Dungeon Synth Compendium #3


I’ve done 191 “official” releases but like most people, I have secret projects across the diaspora of Bandcamp.

Ni’ilok is responding to me through text and discord about their releases. I then ask why if they have so many releases there would be a need for secret ones. To this question they send me back a Spongebob video about the inner machinations of a mind being an enigma. I don’t know why I just explained a meme but this is fitting to the current zeitgeist of an internet style of music. It’s also hilarious.

There was a joke many years back about the number of albums a dungeon synth artist released. Something about if you missed the current one you could just catch up with the next 30. There were discussions in the mid 10s about the rate at which dungeon synth material was being released and the possibility the then burgeoning scene would be saturated with prolific yet unpolished releases. The mindset was that instead of 30 low effort releases, the artist should wait to release one high quality record for listeners to fully digest material. Dungeon synth was a genre which had a low entry fee to participate and anyone with a basic setup could make a record. This led to a lot of music in a very short time period with people who might not have made music before trying their hand at this new style. While there certainly is discussion about not releasing an abundance of music and perhaps focusing on a few releases over a year, there is an equal discussion about appreciating the whole of an artist’s work as one project.

Ithildin Tape Productions was created as a way not to bother other people. The label does not take submissions as the entire catalog and its current 200 releases are all from one person. Ni’ilok, known to many as Elminster, is the creator and operator of the label which saw its first release in 2022. The label includes the many faces of Ni’ilok which range from known to obscure. Abandonware_Dungeon.exe, Anadûnê, Baltic Weald, Boughs Enshrouded, Cláirseach, DCCCVIII, Fagradalsfjall, Gravelurker, Howling Mire, Ka’Bandha, Maeglin, Moss Keep, Muzgash, Sorrows Of The Moon, The Alchemist Mouse, The Owl Knight, Üvegszakadás, Whispers Of Umbar, and Windlance are all cast members of a giant one person play being performed out in the middle of the woods.

Many artists in different genres write an album once every 3-5 years because they want that singular work to be the most honed release possible. Whereas 95% of the time I’m making music, it is as a meditative act and by extension, I end up with folder after folder on my hard drive.

I enjoy the idea of creation as a way to respond or capture moments. Whether or not through boredom or inspiration, making an album to respond to a mood or moment is like writing a quick poem or making a sketch in a notebook. The notes for Baltic Weald’s The Pass Of Caradhras notes ” I spent its writing process learning to use a 4 track recorder. It caused some of the songs to distort a bit, I think I have that ironed out now.” I find the notes regarding imperfections charming as not only a expression of honesty but something strange to include in liner notes. Ni’ilok’s portfolio includes not just finished work but also the process work of writing dungeon synth albums and learning equipment. While some may not be interested in the notion of listening to drafts or experiments, others, including myself, find the entire production fascinating as it illuminates the solitary journey one traverses in creating. Ithildin Tape Productions in a complete journey in one person figuring things out with as much humor included as talent.

Without the internet or modern computers, we wouldn’t have the current style of dungeon synth. Most of our collective knowledge of dungeon synth exists because of the internet with both creation work and archival of once obscure works from decades past. If we were in 1983 instead of 2023, I feel Ni’ilok would still exist. People like Ni’ilok have existed throughout the decades who made things and made choices regarding their work despite the advice of others. If this was 1983, Ni’ilok’s catalog would still be tapes and maybe sent out through a network of trading circles or local esoteric bookstores. There wouldn’t be any notion of black metal but there would be plenty of lo-fi synth with medieval coloring to it. This is perhaps why I find this label and creator so fascinating as they embody a spirt which predates even the creation of dungeon synth. More and more I see a family of strange creators who dont want to wait around for others and have no need to refine ideas. Creation without restriction is true freedom.

When trying to find inspiring quotes for the beginning of this article I met a lot of notions valuing quality over quantity. Perhaps appreciating a lot of little things more than one big thing doesn’t make inspirational quotes. I have found much value in the below releases and other but I know Ithildin Tape Productions would not be thing it is with only these 10 releases. It is the enormity of it which gives it a character and the insanity which drives its creator. When I caught Ni’ilok the number of releases was around 191 but even throughout writing this article it has grown. I expect in a few months these numbers to be out of date. I wouldn’t want it any other way.

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One of the more intimidating aspects of Ithildin Tape Productions is the sheer size of releases with almost no direction where to start. When one goes to the Bandcamp page, a pixelated graphic announcing Elminster tears across the screen and then over 200 releases from different names. Reviewing 200 releases would take a long time and for those reading the reaction to 200 releases would some if not most of its potency. For this article I asked Ni’ilok to give me 10 releases they thought would be interesting to others. I then arranged these ten albums in a listening order to what I feel is the best way to approach this artist / label / entity / idea. Each of them comes with a specific date to catlog the pace at which the artists works.

August 23, 2022.

Kingsorrow was one of the few Elminster releases which I remember. I remember this record specifically for the cover used and how close it was in sound to traditional dungeon synth. I also remember Kingsorrow’s emotional punch as it held both beauty and tragedy in one release as if mirroring sonically its grand covr. Kingsorrow was released under the Elminster project which could be thought of as a main celestial body in the cosmology of the Ithildin Tape Productions. This release was within a series beginning with Caern Mist and ending with The Sage of Shadowdale. all of these releases were in the middle of 2022 and saw melancholic dungeon synth paired with classical paintings as cover. Kingsorrow and its sibiling releases are a strong statement from Elminster as being a competent and engaging creator.

July 14, 2022.

Echoes From The Thousand Caves is the only split out of the releases selected for this article. For an artist who does many releases, working alongside another creator is not uncommon. Frostgard is a fantastic creator whose interest in Tolkien informs many great releases. The split, as would be expected, focuses on lore from Tolkien’s First Age specifically on the album’s namesake. Menegroth, the Thousand Caves, was the city in the land of Doriath which was home to king Thingol of the Sindarin elves and queen Melian, one of the Maiar, during the First Age. Overtones of old school dungeon synth, the pair paints landscapes of triumph and despair as the Fall of Doriath comes into vivid coloring. This is a splendid collaboration from not only Ni’ilok but from Frostgard, an already commanding voice in dungeon synth.

June 29, 2022.

Dyvyná rests in dreamland slumber. There is an aesthetic which sees crystal castles cloaked in haze and a sense of ethereal magic which powers its lights. Within The Walls Of The Promised Kingdom is exactly that aesthetic which negotiates between the worlds of the lost and dreaming in something that would be right at home in the 80’s ethereal wave sound. Within the Walls of the Promised Kingdom is the first full-length from Dyvyná though the first five releases came within the same week so its best to view this as a collection. Each release from the Dyvyná project comes with medieval artwork which reinforced the notion of distant crystal castles.

July 23, 2021.

Misty Mountain Dungeon Synth. Compared to the above release, Mountain Specters feels more traditional to what we think of a old school dungeon synth. Lengthy tracks which exude a simple yet powerful melancholy which veils a landscape in fog. Through this arrangement there is a sense of wonder and magic which comes through the somber melodies and it is this sound which I feel evokes the spirit of classic dungeon synth. Mountain specters uses the 1889 painting “The Fairy Dance” by Karl Wilhelm Diefenbach as its cover. This choice is fitting as its dark landscape is torn apart by the phantasmal green light through its center. the start contrast is dramatic fitting of its music.

October 1, 2022.

Howling Mire begins the descent into noisy regions for the artist. There is considerable tape hiss present and the atmosphere of The Weeping Order compared to previous releases is more morose and even hostile. There still exists a tribute to the old school specters which haunt castles and the Weeping Order, much like its album cover, is dark and obscured by shadows. This might be either the stopping point for some or the beginning point for others depending on your taste in dungeon synth. Howling Mire is unfriendly to travelers and its atmosphere is that of a wretched bog and the absence of any light overhead.

June 5, 2022.

Üvegszakadás is a continuation of raw dungeon synth but where Howling Mire still embraced melody, Üvegszakadás begins breaking at the seams. This is music for drunk vampires who like to throw themselves around moldy parlors after a night of revelry. he Specter Of Szigetvár is not the most melodic of records and its music can feel adrift in a sea of fog striking rocks at random intervals. this is music for people caught in the limbo between life and death or nightmares and sleeping.

September 11, 2021.

Worship Tape Hiss. This was the releases mentioned before in which the artist noted its imperfections. The Pass Of Caradhras is dedicated to the sounds of 90’s black metal ambient / dungeon synth. It is cloaked in hiss, lofi production and also a sense of learning how to use equipment. Its old school sound brings to mind cloaked figures which pass on horseback to some crumbling ruins nestled within unwelcoming mountains. This is naïve fantasy music which would be found on the back of a tape with no label and its mystery would serve as a platform for intense interest.

April 5, 2023.

Soundtracks to old adventure games played from another room. Within The Age Of Savagery by Hyperborean Might is a dedication to the aesthetics of the Sword and Sorcery genre. The imagined story sees protagonists Krug, Krag, and Krog on a quest to accomplish something probably grand and most certainly violent. The crudeness of the aesthetic is paired with crude audio which was recorded live during the 2023 Northeast Dungeon Siege but not as apart of the festival rather as a rouge recording from an AirBNB during the weekend. the other musicians listed were also colleagues also in town for the weekend and Within The Age Of Savagery is a moment in time where three weirdos got together and recorded music.

February 9, 2023.

Maeglin is black metal and is Ni’ilok embracing the aesthetics and sounds of 90’s era depressive black metal. The cover for Gossamer Asylum Amidst Gloaming Nightfall showcases a tank covered in snow but even more blown out in concentrated black and white. The black metal logo adorns the image off centered and the title is almost spray painted across the bottom. Maeglin is most certainly the furthest from traditional dungeon synth one can get but oddly the entire thing fits into the fractured universe.

December 14, 2022.

Raw black metal. You once were able to pick up tapes of this release which came on an unmarked Maxell UR90/100 90-Minute Audio Cassette Tape. There is something funny about this. The sound of raw black can be comforting given its compositions and embrace of low fidelity. The harshness of black metal is blurred to a droning pattern which can be quite enjoyable for some. Screams Of Silent Hatred is a stellar dive into raw black which came out on 10 cassette tapes.