Dungeon crawling: Tunes to tunnel by

If you love the good old dungeon crawler than you know the value of atmosphere and vibe. To achieve this, a good bit of music in the background or on a firm volume. For that, there’s some good music out there and some of it is very, very specifically made for just that task.

The music from Alex Crispin, Basic DungeonWaelmist and Deorc Weg are more than fitting for your next adventure of dungeon crawling.

Alex Crispin – Escape the Dark Castle (Original Soundtrack)

label: Cobblers Records
origin: United Kingdom

Themeborn is a gaming company from Nottingham (yes, Robin Hood’s hood), who created the game ‘Escape the Dark Castle’. An intriguing dungeon crawler, suitable for non-gamers (I really would love to get myself a copy). For this, Alex Crispin made a soundtrack, which has long been sold out. The game is still available and expansions are coming on!

The music Crispin made does justice to the vibe of the game. Eerie drones and ambient sounds, make you instantly aware of the dark, damp dungeon around you. The threat is looming and intensely oppressing as the first song starts. Dark, long tracks, like ‘Endless Dark’ and ‘Cult Procession’ imbibe your experience with the inescapability of the situation you find yourself in. Trapped in the prison with only one thing left to do: to escape. With this soundtrack, you absolutely know how thrilling a game can be if the vibe and story are right.  This soundtrack is a must for your gaming session, where tracks like ‘This is your end’ truly enhance the game experience.

Basic Dungeon – Tunnels & Treasures

label: Heimat Der Katastrophe
origin: unknown

If you are, like me, one of those people who instantly feels great when you hear the shady, dusky tones of 8-bit role-playing games? In that case, Basic Dungeon is exactly what you need. Gloomy, minimalist sounds that completely capture the adventurous vibe of those early crawling games. They were incredibly hard to play, sometimes for me as a child, impossible to grasp, but filled with a grand atmosphere that still gives me the shivers.
This record starts with the foreboding ‘Barbaric Clash’, taking you towards the arches in a dungeon, with pure darkness beyond them. It’s that darkness that is so appealing. No shifting in the distance, odd reflections of light. Your old games were light and dark, with little in between. There’s a simplicity to that, like to the sound of Basic Dungeon, that strips away all unnecessary things. ‘A golden coin is hidden under a dead giant rat ‘ may sound odd out of context, but in game, this stuff just happens. Much like ‘Pixeled Ghost’, which immediately summons that familiar image. More importantly, Basic Dungeon truly traps that old sound, with the simmering bass line and repetitive key patterns, creating a record that offers nothing but joy.

Deorc Weg – The Forlorn Cold of Ages

label: self-released
origin: United Kingdom

The entity Deorc Weg has mastered the sheer minimalism that goes into creating dungeon synth. It’s not the presence of sound that creates the tension, which makes the music so unique. It’s the absence and suggestion of what should fill the gaps that mesmerize its listeners. Like reading fantasy, you need to be free to imagine and fill in the blanks with your own thoughts and expectations and this is what you are fully able to with ‘The Forlorn Cold of Ages’.
The music flows constantly and the quality of the drums is for example astonishing. As it hits, sparingly, you can imagine the dust of ages flying up only to settle a moment later. The dusty, dry synths are imbued with life. Life unseen, but vibrant and thrumming in droning tones. There’s a way the tunes just flow fully and thus the minimal force is in the music. Everything shifts like waves, rising and falling as the sound ebbs away. Deorc Weg manages to sound both regal as much as foreboding in this manner. Truly the fitting sound for the places of legends.

Wælmist – The Crypt of the Sepulchral Lamp

Label: Self-released
Origin: United Kingdom

Simon Lucas is the drummer in Winterfylleth and as far as I know a great walker of the verdant realm and the abandoned remains of the past. This record is inspired by the crypts underneath Paris, where millions rest their weary bones in a true necropolis. Although, that would suggest something different in how this ossuary came to be. Waelmist creates tunes befitting of this darker realm.

Dark and gloomy sounds barely form a tangible fog of sound. It’s the rare sounding of a gong that breaks into the solemn atmosphere of a place where the living have no say nor sway. Wælmist wallos in the mysterious, with slowly moving soundscapes and gentle reverb. It’s as if you can’t really discern the origin of the sound, as if the sound may not be really there. This is the atmosphere befitting the crypts, a world that belongs to the dead.

Underground Sounds: Living Altar – Scythes towards Psyche

Label: Inferna Profundus Records/Rat King Records
Band: Living Altar
Origin: Lithuania

Blood upon the Altar

I first read about Living Altar in Forgotten Path Zine.  As it stands, the band has been around for a bit, but it took some time get a release out. After a demo and split release, this is their first album and it’s some pretty strong stuff from the Lithuanian group.

The trio has had some experience apart form Living Altar. They played in Regressive and Fuck Off And Die!, bringing a bit of speed and thrash to the mix that makes up Living Altar.  Their inspiration is drawn from a psycho-spiritual world, making the band an interesting group.

‘Blinding Shower of Light’ is indeed much like a shower, pouring down on you visceral and vicious black metal. The rigid riffing finds contrast in the bestial drumming and battle-hungry vocals. A clear thrash influence can be detected early on in the songs when the guitars wail and scream. A different vibe is available on ‘Invert the Hearts’, which jangles and wallows in twangy guitars, that emit a more punky feel (like early Norwegian bands) with perhaps a bit of the current Polish bands atmosphere-wise. A strong moment on the record.

The recording quality is exceptionally good, but clearly muddled and dulled in production to create a certain lo-fi sound. Living Altar needs to sound primitive, it fits the brutal pummeling on the drums and frantic use of cymbals on tracks like ‘Dawn of Shadows’. They’re not renewers of the scene, but they are feisty worshippers of filthy, fierce black metal. That they deliver with conviction and fury.

This band brings a raw, feisty sound. They do it well and with power, so check them out.

Underground Sounds: Paleowolf – Megafauna Rituals

Label: Self-released
Band: Paleowolf
Origin: Serbia

Back to the time before time

Back into the primordial realm, to the days before history, with the latest release by Paleowolf. This record is titled ‘Megafauna Rituals’ and explores the shamanistic hunter-gatherers of the 150.000-9.000 BC era, when early man was faced with giant wildlife known as Megafauna. Check out their previous records too.

When we speak of giants walking the earth, this is a time we can certainly speak of. Nature was still dominating human life, overwhelming our ancestors, who carved their image into walls and objects in reverence to their primitive, raw power. This album, the fourth by Paleowolf, explores that in sound.

‘Aurochs’ opens with a firm, reverberating drown, paying homage to the ancestors of our cattle. A mighty race of cow-like creatures, whose grunts and bellows merge with the droning and drums, that sound with ominous force. The Auroch was actually part of our landscape up till the 16th century. The ‘Sabertooth’ is a very different beast. Its ferocity is captured in fiery tribal chants and drums, but also in the low growling and eerie drones. There’s a reverie in the song for this mighty beast. A proud statement, with matching sounds.

A similar expression follows with songs like ‘Totem’ and ‘Cavebear’, tribal utterings and beastly suggestive passages, that keep the listener in that strange trance. It takes you to something untapped, something reptilian in your brain of an instinctive nature. Only with the majesty of ‘Megaloceros’, we are awoken for a bit with its sonorous bellowing. All an imitation of course, since this mighty creature no longer walks the earth. The sound swells to a mighty roar, with powerful, firmament-shaking drums. You can feel the fires dancing over the leafy roof above the tribesmen as they dance to their primitive deities on ‘Direwolf’. Attempting in their rituals, to quell the natural forces that proved to be a danger during day and night. That’s when the howling resounds and eerie drones take over.

We end with the mighty ‘Mammoth’, after which the primordial realm gently fades away again.

Underground Sounds: Claret Ash – The Great Adjudication: Fragment One

Label: Casus Belli Musica/Beverina
Band: Claret Ash
Origin: Australia

Claret Ash is a black metal band from Australia and like most of those, they’re a bit different. The band has not been around that long yet, but have released two full-length records in the past. It seems that they’ve been experimenting a bit with their sound lately with a single and the EP, titled ‘ The Great Adjudication: Fragment One’.

The band appears to have a connection with Immorium, having had two members of this black metal band in their ranks. The Canberra act makes some interesting music and doesn’t follow the more well-trodden paths in their music, which is melodic and atmospheric. Time to dig in.
Ever opened the door and then got a full burst of sand or snow blown into your face? Well, that’s what pressing play for ‘Essence of Fire’ does for you. The song blasts off with those tremendous tremolo guitar riffs and roaring vocals. Much more surprising is the clean singing on ‘Devolution’, which takes on a melancholic, sensitive sound. The group is compared to Der Weg Einer Freiheit, and during the more energetic, angry parts I get it. I really do, but there’s something more to Claret Ash than that, which is where they become particularly interesting.
A track like ‘Plague Bearer’ then has a remarkable quality of ominous melody and atmosphere. A sinister threat, looming over you with big, hard-hitting drum salvo’s and particularly dire guitar parts unfolds. There’s little present in the way of cold, northern black metal, but a very particular sound. You feel their sound come up to the bottom of your stomach, resting there, slightly giving of tremors to make you feel wildly uncomfortable. Perhaps there’s something of an oldschool death metal vibe in their sound too, something less condensed into a particular genre. That’s definitely something you feel on ‘The Geir’, with clean singing and slow, doomy parts.
An album to dig into and explore continuously. Not that there’s a hidden layer to it, but it simply keeps being interesting.

Grimrik: Into the wordless night of dungeon synth

The music, generally called dungeon synth, is on the rise. One artist who has been endeavoring the create these otherworldly sounds for a long time is Grimrik. The artist released his first project in this style more than 20 years ago, in the wake of the second wave of black metal.

The connection between black metal and dungeon synth might seem fickle, but a while ago I started looking into this and wrote the ‘Bedroom Dreaming’ article, which was overall met with a nice reception. Dungeon synth finds its roots in atmospheric tracks and side-projects from artists like Burzum, Satyr’s Wongraven and Neptune Towers by Fenriz, but one can easily look further back and see many similar musical releases (often considered oddities). Considered the father of the genre is Mortiis, who used to play in Emperor. In the mid-nineties, he started shaping the sound. At that point, Grimrik already started to release music within the confines of this movement and has busily been exploring this magical realm.

Grimrik has various projects and due to the general anonimity of artists within dungeon synth, it’s tricky to find them all. One thing I found particularly interesting is the use of the word ‘sidegenre’. It makes a lot of sense, as dungeon synth is an aspect of black metal. Since the genre has been rapidly growing and even made it to Roadburn with a performance of Old Tower, let’s illuminate these dark dungeons with one who has dwelled there for years. It’s an exciting time for dungeon synth, but also for Grimrik, who has re-releases and exciting new projects coming out soon!

For those who are unfamiliar with you or your work, could you briefly introduce yourself?
I started making my own music back in the early/mid 90s. My first release worth mentioning was a (solo) side project called Nazgûl (1996), which was musically quite exactly what is now called‚ dungeon synth’ (re-released 2016 by Deivlforst Records).

After 1997, I quit releasing music for a while and made only some (more electronic) stuff for myself and drafts for songs that later became and will become alive. In 2013 – after meeting Murgrind – I started being active in publishing again, the project Arath released its first album (classic dungeon synth as well). This debut album was elected the best DS album of 2013 by the world’s largest DS scene which was quite a motivation!

Nevertheless, I soon felt the need for a new solo project which turned out to become Grimrik ( Albums so far: Eisreich [2014], Die Mauern der Nacht [2015]). Different than in the 90s, I now have lots of interest in the production side of music and this definitely influences the music I make. For an example, while making synth music I find it very useful to know exactly what each knob and fader on a synth does and how compression and EQ-ing work for example. Besides producing my own music, I did a lot of complete audio masterings for Deivlforst Records in the last years (examples: Thangorodrim, Wolcensmen, Murgrind, Medhelan). In the beginning of Deivlforst Records, I also did some layout works for them.

Just to clarify, any intro is my words and opinions. In no way do they necessarily reflect those of the artist.

Tunes while you read:

Into the dungeons with Grimrik

What is your musical background and how did you end up making music?
The music that influenced me most is probably Black Metal and its sidegenres. I can’t deny that I also always liked electronic music also very much. Making music came naturally back then in the 90s, if you were into metal, everybody also wanted to make their own. So I started drumming, ‘singing’ and playing keyboards in metal bands first.

After that era, I first didn’t find enough sense in releasing stuff anymore and experimented with other types of music. Those didn’t turn out good enough for me though. The initial breakthrough for more activity came with meeting Murgrind, whose music inspired me to make DS again – which led to all following developments. I can’t thank him enough for lighting up the flame in me again!

What inspired you to go in the dungeon synth direction? Which musicians inspired you?
Back then definitely the ‘classic’ artists like Mortiis, Pazuzu, Summoning, Die Verbannten Kinder Evas, black metal intros, outros and interludes and Wongraven – no surprises here.

What is dungeon synth for you? What makes the genre so particularly attractive?
This is a very difficult question to answer! For me it will always be a sidegenre to black metal, because I got into it this way, but much more on the fantasy side, less ‘evil’ and less bound to certain ‘beliefs’.

The genre is very attractive to me as it is still very underground despite its recent growth in popularity. It can be done on a DIY basis by anyone and is able to transport spirit and atmospheres that no other music can. It is really hard to describe, it is more a ‘feeling’ than it could be rationally categorized.

Outside of music, what are things that inspire your love for the genre?
Fantasy literature, mythology, nature, ancient history, philosophy, own insights, weird theories, visual components. I wouldn’t name particular books, I prefer to keep that a secret.

We got in touch through my attempt at introducing dungeon synth to a broader reader population. What would be the artists you would name for a listener new to the genre and why?
Let me start this answer with a short introduction. The genre and scene grew a lot in the recent years and already can be divided into some subgenres. I personally prefer the more sophisticated, more ‘composed’ music that is also written and produced with lots of effort (still DIY at home) – and is also more linked to the origins of the genre, but taking them to a more nowadays level.

That said I’d recommend the following contemporary albums: Murgrind – Inheritor of the Forest Throne,
Thangorodrim – Taur-nu-Fuin
Medhelan – Fall of the Horned Serpent
Barak Tor – March of the Triumphator
Splendorius – Norfaragell-Thul
Skarpseian – Fragmenter av Trolldom
Old Sorcery – Realms of Magickal Sorrow I

could recommend some more, but these are probably the best of the genre for me. Another (double) album I would recommend to get quick access to some facets of the genre is ‘Arath – Treasures from the Dungeon Vol. 1 & 2’ which is a collection of songs Murgrind and me made over some years, showing a variety of different atmospheres, sound choices and production levels, while all songs are DS.

If I should choose ONE classic 90s DS recording to recommend and which stands for the genre it would be ‘Mortiis – Ånden som gjorde Opprør’

What sort of instruments or programs do you use to make your music? What would anyone starting out need?
Main DAW: Propellerhead Reason with some extra ‘rack extensions’ (special VST-Format for Reason), Hardware controllers & sequencers Current Synths: Yamaha CS1X, Kawai GMega, Roland JD-XA, Kawai K4, Elektron Analog Rytm, a modular (Eurorack) synth, Waldorf Streichfett.
Next buy: Arturia Matrixbrute. All you need to start is a DAW that has some good sounds installed or free VSTs plus a MIDI-Keyboard plus, on the production side, the will to learn how to record and mix and master.

How do you go about making music, where do you start from?
It depends. Sometimes I do some improvisation and just try around playing some sounds, sometimes from this whole new songs evolve. Sometimes I have a certain mood, melody or something else in mind and I try to transform this into a song. Usually, I make drafts that I work on further again and again at a later point. This includes (re-)arranging, changing sounds, enhancing the mix etc.

Do you start with a concept or with music and how do you shape the eventual work?
Sometimes I start with the music from which the inspiration for a topic comes, sometimes the other way round (see also question above).

Dungeon synth seems to be even more in love with the cassette format than any other genre, how did that happen?

I think there are several reasons for that. Nostalgia, handling and playing a cassette evokes feelings of a now long gone past for the older of us. For the younger it is possibly some kind of ‘weird relic’ of their parent’s centuries, totally unnecessary when it comes to pure reason – but reason often doesn’t transport feelings, but using ‘ancient’ technology does. Also playing a cassette means limitation, but in a world where you can get nearly every music track just by a simple click on the internet and can make your own tracklist, you often do want to be limited to the artist’s choice of tracks, their order etc. This goes along with the get-all-you-want, but virtually, options of the internet-age, people like to go back in time by intention and feel a real item in their hands, which was – in the best case – designed with passion and effort. Also, you can actually own a collection of ‘hardware’ items that can be looked at and browsed through, designs are connected with memories of the music etc.

Same goes for vinyl, that also has a huge renaissance, but is much more expensive both to produce and to purchase so more rare in extreme underground scenes. A cassette limits the sound – but this is often wanted and even seen as an enhancement. What is really important for both tapes and vinyl is that they are analog. In a world becoming more and more digital, many people do like the ‘limitations’ of analog media. I am totally happy with this as I grew up with all music media types and love them all. They all have their pros and cons – but only physical is real!

 What future plans do you have right now as an artist and label owner?
Anything good coming up? Concerning Grimrik, my album ‘Die Mauern der Nacht’ was just released on red/black vinyl by Neuropa Records (Belgium) and on tape by Out of Season with Foreign Sounds/Children of the Night (US). I am extremely happy with the physical results, all editions look incredibly cool. Responsible for this are the labels involved which put a strong focus on quality work, Dan Capp, who’s layouts he did for this album are truly great. I also did some conceptual work for every physical release. What makes me kind of proud is that these labels released some much bigger artists before – like Carpenter Brut, Ulver, and Mortiis for example. ‘Eisreich’ will be released on vinyl by Deivlforst Records soon (probably March, three different vinyl colors…)! The third Grimrik album will be hopefully (and finally) finished soon. Additionally, I have some more Berlin-School, hardware-only music almost finished that should be out in 2018 as well. Plus another secret project and possibly some new songs by Nazgûl… So, if all plans will work, there’s a lot to come!

Anything you’d like to say, that I didn’t ask?
A thing that been on my mind for long: The Grimrik project is not political at all, it neither carries nor supports any political ideologies.

Final question, if you had to compare your music to a type of food, what would it be and why?
Let me answer this only for my last album ‘Die Mauern der Nacht’ only and based on feedback many people gave me. Seems it is best compared to a (possibly French) 5-course menu, the opposite of fast food. It demands attention to detail and quite a lot of patience. It grows on you while listening to it and makes the best sense when consumed completely, then it can feed your brain. You get the whole concept from start to beginning, taste all spices that were carefully thrown into each course. If consumed in a hurry or incompletely, it will definitely leave you unsatisfied and you won’t like it. This makes it less accessible to many, but I was often told it rewards those willing to go through it as intended with a great experience.