Dungeon synth is probably not something you’ve heard of if you are anywhere near the cool kids. If things like Dungeons & Dragons, books like Lord of the Rings and other nerdy things are an instant ‘turn back’ for you, you probably should now as well. Unless there’s inside you an unappreciated geek with a liking for black metal and classical folksy, dreamy music. Perhaps this is more for you.
This article is highly speculative, based on what I’ve read and perceived as dungeon synth. Reading about it, I found out there was really very little concrete mentioning and attention for the phenomenon, so it’s merely an attempt to create a basis of a description.
What is the charm of Dungeon Synth?
Are you someone who thinks back with remorse to those oldschool dungeon crawler video games and RPG’s? You might really be into dungeon synth.Dungeon synth is much a hidden genre, a special gem only for those who seek it. A great quote describing it by Tiwaz from band Gvasdnahr:
I kind of think of dungeon synth as a lone, ancient castle, hidden in a dark desolate corner in the shadow of black metal. Only a few knows it’s there. And out of those few who dares to enter, only a few is capable of finding it’s treasure.
Tracing its roots, its boundaries and offspins is noteworthy hard because of this. The dark tower is an image born out of dreams and fantasy, it’s why I titled this article bedroom dreaming. Much dungeon synth probably never left bedrooms of D&D loving, black metal spinning people.
Dungeon synth has been mocked nad misunderstood a lot. This picture probably illustrates the narrow view of its broadness, its fans and its artfulness. It also holds some truths about the genre. Mortiis is pretty much the Sabbath of the genre. Its roots are very steeped in black metal and there’s a lot of atmosphere and geeky themes to it. But those are things I love. So I’m just trying to convey that
As the quote above says, it’s a very hidden corner of the music world, hardly understood by people who haven’t travelled there on their own. What I mean by travelling there, is either through ambient, soundtracks, game tunes or black metal, but preferably a combination, you come to like, appreciate or even love this sound. It’s not an easy starting point. Not that dungeon synth is complex stuff, but its appeal is rather narrow.
“The door of the tower swings open… A breeze of undisturbed air escapes and the darkness beckons as much as it repels you. The unknown awaits in the dark. What do you do?”
This sort of lines always give me that shiver. If it doesn’t do that for you, return to the tavern and just stay there, you common NPC.
What is Dungeon Synth?
Dungeon synth can be a lot of things and a lot of things aren’t dungeon synth. Dungeon synth, has been described as the ‘pinnacle of basement music dorkery’ by the kind people at Toilet Ov Hell. They also describe it beautifully in the following passage, as a style that is inspired by the mystery and awe of high fantasy or dark dungeons as you explore them in role playing games. Oh, and it doesn’t get you any chicks (though that article was probably published early in the wave of the geek as hot, so it might be different). So what is it like? Let’s look at some cases that might make up what it is.
It really seems that J.R.R. Tolkien finally has a genre dedicated to him. But not completely, the themes of dungeon synth are… dungeons! But more generally it’s fantasy, though I think it could very well fit in science fiction themes too. It relies on repetition and works great as a sort of background music. Knights, dragons, but also unspoilt nature work pretty well. In it’s origins there’s also the black metal aesthetic, so that is still present now and then and probably shaped the dungeon aspect. As we know, the early black metallers were quite a bunch of geeks and most released records that are the foundation of dungeon synth (like dungeon synth god Varg).
This is not the limit for dungeon synth. Specially in its original form it could embody any theme. Nowadays more realistic themes are often put in the dark ambient category though.
The nicest way to describe the range of sounds is to go from old DOS video games to something akin to dark ambient or a completely stripped down version of a musical piece with just synths. There’s quit some room for other additions though. Vocals, instruments and effects are all more than welcome in the dungeon synth style.
It’s often very much ‘out there’ music, as in it doesn’t feel like a part of the daily world. I’m switching to a more ‘experiential’ description here. The music is a way of evoking feelings, imagery and situations that are ‘different’. This can be done with film score like tapestries of sound, but it can also be more ambient or more folky.
The roots of Dungeon Synth are hard to trace, but think synthesizers, atmosphere and black metal. Think of folk meeting black metal in a more movie/game-like setting. So the clearest way to say this is to put its roots somewhere in the early black metal scene in Norway. Inspired by the evocative sounds of their bands, some artists started to search for that sound in synths. Think Jean Michel Jarre, think filk, think Vangelis, think soundtracks to video games. Oh… and Burzum. No Clean Singing definitely puts the roots of the style in black metal. Mortiis is often considered fundamental.
Origins of Dungeon synth
There’s different readings of how dungeon Synth came to be. One would cite black metal as the main driver, the other would focus on the film scores. It’s hard to tell, but what can be told is that there’s a definite wish to bring something to life in the music. The name of Tolkien gets mentioned pretty much anywhere when it concerns dungeon synth.
Mortiis is generally considered to be the founder of the genre or atleast the first moving in that direction, particularly with ‘Født til å Herske’. The former Emperor member really made a carreer out of Dungeon synth and probably is the most familiar face and master of the genre. Originally he started out with four projects in this direction, which seem to have converged into Mortiis later: Mortiis, Vond, Cintecele Diavolui, and Fata Morgana.
Burzum did some synth albums, of which ‘Hliðskjálf’ to me is the best, while Vikernes was in prison. His influence on the genre is much more profound and the track ‘”Rundgang um die transzendentale Säule der Singularität’ is key listening (on the ‘Filosofem’ album).
Around that time Satyr (Satyricon) did an album with Wongraven, a keyboard based medieval project. Fenriz from Darkthrone contributed with Neptune Towers. Though there’s probably some more influential artists to the dungeon synth genre, these black metal-known faces helped propell it into the world.
A part that can’t be overlooked when it comes to the roots of the genre is the follow-up the genre had in Austria. The band Summoning, known for their atmospheric Tolkien-inspired black metal is definitely a massive catalyst for the genre thanks to their synth heavy sound. Directly linked to this group is the act Pazuzu, who’ve definitely left an impact on what has become. German act Depressive Silence should also be mentioned for their pioneering work in the genre and possibly its connection to the DSBM genre later. There’s a logic to the German connection. Dark music, synths and such you see in the kraut movement already, which was moving into realms of fantasy and mystery. Acts like Bethlehem embraced the depressive side. Gothmog ‘s ‘Medival Journeys’ is considered a key work in the genre.
Edit: Two names that I have to add to that are those of Grimrik and Murgrind, two current dungeon synth artists from Germany, who have released influential records. You will find their work linked at the bottom with suggestions for listenig.
Looking at early releases in the genre, it’s clear that countries that adopted black metal were quick to sprout dungeon synth acts. Greece (Erevos), France (Moevot), Sweden, Finland, England, the Netherlands and ofcourse the United States (Cernunnos Woods) soon sprouted their own acts. Russia has given the genre a spin of its own and it seems to be one of the most active scenes out there. To really put your finger on origin stories is hard, because dungeon synth by its essence is a hobby project, it’s bedroom dreaming at best and much stuff might have never come out.
Dungeon synth now
As a genre, dungeon synth is rather limited in what directions it can move in. Experimental acts like Trollmann av Ildtoppberg (check them here) get lost in a drone/doom environment, where others slide back into minimal black metal or simply ambient. A noteworthy act for me is Fief, who seem to have found a more lighthearted sound away from the oppressive, dark dungeon sound. Til Det Bergens Skyggene is another remarkable act, who’ve veered into experimental electronics in the ’70s it seems. This list of records really gives a good feel of the scope of the genre.
So Dungeon Synth hasn’t got that much room to grow or develop. On the other hand, acces to things like bandcamp or other free sharing services does allow for the genre to really become an online phenomenon. It is clear from my explorations that lovers of the genre, to which I like to subscribe, are a global group. Listeners in the direct region of the artists might not be enough to sustain production, but the global reach of internet makes it possible for this to really become a thing. The 5th edition of Dungeons & Dragons is probably a great help as well.
Some very productive acts, that seem to thrive in this day and age:
This Russian act has really captured an audience with their combination of synth and Slavic folk tunes. The fact that everything is in Russian ofcourse adds a flavor of mystery to the whole thing. Even their merch comes with hand-painted cards and traditional dolls. That sort of immersion is what makes this genre tick. The folk parts are mellowed down in the mix, which makes it easy to acces.
This act from Utah in the US is one of the most insanely productive ones out there. The music of Sequestered Keep is simple, catchy and melodic. Though it works for fantasy, it seems to have more roots in the real world, maybe referring the lost magic that our lands had before the industrialization and such. This depends on which of the many records you listen to ofcourse.
I wasn’t sure about including Ranseur from New Jersey at first. The sound here is much more 8-bit oriented, simple and functions more as an ambiance sound when gaming. It really fits the bill as a soundtrack. Molding that out of padding drums, noise and synths is a craft, the artwork is also something quite special. The idea of this record is Goblins playing and dancing. I get that.
Another interesting adition is Elric from the United Kingdom. Elric is a character from the Michael Moorcock books. I’ve not read them, but I get how personal and direct inspiration can be. Swooping synths are the soundtrack for that inspiration in the work of Elric. It’s strangely minimalist, but doing exactly what it needs to; create that aura of the fantastic (but remaining warm).
Greek artist Barak Tor is one of the more polished acts and sounds much closer to an actual soundtrack on this album of barbarian dungeon synth. It demonstrates how far you can push it when it comes to quality with this music. Though I’m personally a fan of more simple and dark sounds, this is a pleasant intro to the genre and good soundtrack to roll dice to.
What if you add to the game sounds, that remind me of Final Fantasy to be honest, some proper beats. This Norwegian act is as diverse as it gets in the genre and well worth a listen. I like the black and white artwork a lot.
Well, this is a lot of purple, but the whole look and feel of the work by Mystic Towers evokes images of early day D&D game play and adventure modules. The slow pace and long tracks make for a fine soundtrack for things that take time, like reading.
Erang from France is to me one of the current day high rollers in the genre with sublime quality, top class production and an expensive thematic reach. Their recent ‘Anti-Future’ even delves into the blossoming synthwave movement of Perturbator and Gost. Still, their sword and sorcery stuff rules.
German artist Grimrik is staying close to the Burzum-esque sounds of dungeon synth with his ‘Eisreich’ album. A release from 2014, but a great introduction to the music genre. Grimrik also runs the Deivlfrost Label.
Collaborator of Grimrik, with a series of fantasy inspired releases that maintain a black metal feeling to it. Music to completely submerge into, to forget yourself for a little while. The production is really good and creates an almost filmic effect.