soundtrack to this wordless world. It took me back to the Tolkien-inspired imaginary forests of my childhood, the thrill of the blade, the bow and the monsters from the books by my bedside.
The year was 1998 and the album was the fifth release from ex Emperor bassist, Håvard Ellefsen, otherwise known as ‘Mortiis’.
For the uninitiated, this type of music is known as ‘Dungeon Synth’.
This label fits loosely, a tunic rather than a codpiece. Some is more experimental than others; some are forest-y, some medieval-y, some are acoustic; some have words, some don’t.
Dungeon Synth is a convenient collective term for this ‘fantasy music’. (It’s a nice one too, in my irrelevant opinion.) What, for me, does classify ‘Dungeon Synth’ is its escapist and fantasy undertones and the fact that it is not ‘polished’, most dungeon synth artists do not use sequencers, preferring analogue synthesizers and/or keyboards.
“I kind of think of Dungeon Synth as a lone, ancient castle, hidden in a dark desolate corner in the shadow of Black Metal. Only a few know it’s there. And out of those few who dare to enter, only a few are capable of finding its treasure.”
Indeed, the origins of Dungeon Synth can be traced to the black metal scene of the mid 90s. Burzum’s 1994 album ‘Hvis Lyset Tarr Oss’ album contained the 14 minute song ‘Tomhet’ (Emptiness) an eerie synth-driven track in stark contrast to the brutality of the rest of the album.
A couple of years later saw the release of ‘Cintecele Diavolui’, “a musical experiment that consists of the stories and songs by the vampire Vukodlak, a creature once more brought to “life” by Mortiis.” Another odd, synth-led affair, complete with B-movie vampire samples but underpinned with a grim ambiance.
The most well known and probably originators of the genre were Burzum and Mortiis. On (in my opinion) one of the best albums ever created, Burzum’s ‘Filosofem’ there’s a 25 minute dungeon synth track ‘Rundtgåing av den transcendentale egenhetens støtte‘ No effects, a simple synth-led track which is probably one of the most influential and atmospheric pieces of music and one that could epitomise the genre.
Whilst Mortiis’ current music is far from its ambient origins, his back catalogue is a rich one to peruse (and much more enjoyable, sorry Håvard, if you’re reading a blog by some writer-nobody and getting upset.)
Mortiis arguably has the edge and is considered the forerunner of the genre, despite taking his influence from those early Burzum songs.
Født til å Herske and Keiser av en Dimensjon Ukjen are both masterpieces – able to induce a depth of belief; it’s world-building with music, an unashamed fantasy world described by the man himself as ‘Dark, dungeon music’.
There’s a hell of a lot more to Dungeon synth than these two though. Wongraven’s – Fjelltrollen (1995) (Satyr from Satyricon) is considred a masterpiece of the genre as is Gothmog’s – ‘Medieval Journeys (1998)
Dungeon Synth today hasn’t changed much and is perhaps even stronger than the 90s (both of these are good things!) Dungeon Synth has not tried to modernise; not being ‘perfect’, the dropped notes not always being quite on-time and the sparse production is what gives Dungeon Synth its charm.
For me, Dungeon Synth is an escape and has a child-like quality to it that takes me back to being a kid who was obsessed with swords and monsters. ‘Erang‘ an active and superb Dungeon Synth producer describes his name and the world he creates with his music as
“A kingdom from my childhood that nobody knows and where I will probably never go back.“
That’s beautiful. To me, that’s what I love about Dungeon Synth over more high-brow ‘ambient’ or ‘dark-ambient’ music.
Dungeon synth is outsider music without trying to be cool about it. Dungeon synth is the music of dungeons and dragons, Warhammer fantasy battle, the world that outsiders like me escaped to in books and their own made up worlds. Not everyone will understand or like this music, but that’s fine. Dungeon synth is not there to make money, in fact virtually all of it is either free or ‘name your price’ on bandcamp.
A lovely way to sum up this truly underground genre comes from the inimitable ‘Dungeon Synth’- a blog about medieval synthesiser dreamscapes’
Dungeon synth is an attempt to rediscover and walk these inner pathways, which might lead us into the mystical sacred realms somewhere in the collective unconscious, a place of nymphs and sorcery. Whether the artists of this genre are successful depends on whether they have assisted the lone listener with his explorations of the imagination. This is art not for the masses, but for those with the mind of a storyteller, those that can give atmospheric music genuine life with their mind’s eye.
If you are a newcomer to Dungeon Synth or simply want to know what on earth I have been going on about, here are some links to some of my personal favourite (free or name-your-price) Dungeon Synth albums that I can’t get enough of at the minute. (This list by no means defines the genre…that’s for you to do yourself)
This world might not be for you….but that’s fine. If it is, welcome…don’t worry about wiping your feet at the door.
Gvasdnahr (all of them!)