As we turn our hearts and minds to 2021, I think I can speak for most that we are collectively excited for new experiences in the coming year. Most of all we are excited for new releases from a handful of excellent labels. Realm and Ritual is preparing for a dazzling year and one of the first releases is the mind shattering world of Marsyas Zskin. This 90 minute epic invokes the Greek mythology with neoclassical dungeon synth that is not content to guide on passive sound. This is the second release from the artist who is continuing a layered journey through mythology that succeeds due to craftsmanship as well as a daring notion to push the sound in new directions. From the first few notes of “Visions of Bright Aether,” the tone of Flight of Icarus is one of active challenge. Make no mistake, there are melodic moment akin to dungeon synth most are used to yet those lay on top of cliff faces and up winding passages on rock crags that urge the listener to scale this improbably steep mountain. Flight of Icarus marches along the same road as a growing number of progressive minded artists that are carrying dungeon synth into a wild and unpredictable realm. This is a place where the colors are blinding and nothing is predictable. What is certain though its the level of excitement one will experience.
It would be wonderful if this was a 2021 release. It is okay. By now, I have talked a lot about Neverwood Records as being a gem in the area of high quality dungeon synth. Through The Forest Deep is the debut EP from an artist who I am anticipating having a stellar debut full length in 2021. Ninthalor’s soundscapes are both mystical and playful with sounds the feel like trickster gods which lead the listener further into incandescent woods. With far out synth effects and regal tones befitting a faerie court, Through the Forest Deep holds a sense of wonder mixed with unease as one gets further into the record. Ninthalor offers a journey and no one is saying that you will come out unscathed. 2021 is going to be an exciting time as long as artists and records labels continue to pursue unearthly delights.
I talked about Neverwood Records before with the release of Covered Brides’ debut. Neverwood is still new with 2020 being their inaugural release in October of 2020. With only months of existence, this Us label has managed to put out dazzling releases that are both comfy as well as alienating and cold. A Good Mage is the former, but maybe both, with a release that is intoxicating with its lofi esoteric immersion. Through this 25 minute release, the listener is treated to a soundscape which is as abstract as it is nostalgic. Combine this with a strong visual design and one has a release that echoes even into the new year.
I would like to mention for the purposes of academic history, this record was self released in December of 2019. Feberglade Records included this release in the Winter 2020 bundle along with other fantastic releases. Spatial Illusions is dungeon synth yet their aesthetic, just visually, put this release in another dimension entirely. Torn between the realms of dark ambient / drone and berlin school electronics, Merkury pays tribute the dungeon synth’s primeval foundations with a record that is enigmatic as well as omniscient. It exists across the fabric of space and time and could easily be the soundtrack the universal changes in the cosmos if not for the omnipresent silence. For fans of Tangerine Dream or just anyone who thinks beyond the confines of prescribed perception, Spatial Illusions exists in extra dimensions.
I am writing this on December 29th which is still in the afterglow of the holidays but not underneath its oppression. I think as the years goes by, comfy synth is going to be more pronounced at the end of the year just for its ability to evoke warm emotions and a paralyzing sense of sentimentality. Wrought Records has always done fun things for the holidays in addition to being a consistent producer of fantastic releases since 2019. Aside from the dark ambient to lo fi fantasy releases, fun themed releases like Witch Haunt and Reliquary of Terror would dot the Halloween season. Warm Smial’s second release, Carols for the Hearth in Winter, comes during the end of the year holidays and is perfect for a crackling fire and steeping tea. While comfy synth can feel sugary and disposable, Warm Smial, as well as Wrought Records, manages to command attention and respect with releases that warm the minds and heart so listeners. This type of music is going to be an annual tradition from this moment forward.
Warm Smial’s debut was in March of 2020 which came at the tail end of the comfy synth boom in December of 2019.
Listen, I get it. The use of Japanese on a tape release usually leads to assumptions that it is vaporwave or some sort of hip electronic that you probably will not get. If this release had a fantasy aesthetic to it, it probably would have been a little bit more popular. Reflection is a meditation on nature through a cracked lens of lo fidelity and warping. Through field recordings and the haze of solitude, this release invokes the power of nature to be a soundtrack for for the spirit. This is the second release by Local Forest Society, a US based label, with I believe only one artist, who records albums live in nature with the ambient sounds put to mixed in with the melodies. The idea of this recording process (do not know how true it is) has deep reverence to both nature and the solitary act of recording music where it is just one person and their communion with the wilderness. Despite the idiosyncratic name and aesthetic, トレイル GUIDE continue to forge their own path into nature synth opting to get lost in the woods to finally be at peace.
For as rudimentary as comfy synth can seem, the micro genre within an already micro genre has the ability to evoke powerful emotions. Its sense of nostalgia and sentimentality is not unlike the whole of dungeon synth just without the fantastic framework. Sunny Weekend and Mourning Weekend were two EPs released by Ancient Void Music, a ritual / ambient music label based in France. While I think both EPs fit in a catalog of ritual ambient and experimental music, Grandpas House Near the Sea’s, an act that seems entirely dedicated to this tale, fits most at home at Vicious Mockery and especially on a physical tape. Broken into two acts, Sunny Weekend/Mourning Weekend weaves the tale of childhood fantasy along with the inevitable unraveling of mortality and memories which go into both. The track titles and approach can feel frank and without poetry yet the forthright honesty which comes with these EPs is something that feels cathartic for a style of dungeon synth that is suppose to be be cozy. There is a space for cozy emotions as well as natural sadness which is apart of the march of time.
this is apart of my quest to write reviews on what feels like a lot of tapes that were recently purchased. It is difficult to say know when you stumble on a wonderful comfy synth release with a tape as well as a record label you did not know existed. Neverwood Records is based in the US and even though they only started to release tapes in October of this year, they have managed to build a decent catalog of dungeon synth and weird adjacent companions. While not entirely a comfy synth label, the releases from Neverwood travel towards the cozy while still retaining some of the more uncomfy esoteric sounds. Covered Bridges, however, is nothing less than a warm cup of tea while starting at a sentimental painting. Comfy synth can be viewed as reductive especially when given a wave of releases at once. Despite this, I have always enjoyed this sound as i feel it promotes a classical sense of escapism where one trades in the dark coldness for inclusive warmth. Covered Bridges works for the holidays but could be played throughout the winter and into the mighty thaw of Spring.
This is the second release that was given to me by the very wonderful label Realm and Ritual. Today we have the fourth release from Croatian artist Gatewatcher, who also lends their talents to the projects Lone Adventurer and Ashen Chalice. Gatewatcher as a project is entirely dedicated to the lore of Magic’s the Gathering with each release centered or inspired by some aspect of the ongoing story. Memories Lost and Planes Forgotten is inspired by the moments when Jace Beleran wakes up on the plane of Ixalan following the epic antics of the Hour of Devastation and defeat by Nichol Bolas, God Pharoah. Magic The Gathering lore is silly and more resembles a superhero comics than high fantasy. Ixalan, as a story was intended to be a breather, and possibly lighthearted pause in the story, with Jace on a meso ameircan inspired plane and specifically on an island with Vampires, Dinosaurs, and Pirates. Even though Magic’s lore isn’t the most celebrated aspect of the trading card game, and in fact its story has been panned in recent years due to quality and censorship, the narratives still inpire people to create works around it. Enter Gatewatcher and the series of records that take Magic’s lore and creates minimal synthscapes based around its ideas. Memories Lost and Planes Forgotten approaches the themes of amnesia and defeat with sparse tracks that are only punctuated by funerary melodies. Drone and space occupy this world as if the artist ponders and toils all alone with only fading memories as a companion. This is not what I initially thought when immersed int he world of Ixalan but with songs like “Rest, Mind Sculptor” and “Simlmot’s Crossing” we are given a ponderous study on the character and are possibly pushed to refine interpretations of settings that originally had Vampires, Dinosaurs, and Pirates.
Going to be real honest in saying, it took me forever to spell this band’s name. Perhaps it was the crushing weight of emotion which comes with this release. The below link to the Bandcamp page goes to the Transylvanian Tapes site which is producing the 2021 tape run for this 2020 release. Funeral Doom is a very distinct genre yet its scene, outside of the founder and a few disparate releases, is not as fertile as lets say black or death metal. This could be due to many things but hearing Grav | Ruin was a dark joy as the band combines the ferocity of black metal into the monolithic template of funeral doom. This makes songs like “Begravningskör” at 18minutes not feel like an eternity spent in darkness. While the previous description sounds wonderful, it is the variation which Gravkväde shines. In the landscape of ruin and despair, Grav | Ruin offers both passive mourning as well as more active despair which manifests itself into an extended stay in purgatory with only mixed emotions for reflection.