Down Into the Dungeon with Masterlord

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You wouldn’t be too far off in pinning raw black metal as the pinnacle of basement music dorkery, but you’d still be off. There lies a hidden doorway leading to more secretive and cloistered depths. I can show it to you, I guess. Give that inhaler a good huff and follow me.

I speak of Dungeon Synth. The music of torchlight flickering across dead stone halls; of wandering through millennia-untraveled paths; of seeking abandoned places; of puffing unknown years of settled dust from the face of an old tome, and of the ancient magicks within it; of kissing any semblance of social aptitude goodbye forever and ever, amen. The term itself is a relatively modern identifier, not fully established during the birth of this very particular style of dark ambient (though Mortiis did refer to some of his early tapes as “dark dungeon music”), but used now in reference to it and the modest following it inspired. The gist of it is this – using a pretty-much-nothing-but-synthesizer approach to create a fantasy soundscape out of atmosphere and medievalist melodies. Essentially, it’s an entire genre based on one of two approaches: 1) the soft intros, interludes, and outros you’d find on early black metal albums, or 2) the soundtracks to old DOS RPG games. Before you go running for the door, know this: Joe “Nerdcrusher” Thrashnkill™ listened to my whole spiel without cramming my body into a single locker (the dork even copped to liking what he heard).

It emerged alongside second-wave black metal in the early 90’s. Håvard “Poopy Dreads” Ellefsen bailed on Emperor because black metal wasn’t scoring him nearly enough chicks, and he thought he might have more luck forming Mortiis and pioneering a sub-sub-subgenre that would eventually serve as background music for D&D marathons. Satyr of Satyricon formed Wongraven and Knjaz Varggoth of Nokturnal Mortum formed Mistigo Varggoth Darkestra in 1994. Rob Darken of Graveland started Lord Wind around the same time (though their grouping with Dungeon Synth is debatable). Varg Vikernes recorded Dauði Baldrs during his all-expenses-paid stay at a spa in Tønsberg in 1995. The list goes on.

I won’t go into detail about the defining works here – not today at least – but I strongly urge anybody harboring even a faint curiosity about this sort of thing to check out some of the albums that helped lay the genre’s groundwork:

 

 

Even now that it’s its own thing with its own following and its very own Bandcamp tag, dungeon synth remains curiously bound to its mother-genre; musically, aesthetically, and ideologically. Many (but not all) dungeon synth artists still embrace black metal’s surface conventions. Face paint, spikes, black-and-white forest promos, and illegible logos aren’t at all uncommon, and some album covers still very much recall those of early black metal classics. Lo-fi audio is integral. Ideology carried over, too. To many, dungeon synth is the embodiment of a critical tenet, once important but now long forgotten by black metal – the obscure; the enigmatic; the “underground”. To many, it is the last precious, unexploited kernel of mystique hidden between the rolls of black metal’s bloated, commercialized corpse. In truth, if they knew I was writing about it on the World Famous Toilet ov Hell, they’d gather together, attempt to form a circle, realize they don’t have enough bodies to form a full circle, settle for a semi-circle, then try to cast spells on me. And that’s okay. As metalheads, I think we all understand the allure of obscurity to some degree.

I love this stuff. That said, navigating the genre is like doing a scavenger hunt in a fucking minefield. At night. Blindfolded. It won’t take you long to realize that anyone can buy an antique synthesizer at a yard sale or borrow a Moog from creepy Uncle Leeroy’s porn basement then record themselves rolling their face across it, but good dungeon synth does exist. It’s the kind that effortlessly evokes far-off lands – strange places and strange times. The kind that paints a striking picture with simplicity and takes you somewhere distant, or nonexistant. For any interested parties, I’ll list just a few of my current favorites:

 

Myrrdin – Glomung Ofer se Weald
“Black Albion metal / soundscapes for mediaevalists, neolithics, and blood rituals.”

Name your price at Bandcamp.

 

Erang – Within the Land of My Imagination I Am the Only God
“I make dungeon synth and medieval fantasy music mostly inspired by my own nostalgia about places, people and events of my past, forever lost… My music is very intimate, mostly influenced by books (the Hobbit, Lord of the Rings, the Silmarillion), old fantasy movies (Willow, Conan, Dark Crystal,etc.) and role-playing games from my childhood (tabletop & video games : Zelda, Secret Of Mana, etc.)”

Name your price at Bandcamp.

 

Lord Lovidicus  Kyndill og Steinn
“Personally, the mindset that suits dungeon synth for me is surrealism, or detachment from reality. My mindset while listening to this genre is one that wants to escape the world for a little while and explore lands of creativity. Visualization and imagery are very powerful for me.” [source]

Name your price at Bandcamp.

 

Abandoned Places – Return to the Palace of Mirrors
“The harmonic palette I’m most interested in working with for Abandoned Places is highly chromatic but still tonal. I often (not always) find purely diatonic or modal music cloying to listen to and unfulfilling to write. I chose to make the music dark… and befitting my conception of ‘dungeon music’ or music for a harsh fantasy realm.” [source]

Name your price at Bandcamp.

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That’s all I’ll subject you to today. If for some reason you happen to want more recommendations, the topic of Dungeon Synth may make a comeback with the help of Nordling Rites ov Karhu, who I recently discovered is a fellow dork with bad taste.

(Photo VIA)

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