Weird Naïve Magic

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Andrew Werdna (Dungeon Synth Blog)

I: Beginnings

I first discovered dungeon synth around 2005. I was a teenager in full-on black metal edgelord elitist mode, rejecting pretty much all the music I had previously enjoyed. Interestingly, Emperor’s first demo and EP were my introduction to black metal, where Mortiis was still the bassist and writing the lyrics. So it didn’t take long for me to learn about how he had left Emperor and started his solo project. Crypt of the Wizard was then my introduction to dungeon synth. I remember it was specifically the track “En sirkel av kosmisk kaos” that first struck me as something totally magical and bizarre. I was also into fantasy at the time like Tolkien, Dungeons & Dragons, and H.P. Lovecraft’s more Dunsanian dreamlike stories, so I was already primed for this sort of thing. Crypt of the Wizard still probably remains my favorite dungeon synth album because of that nostalgia, and which is probably also why I prefer the goofy cover of him in the batsuit rather than the John Bauer cover (which is saying something because I think Bauer is great).

So since the mid 2000’s I was obsessed with Mortiis’ Era 1 stuff. I elevated it to a very high level in my mind, verging on spiritual. I would light incense almost every time before listening and made an effort to enter a sort of meditative state and drift off into those worlds. I adored all the side-projects and even bought Secrets of my Kingdom, which was quite expensive before the reprint. Because I was so obsessed I naturally made an effort to find more. Finding artists like Summoning, Lord Wind, and Wongraven was pretty easy since those were fairly well-known. I also got lucky while crawling through various black metal download blogs and ended up finding albums like Forgotten Pathways – Shrouded in Mystery, Hate Forest – Temple Forest, Mistigo Varggoth Darkestra – Midnight Fullmoon, and a handful of others. Those finds were all very lucky because dungeon synth did not have a name at all back then.

Generally this style of music was just called dark ambient, but also sometimes neofolk, darkwave, and neoclassical. And there were even other phrases people used to describe it, never with any consistency though; I guess “medieval ambient” was used on occasion and was more unique, but not enough to help with searching. Interestingly, I don’t remember seeing anyone use the phrase “dark dungeon music” to describe this style except Mortiis himself in reference to his own music. So I would check out almost any album I could that was tagged in these sorts of ways, and very rarely would it have that sound I was looking for. I specifically remember messaging people on black metal forums asking whether they knew of anything else like this, but didn’t really get any results that way either. I sensed that there was a lot of this stuff lost to obscurity, because of the random luck of finding some of those rarities that I did, and also the prevalence of it as intros, interludes, and outros. I was convinced that there must be more out there, so I persisted in the search despite running into a number of dead-ends.

The only individual source that really helped my early search was the Asmodian Coven blog, and it did more than help, it was what finally convinced me that this was not just a smattering of artists with somewhat related styles but rather an actual genre that had been buried and forgotten. It was essential, without which it would’ve been impossible to connect the dots and see the full picture. My blog never would’ve happened without it. I think Velkaarn should be widely-regarded for opening the gateway. Here are some of the albums he brought out of the depths of the tape-trading underworld into the light of day, before I’d even considered starting my blog: Lamentation – Fullmoon Over Faerhaaven, Gothmog – Medival Journeys, Depressive Silence – The Darkened Empire / Demo II, and Cernunnos Woods – Tears of the Weeping Willow. These were foundational albums in my mind that bridged the gaps and provided the sense of a consistent vision in these myriad approaches black metallers took toward synthesized soundscapes. Velkaarn also brought many more classics to the surface after I started my blog, such as Valor – La lune noire, Dolch – Yggrasil…Nature…Anthems, Mournlord – Reconquering Our Kingdom, and too many others to mention.

Velkaarn tagged those albums as “keyboard music,” and that’s the first time I had really seen a phrase used to single out this stuff specifically, and I think that’s what ultimately gave me the idea to try and give it a name that would stick. Deciding what to call it was basically the only preplanning before starting my blog. Of course the first thing I thought to call it was “dark dungeon music,” which I felt like should’ve already been in use but just wasn’t. I thought there were problems with that term though: it was too long, rarely does a genre name have more than two words; “dark” dungeon is kind of redundant, who would expect a dungeon to be anything but dark?; I thought to have “music” as part of a genre name was similarly redundant, like imagine calling BM “black metal music” (I realize now there are precedents for this though, like kosmische musik); and lastly the only history of use with the term was associated with Mortiis and his label, and one of my initial goals was to show that this is an actual genre and not just Mortiis and his imitators. So I was left with just “dungeon.”

Another goal I had was to make the point that the synthesizer is integral to this style, without which it’s impossible like black metal without electric guitars. I very much felt like there was this attitude at the time, among people who encountered this type of music, that “real” instruments were simply superior, and that the only reason these artists weren’t using them was a lack of skill and access. So I felt that it was important to emphasize that the weird naïve magic of this music was in large part due to the unique instrumentation, which was rompler-style synths and keyboards from the 90’s, relying heavily on presets that would normally be thought of as cheap or cheesy, that no “proper” electronic or orchestral musician would stoop so low as to put on an album. It wasn’t a big leap to defend this naïve aesthetic since lofi production was already revered in black metal, but at the time people just didn’t seem to appreciate these lofi synth sounds in the same way. So I decided that putting “synth” right there in the name would go a long way to push that point. Also I just thought “dungeon synth” had a nice ring to it. So I coined the term, but I’ve always just thought of it as a more refined derivation of “dark dungeon music,” and that both can be used interchangeably. In hindsight I might’ve been subconsciously borrowing from “spacesynth,” which I was also into at the time but more as just a silly fun thing, but interestingly it was also a genre that was codified well after the foundational albums were released, previously falling primarily just under the category of italo disco.

I wanted to be able to find more of this stuff and I wanted people who were into this stuff to be able to find my music (I had just released Valscharuhn – Seven Wonders of the Ancient World), so I was hoping the term would catch on and consciously trying to make it happen, but if I had any idea how much it would catch on I doubt I would’ve been brave enough to proceed. I remember having to convince myself that literally nobody cared about this music as much as I did and that nobody would read or care about my blog at all, and only then (along with a bunch of bourbon) was I confident enough to actually write with the amount of authority I thought necessary to establish some sort of foundation.

II: Continuation

When I started my blog I can’t remember knowing of a single active dungeon synth artist. The 2000s really were a dark age for this genre, but there were a few keeping the spirit alive that I became aware of later (Myrrdin and Mitternacht are two examples that I feel like I should’ve discovered much earlier, as well as Soporific Sorcery who interestingly dubbed his work “torture chamber music” just one year before the term “dungeon synth” was introduced). I think the first active artist I discovered after starting the blog was Gvasdnahr, which was very traditional Mortiis-style material, and shortly thereafter he released Through Mists and Ruins which is now a classic that unfortunately does not get enough recognition today. I also discovered Til Det Bergens Skyggene via a promo post on the Encyclopedia Metallum forums and immediately ordered the tape. I loved it of course, but felt that it was then fully surpassed by the followup, Vandringen I (Skoglandskap). I remember him telling me in an email that he was not influenced by Mortiis at all when starting out, and that he was mainly inspired by those kosmische folks who influenced Mortiis originally, which really made me think this was just something in the air, where you combine this progression of synthesizer music broadly with the aesthetic attitudes of black metal and you’ll arrive at dungeon synth even without necessarily borrowing anything from previous artists in the genre.

The next active artist I discovered, Abandoned Places, did not take influence from Mortiis either, but rather seemed to be entirely influenced by old pc games and Burzum’s ugliest album, Dauði Baldrs. Abandoned Places was too dissonant for my tastes, but I found it fascinating how something could be so different and yet still obviously dungeon synth . And then discovering Lord Lovidicus blew my mind, because this guy had a whopping SEVEN great albums to his name since a few years before I even started the blog, and I had never even heard of him. I think for a long time his albums were only available via megaupload links on his youtube channel. It seemed very much like just a personal hobby, rather than having genuine expectations of cultivating an audience, and I think that unceremonious attitude played a large part into why those early Lord Lovidicus albums have such a uniquely mysterious and comfortable sound. It was just about letting the magic happen with no pressure whatsoever to meet any expectations. To this day Trolldom is still one of the dungeon synth albums I listen to the most, one of those lightning-in-a-bottle works that I don’t think can ever be replicated.

Erang, with Tome I (just self-titled when originally released), was the first new artist that seemed to take this unified vision I attempted to cobble together and put it into practice, and there could not have been a better representative for the idea. Erang brought together all the disparate styles into one cohesive package that was drenched in that mysterious naive magic, and the fact that he’s remained active and so consistently good and evolving ever since is commendable. When Skarpseian released Skygge Slottet it really dawned on me that this genre was reawakening in a big way, and not just by a few dedicated individuals. I felt like that album was a traditional take on things, with a deep knowledge of all that came before, but done in a way that was thoroughly original. It stood tall next to the classics of the 90’s, not just as a nostalgic look back at the past but as a modern journey into a gloomy fantasy that could even appeal to outsiders.

The appearance of Arath and Murgrind was a monumental change in the wind for me, and when I started to feel that this genre was no longer really in my hands. They demonstrated a level of professionalism and dedication to craft that was well outside of the amateurish DIY vision I had been championing. I was even a little jealous honestly, haha. I was tempted to give one of those albums a scathing review because I felt like it was pushing too far in a commercial direction, but I knew I couldn’t do that in good faith because it was still amazing and groundbreaking work, especially with Murgrind’s Inheritor of the Forest Throne which I did give a proper review eventually, but I really think that was the beginning of the end for me with the blog. I’m glad I kept my mouth shut about those concerns because in hindsight I was just being possessive, and it would’ve been an ugly mess if I had attempted to fight for dungeon synth being 100% noncommercial. It was the right thing for me to step back at that point because I was totally unable to envision the next phase of the genre’s existence and how it might be disseminated to a broader audience. If I had it my way (and I wouldn’t have no matter how hard I fought), it would’ve remained just a handful of scrappy weirdos on forums and blogs releasing low-effort noodlings for free on Bandcamp, and we would’ve missed out on so much great material and far fewer people would’ve gotten the chance to hear any of it. I’d like to add, I’ve always had immense respect for Grimrik and Murgrind, even when I was most concerned about the new commercial direction. I think they deserve a great deal of credit for ushering dungeon synth into this new age of dedicated independent labels that we’re still currently in, and the wide level of exposure this kind of music was able to have because of it.

III: The End

I’ve been halfway in and out of the dungeons since 2014, probably just from an unrelated psychological malaise on my end, but I have some other theories, the most substantial being that a large, active, and commercial scene simply did not fit with the conceptual model I had built it my head, and I’ve yet to come to terms with that. One of the reasons I was so adamant about dungeon synth being distinct from other genres was as a rejection of post-second wave black metal. I thought pretty much only the 90’s black metal was worth listening to. Nearly all the stuff that would come after seemed to lack that same spark of inventiveness, even when it got experimental. The more I listened to new black metal the more it annoyed me that none of it resonated, even though the number of albums being released just kept growing and growing. Also I thought the commercialism was totally wrong for the anti-consumerist ideology that black metal was supposed to be about. Dungeon synth, on the other hand, seemed to be in the same state as first wave black metal was to the second wave, untainted, with just a few oddball loners occasionally nudging it along, a wide empty canvas of unexplored potential. It had an inherent power, no matter the level of effort or skill put into any release, they still all contained at least a kernel of magic, if only for presenting and reinforcing this musical concept.

I often fantasized, not ever once really expecting it to happen, that dungeon synth might catch on in a big way. I considered the possibility that it might follow a similar path as black metal, where it becomes so bloated, derivative, and commodified that even the old stuff starts to lose its power to wearied cynicism. I told myself this could never happen to dungeon synth. I thought it was too inaccessible to ever become a trend and that it would never be treated like a business because we had platforms like bandcamp making physical productions unnecessary and obsolete. I was wrong about it being inaccessible, and now I think it obviously has popular appeal in the same way as retro video game music, and I was wrong in thinking it would never be commodified because I undervalued the extent to which collecting artifacts was an important part of the esoteric experience for so many, as it once was for me as well.

Dungeon synth’s growth did not pan out at all as I imagined it might, and I can’t shake the feeling that it became what I originally rejected in black metal. I don’t think it’s a problem with the music or the community, but rather a problem with myself. I developed a narrative in my mind that went beyond just the aesthetics, and probably often the intentions of the artists, and the more active dungeon synth got the harder it was to adjust that model and make it fit. Basically dungeon synth has been evolving too fast for me to make sense of it, and it seems far from over. We might have our own Cradle of Filth or Dimmu Borgir right around the corner. I want to participate like I used to, because I still think dungeon synth is amazing from a distance, and I think it has a lot more going for it than black metal in terms of potential for future innovation, but whenever I try to engage on a deeper level it quickly becomes overwhelming, a bittersweet overabundance. It has caused a cynical attitude to set in, doubting whether I’ll ever see that old vision in its fullness again, or if I ever really did.

I’ll never move on entirely though. It’s a part of me, and the magic is still there, I just need to figure out the right approach to make it sustainable. I’m going to be starting the blog back up at the beginning of 2021, posting once a month, and will just be focusing on old stuff that I’ve always been meaning to cover. Can’t say how long it will last or if I’ll ever move on to newer material, but for now I hope it to be an undertaking which will bring me back to simpler times and allow me to rediscover what I love about this music. It won’t have any impact like it used to, but for me it will matter, and I think that’s the key attitude we all still share, that the personal inner-journey will always be the most important thing.