Lugburz – Behind the Black Gates of Abyss [Spain, Neoclassical Darkwave] (2003)

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Drama Company | 2003

One of the few attested names to be recorded from the Black Speech, Lugbúrz was the name used by the servants of Sauron for his Dark Tower in Mordor, more commonly known by its Elvish name of Barad-dûr. The term was generally used by the Orcs in Sauron’s service not only for the Dark Tower itself, but also by association for their high command, or for Sauron himself.

— The Encyclopedia of Arda

By the time of the CD release of Behind the Black Gates of Abyss, The Lord of the Rings films were experiencing a high watermark for fantasy culture. Everyone was experiencing the films either as new experience, affirmation of the cherished novels, or bitter reaction to the adaption. I do not think Behind the Black Gates of Abyss was made because of the popular films though the track titles and timing seemed to be at least aware of the story beats. Lugburz, in 2022, is not an obscure entry in the history of dungeon synth though i t is not as enshrined as some of the other foundations artists of the 1990’s. Lugburz operated for one record in 2003 (with a followup 7 years later) and did so as a love letter to the Tolkien universe. This letter was penned with cinematic synths, orchestral violin, and the tolling chants of both male and female vocals. Behind the Black Gates of Abyss both forecasts the eventual lo-fi variety known as dungeon synth as well as existing in its own imaginary score universe. When one listens to songs like “The Ocean Call,” and hears the martial synth marches, one can make the connection that dungeon synth started as black metal intros and eventually just became extended atmosphere which became sentient and populated their own releases. In a way, dungeon synth just got really excited about the costumes and set design, it just became its own imaginary world.

Behind the Black Gates of Abyss is a fantastic artifact that as once stated before isnt well known but is far from obscure. In 2020, Dungeons Deep Records released the record on tape which is amusing since the attention Lugburz received in 2020 perhaps eclipsed the initial praise in 2003. Dungeon synth exists without time and seems to always be celebrating releases.

Midnight Syndicate – Dungeons & Dragons [US, Neoclassical Darkwave] (2003)

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Entity Productions | 9-11-03

The history of Midnight Syndicate and the resulting official licensed soundtrack to the role playing game Dungeons and Dragons is long and dense and utterly fascinating. Midnight Syndicate is an act which was designed to provide cinematic background music for thematic activities such as haunted houses, games, and other festivities. Midnight Syndicate was production music operating entirely as an independent group of enthusiastic composers. they were also shockingly successful with their music being used at theme parks around the world and heavy metal bands like King Diamond using their music as introduction themes for their tours. In 2003 at role playing game convention, the group was approached by Dungeons and Dragons publisher Wizards of the Coast to create a soundtrack to the game which was just releasing its updated third edition otherwise known as 3.5. the resulting record was Dungeons & Dragons, an official soundtrack to the popular role playing game.

I recount the history of Midnight Syndicate, and also point to the related act Nox Arcana, as an example of dungeon synth’s history before it was known as dungeon synth. Midnight Syndicate is tagged as neoclassical darkwave which is a related genre made famous by the act Dead Can Dance and Into The Nursery which combined ethereal, darkwave, and early classical music, into a style of gothic medieval music. Midnight Syndicate took this idea and made it more commercial and cinematic and while that sounds like an artistic slight, the music for Midnight syndicate became something else. Instead of intellectual pondering, the music for Midnight Syndicate became a theme park rides which urged the listener to climb inside and enjoy a ride through haunted and glowing rides. Dungeons and Dragons is over an hour of adventurous music which steps away from the grim and dark tones of past projects. Both song title and music offer the participant a magical world filled with danger, magic, and wonder.

Having a soundtrack to Dungeons and Dragons, within the realm of what we now call dungeon synth is not that novel. Fan tributes to games in 2022 feels like something many composers would gravitate towards. Midnight Syndicate’s history and paperwork as being an official soundtrack to a roleplaying game gives endless intrigue around this release which more interesting than if just a fan tribute. Not only does it show the caliber of professionalism pressed by the act but also the history of Wizards when it was still in its infancy after acquiring the licenses from TSR former publishers of Dungeons and Dragons. Midnight Syndicate is not obscure in the field of dungeon synth, yet I feel their connection to musical escapism and as a strong foundation between the music of the 90s dungeon synth scene and what would eventually become the revival can never be more underlined.

Corvus Neblus – Strahd’s Possession [Greece, Dungeon Synth] (1999-2001)

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Self Released (1999-2001)

Oh yes, this is where the cool people live. At the moment, The Dungeons and Dragon module The Curse of Strahd is one of the most famous campaigns made possible by the collaboration between a famous adventure setting originally published in 1983, multiple campaigns and associated novels, and perhaps most importantly, robust community support in making the story more coherent. Ravenloft and the lands of Barovia have stoked the imagination of people for decades. Nowhere is this more evident than dungeon synth records inspired by the campaign setting in a time when it the world was still inaccessible to most except for the most learned of the fandom.

Corvus Neblus has released two EPs. Strahd’s Possession Chapter I in 1999 with a followup Chapter II in 2001. Both releases provide a soundtrack to the world of Ravenloft made at a time when the gothic setting was used in multiple related media. Chapter I was packaged with not only an introduction about the main character, the half elf fighter/mage Nebulus, but also came with a character sheet with ability scores. These facts might lead to the creator of Corvus Neblus using an actual game of Dungeons and Dragons as inspiration for a dungeon synth album or just an adventure setting as a ready made world for a story. Whatever the case, Strahd’s Possession is an early example of escapism made into a world of sound with the entirety of the two releases made into backdrops for a gothic pageant.

Corvus Neblus is better known as Alexandros Antoniou also the participant in black metal projects such as Macabre Omen and Lvcifyre. Alexandros Antoniou’s work in these bands has created a separate reputation with his dark ambient and dungeon synth projects intended as hidden gems for those traveling deep within the mines of records. Strahd’s Possession is a monument for those looking at the origins and tracing the history of dungeon synth from the 1990’s to 2010s. Here is a set of releases which would be on Bandcamp in 2022 but instead is an obscure artifact from a well known black metal musician. The care and calculation heard in the first chapter mixed with the shoehorned dialogue in the second chapter is both fascinating as well as amusing.

Vinterriket – …Gjennom Tеkete Skogen [Germany, Dungeon Synth / Dark Ambient] (2000)

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Neodawn Productions — NDP 001

DS1e / DS2e — An adventure into dungeon synth of the 1990’s and 2000’s as it grew out of ambient, neoclassical, darkwave, medieval, and underground metal. Presented as retrospective album reviews and given edition numbers like RPG rulebooks.

At the moment, the entire work of German dark ambient / dungeon synth project Vinterriket is cataloged on his website. In this catalog are links to webpage discographies and also ever social media and music cataloging site that many have forgotten. This meticulous attention to detail is the hallmark of a creator who has been operating for 20 years creating various tributes to fantastical landscapes. Throughout the 2000s, Vinterriket’s creator, Christoph Ziegler, would lend his talents to various dark ambient, neofolk, martial industrial, and atmospheric black metal acts. If one would go back to the genesis of a long and sprawling career, it would be a chilly inaugural demo and the start of the record label Neodawn Productions.

…Gjennom Tеkete Skogen is dark ambient music that sounds at home in a dungeon. This music typifies the type of sound before it even had a name but perhaps appealed to fantasy inclined listeners who were interested in playing necromancers in Dungeons and Dragons. The ominous synth are pipe organs which rise out of castle spires as they pound through whipping rain. the demos opener “På Tåkete Enger Og Myrer” (On Misty Meadows And Marshes) acts as an overture to the dammed with the addition of wind samples which muddy its soundscape. The atmosphere created by Vinterriket is an inhospitable world which could be called winter synth if that winter was wet and still freezing cold.

Arden – III [France, Dungeon Synth / Dark Ambient] (2000)

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Cauldron Music – CDR004

DS1e / DS2e — An adventure into dungeon synth of the 1990’s and 2000’s as it grew out of ambient, neoclassical, darkwave, medieval, and underground metal. Presented as retrospective album reviews and given edition numbers like RPG rulebooks.

I really wanted to put the genre of “Neoclassical” for this release but everything listed is either dungeon synth or dark ambient. What is neoclassical then if not gothic sounding chamber music? I might need to investigate neoclassical a bit more but in the meantime we are presented with the third album from French based composer Stéphane Flauder. Along with projects like Maelifell, Fin de Siècle, Al Amor de la Lumbre, and Par Hasard un Soir de Brume, Flauder helmed Arden from 1997 – 2000. Collectively Arden released one album, one demo, and two splits along with a collection of unreleased tracks and The entirety of the work is housed on the Bandcamp page and can be downloaded for free.

Arden leads our exploration into the dark period of the 2000’s for the style eventually known as dungeon synth. During the revival, the foundational records of the 90’s would be enshrined as well as the new projects recreating the sounds of the 90’s. The 00’s would be a period that would see less conversation and to this day remains a nebulous period of dark ambient, dungeon synth, neoclassical, and lofi medieval worship. Arden is all of that with little distinction for the sounds that would eventually have names and zones. III is the sole full length from Arden and the last release from the project. In a way this is the final resting place for the project and its dark and ominous tones are its sepulcher. While the project began as dark ambient, III explores repetition in lofi extravagance making compositions around ornate drum beats and ostentatious melodies. the production gives the entire production a feeling it has been sitting under cobwebs and dust for centuries. The vampiric synth aesthetic has been a popular niche for dungeon synth in the past few years and with Arden, we have a long forgotten vampire.

Necrophorus – Sadness & Somnolence [Sweden, Dungeon Synth / Dark Ambient] (1991)

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B.o.C.a. Tapes – B.o.C.a.t-008

DS1e / DS2e — An adventure into dungeon synth of the 1990’s and 2000’s as it grew out of ambient, neoclassical, darkwave, medieval, and underground metal. Presented as retrospective album reviews and given edition numbers like RPG rulebooks.

Necrophorus is the name of a project led by composer Peter Andersson. Andersson is known for a variety of endeavors but perhaps most connected to the dark ambient project Raison D’etre. At the same time as his other projects, Andersson explored dark ambient and medieval soundscapes with the project Necrophorus. Sadness & Somnolence is the debut demo from Necrophorus and is shockingly modern in both its production and sound of dungeon synth in its revival. On Rate Your Music, Sadness & Somnolence is listed as the first album with the dungeon synth tag even coming before foundational artists like Jim Kirkwood and Mortiis. At 30 minutes, Sadness & Somnolence presents somber soundscapes that would be at home on a limited edition cassette. Songs like “A Soporific Tale” and the title track are near visionary to the sound that would be popular decades later. The songs crafted by Andersson have the magical naivety that would be the bedrock of what would eventually be known as dungeon synth.

What is fascinating about Sadness & Somnolence is its divination to future styles as well the fact Andersson explored more dark ambient and drone on future releases. 1996’s Underneath the Spirit of Tranquility and 2000’s Drifting in Motion both are interesting but drift more away from the style explored in the debut demo. Andersson would continue exploring these themes throughout the 2000’s eventually exploring progressive electronic with the series Music For Film And Exhibition. Andersson’s work is fascinating for his many facets of sound even outside of his uncanny prescience for the dungeon synth sound.

The 1991 demo was re released by Andersson in 2008 along with other early works in a compilation titled Moments of Sleeping Sadness. Also includes are the re recordings / remastered compositions as well as the original demos which are worth the time for anyone interested int he sound.

MURGRIND – The Power of Yourself [Germany, Dungeon Synth] (2022)

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Uralte Herrschaft Productions | 8-21-22

If Murgrind is good at anything it is rolling out the carpet for their releases. Murgrind is the creation of Sven Strack who has also created other dungeon synth projects such as Draped in Shadows, Haryon, Arath, and runs the label Uralte Herrschaft Productions. Murgrind’s 2013 record Journey Through The Mountain was an important artifact in the early days of the dungeon synth revival and subsequent works have been met with a deep admiration and regal fanfare. The Power of Yourself might be the fourth full length in almost a decades worth of existence but each release from the artist commands a few years worth of attention.

The Power of Yourself, at a staggering, one hour running time, is a cinematic experience which transcends what most people would think of dungeon synth. Nowhere is there any hints of bedroom production rather widescreen fantasy orchestras which put the listener in the role of adventurer and conqueror over dark shadowy mountains. This is what Murgrind does the best which is spend years creating a campaign world for its listener. Each record might come with a long procession but the experience with each release is undeniable in both craft and execution.

Tales Under The Oak – Swamp Kingdom [Germany, Dungeon Synth] (2022)

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Self Released | 8-7-22

I do not think I was aware of this magical kingdom until today. Tales Under the Oak is a German act who in a year’s time has crafted two amazing releases which seem to weave a tale of mystical lore. Swamp Kingdom is the 2022 release which follows The Toad King in 2021. Both releases have uniform art and direction which makes each release feel like a chapter in a storybook reads by fireplace. Tales Under The Oak employs lush music still under the veil of lo-fi bedroom music yet the landscapes feel more open and rich than dungeon synth contemporizes. Swamp Kingdom is medieval music being played by bards who just happen to be submitting music under the dungeon synth label. This is truly transcendental music as you are no longer just hearing this on Bandcamp rather from a distance as you travel a strange and enchanting land.

Middle Ages – Reclaiming the Throne [International, Dungeon Synth] (2022)

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This whole thing comes with a paragraph of explanation. Reclaiming the Throne is a reissue / compilation of demoscene tracks that were ripped from a website in the 1990’s and put onto a tape. The tape gained a following and was known as “Caduceus – Middle Ages.” It wasn’t until 2020, that the true nature of this music became known to the internet record keepers and extensive work was put into tracking down the three musicians behind this work. The work formally known as Ranger Rick, Mateus, and Blackwolf. Reading the Youtube link for the original Caduceus rip, Blackwolf responds with:

This has been wild – I wrote “Seeds of Desire” for a demoscene music competition in 1995 (it placed 19th in the rookie division of MC3 out of…I don’t know how many, maybe 100?) and then find out 26 years later that it was put on a cassette that has a cult following in a genre I hadn’t really heard of.

This whole affair from the subterfuge, the longstanding misunderstanding to the internet reconciliation is made even better with the Dungeon Deep reissue which rightfully credits the artists and adds bonus tracks and write ups to the presentation. The joyous tracker based synth music makes the whole event feel like the closing credits to some lost Super Nintendo RPG and through arduous strife, the rightful rulers take the throne and suddenly the stormy lo-fi clouds part. Part of my love for this scene of music not only comes from the sound itself but the intesnse desire to archive and catalog music from the past decades. Dungeon synth has laid in the shadows and things like a bootlegged tape that gained popularity feels right when a group of fans reconstruct and credit the true musicians. This entire thing is wholesome and makes me smile all day long.

L A N D S R A A D – Fate; The Inevitability Thereof [UK, Dungeon Synth] (2022)

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Self Released | 8-1-22

Last year, I raved about L A N D S R A A D and their debut The Golden Path. This release kicked off a potential long series of Dune inspired dungeon synth which not only showed excellency in terms of composition and production but also a new avenue in terms of thematic source material. Dungeon synth is not relegated to the earth and the silent foundations of Berlin School / Kosmiche Musik becomes more apparent with each release filed under its name. the dungeon is just the beginning for a brave new world of space based progressive ambient. Fate; The Inevitability Thereof takes its inspiration, and namesake from the themes of Dune Messiah, Frank Herbet’s second book in the Dune series. More than just Dune DS, L A N D S R A A D feels like it is guided by the principles and precepts of Herbert’s universe. Fate, prophecy, power, and the zeal of faith all drive the topics of this record making it not just a tribute album but rather a space ambient record which shares the interests which constructed the book series. Fate; The Inevitability Thereof is a fantastic dungeon synth record which continues an interesting series that I felt was a novel idea at first but is quickly becoming something with unforeseen importance.