DAYS OF YORE: DARK AMBIENT, BLACK METAL, AND THE BIRTH OF DUNGEON SYNTH (VOLUME 1)
(Kaptain Carbon returns to NCS with a feature devoted to Dungeon Synth”. Kaptain Carbon operates Tape Wyrm, a blog dedicated to current and lesser known heavy metal. He also writes Dungeon Synth reviews over at Hollywood Metal as well as moderating Reddit’s r/metal community. We’ve heard that he is also a fantastic dungeon master and has some wonderful EDH decks.)
If you have been following my exploits and research into dungeon synth, this article should come as no surprise. For the past year or so I have taken a swan dive into this genre without any hesitation or thought of the consequences. If you are new to dungeon synth, allow me to give you a proper introduction.
Dungeon synth is the new name for a nebulous genre of music that was formed out of the merging of dark ambient electronic style music and the production aesthetic of black metal. It has existed in many facades over different decades and has provided a canvas for many underground metal musicians to pay tribute to the speculative worlds of their imagination. The early days of dungeon synth did not even hold its current name, rather the phrases “dark medieval,” “neoclassical,” and “dark ambient” would be placeholders for this style of music that would take years to be rediscovered and rebranded. Today, dungeon synth is still a relatively obscure style of music, providing joy to the few who celebrate its existence. In the dark corners of an already dark and underground style of black metal music lies a budding genre that is filled with bizarre wonder.
The underground metal scene of the late ’80s and early ’90s provided musicians with the resources to record music without the necessity of a large studio. Home and DIY recordings, coupled with the tape-trade scene, would make the production and destruction of music not necessarily easier but give it its own unique qualities. Dungeon music appeared out of the desires of musicians to continue their exploration into the atmospheres and landscapes created by black metal music but with the guide of synthesizers. Retaining the grim atmosphere of black metal, dungeon music would celebrate the worlds of fantasy and speculation at a slower pace and with more of a regal disposition. The use of the synthesizer allowed musicians to command and create many sounds from a center and acted as a canvas for vast speculative worlds to form. Black metal of the ’90s has a deep, inlaid history with Tolkien and other fantasy sources, and dungeon music was an extension of this fascination, just with a new sound. It was the musical version of fantasy stories written by anyone who had the means for its production.
Before you go any further, ask yourself what you want. If you enjoy the fantasy aspects of metal and would like to explore a unique splinter genre of metal that travels into some weird, nostalgic, and experimental territory, please pass through this gate. However, if you find the fantasy qualities irritating or unoriginal, then I would suggest you not pass through Khazad-dûm and turn back to whence you came. I do not know how this whole thing started, but at this point I am head-over-heels when it comes to my affection for this music. If you are like me, you will giggle at first but then slowly succumb to the allure of woodland magic until you are pushing up your glasses before explaining to others what this music really is.
MORTIIS – Ånden som gjorde opprør (1994)
Mortiis is one of the earliest and perhaps most important progenitors of dungeon synth. Originally the bassist for the band Emperor and appearing on the band’s earliest recording, Wrath of the Tyrant, Mortiis left the band to begin his own solo work, which was actually 4 separate projects. Mortiis, Vond, Cintecele Diavolui, and Fata Morgana were all under the umbrella of Mortiis and have little difference between them. Though his first record appears on this list, pretty much all side projects, and the first 7 releases from 1993-1999, are of interest for people who want to learn more about this style. Though the artist seemed entirely devoted to this “dark dungeon music” in the 1990s, all released past 1999’s The Stargate are a mix between electropop and industrial. Things are weird but they could always be weirder.
Summoning – Minas Morgul (1995)
Summoning is important to dungeon synth, as a genre, because it was the work of this Austrian black metal act that solidified the sound that would later influence the style a decade later. Minas Morgul not only was all-in on the Tolkien themes, but it also had space for synth backdrops and centerpieces. Summoning would eventually become more orchestral in their music style, but the retention of two members would continue their distinct synth sound throughout their work and carve out a very unique style for themselves. You can certainly listen to Summoning and not enjoy dungeon synth; however, the two entities are basically neighbors, and I wouldn’t see any reason not to at least give it a try if you are a Summoning fan.
Depressive Silence – The Darkened Empires / Depressive Silence (1995)
Depressive Silence was a German act and side project of a melodic black band called Mightest. The two members made more of an impression with their two self-released demos released in either 1995 or 1996. Both Depressive Silence demos are 40 minutes in length and fully embrace an icy synth atmosphere complete with full escapism. The Darkened Empire, aside from being more in tune with far-off lands, has a buried creaking voice that runs throughout the temperate music. I use Depressive Silence as an introduction to dungeon synth because their music is immersive in its sound, and the presentation of their world is complete and well-structured. These demos are a good first introduction to the world of demos, which will only get more varied from here.
Neptune Towers – Caravans to Empire Algol (1994)
Neptune Towers was a Darkthrone side project helmed by Fenriz in tribute to Kosmische Musik pioneer Klaus Schultz. I save Neptune Towers for a the later part of this article mainly because Caravans to Empire Algol, despite its fantastic themes, leans more towards drone/ambient than dungeon synth. Dungeon synth would eventually have aspects of drone and haze crawling within it, but Neptune Towers is bordering on astral in terms of structure. In fact, Fenriz called this project, “Deep Space Alien Astral Avant-garde Synth,” which surprisingly has very few other acts. The album spans two records, both released on the black metal label Moonfog, and remain those weird releases one can go to when black metal is not weird enough.
Demos and Further Releases
Lamentation – Fullmoon Over Faerhaaven (1995)
My research into some of these releases led me to figuring out names used and possible sources of inspiration. Fullmoon Over Faerhaaven is most likely dedicated to Castle Faerhaaven, an obscure location in the Dungeon and Dragons gothic setting of Ravenloft. Lamentation is a Greek act whose members played ambient music before eventually forming the NS black metal act Der Stürmer. Before their Nazi future, however, they concerned themselves with Transylvanian fantasies and music of foggy mists.
Dies Irae – Circle of Leth (1995)
Dies Irae was an obscure Norwegian ambient side project of an even more obscure black metal group called Cruciamentum (not the UK death act). Circle of Leth was the only release by Dies Irae and is 27 minutes of well-measured, regal-sounding dungeon synth. The band was clearly in love with classical music, using Italian musical descriptions for their music, which sometimes breaks into distorted instrumentation complete with harsh narration. If you ever wanted to be content with some of the more obscure releases in the past few decades, this would be a safe bet.
Erevos – My Black Desires (1994)
Erevos is the work of Prince Korthnage, who was a Greek guitarist in a local black metal scene during the early ’90s. Prince Korthnage participated in releases from Disharmony and Agatus before settling in for some deep dungeon synth, complete with harsh vocals. Aside from the harsh and creaking vocals of the Prince himself, the music for My Black Desires is quite wonderful and melodic. This is saying nothing of the DIY hand-scrawled xerox cover that hangs on it like a horrible costume.
Equitant – The Great Lands of Minas Ithil City of Isildur (1994)
At points, discovering older dungeon synth is just a marvel of uncovering artifacts whose creation is almost baffling. Way back in the ’90s, a guy from Texas decided that he would dive into the sounds of dark electronic music with two releases dedicated to the worlds of Tolkien mythology and historic fantasy. Equitant would continue his work with techno/EBM releases much later, but for these releases, Equitant was just some guy from Texas who loved fantasy and lo-fi recording. Everything I just said feels so weird.
Mournlord – Reconquering Our Kingdom (1995)
Mournlord is a Swedish creator by the name of Karl Beckmann, who has lent his talents to the viking/black metal group Mithotyn. Mournlord was created and operating at the time Mithotyn was still releasing demos. Mournlord travels along the same conceptual trail as Mithotyn, though he allows himself to frolic in the woods and pastures along the way. Reconquering Kingdoms also has the wonderful addition of soft and creaking vocals to accompany the synth melodies.
Cernunnos Woods – Tears of the Weeping Willow (1994)
Cernunnos Woods is actually one of the few artists still releasing music, even though they had a few decades of a hiatus. With enough digging, the US becomes a pretty decent landscape for some odd releases. Cernunnos Woods is a combination of lo-fi synth and croaking narration. It is not a release listeners should start with if they have never heard of dungeon synth, but it is a great release that should be listened to after months of discovery.
Emglev – Unreleased Demo (1994)
We have officially reached the wilderness of demos from projects that have been long forgotten. Emglev is a French project that made one demo that was never released. Even the people who somehow uploaded the music to the internet have been long forgotten, and this music now exists orphaned from any context. Emglev is now a ghost made of a few demos, a small logo, and a picture of, what I assume, is the creator standing on a rock. The two tracks that make up this 12-minute demo are interesting enough despite the level of obscurity. With some regal melodies and an atmosphere of calm and quiet, Emglev will still exist despite its desire to be forgotten.
Pazuzu – And All Was Silent… (1994)
Pazuzu, at least this record, comes by way of more side projects from prominent bands. Pazuzu is connected to Summoning, also from Austria and also apart of this project. Summoning synth-driven music would provide a steady backbone for the interest in heavy synth music, but even before the band developed their sound on 1995’s Minas Morgul, Silenus and Protector participated in this oddball medieval orgy. Let me just be frank and say this shit is weird. From tinkling atmosphere to dialogue in French to sexual congress with demons, And All Was Silent is a wonderland of imagination which may not even qualify as music. What it is is interesting and perhaps the ore which was mined before smelted into later Summoning work.
Necrophorus – Sadness and Sombulence (1991)
Starting at Necrophorus is fitting as the dungeon synth was born out of the post /punk industrial qualities of dark ambient. Necrophorus is a swedish project which is the work of Peter Andersson, also more famously the creator of the dark ambient act Raison d’être. It is unclear if Peter Andersson envisioned the structure of this music to be eventually married with a fantasy aesthetic instead of an emotional forlonging.
Moevot – Abgzvoryathre (1993)
This is not dungeon synth but it is weird enough to be noted. Moevot was one of the projects under the Les Legions Noire (LLN) umbrella. LLN was a French black metal collective with a history and mythology larger than this paragraph. The music from LLN ranges from blistering black metal to weirdo dark ambient. Moevot put out 7 demos which go many places. Some of those places hit the formations of dungeon synth. Some of those places are just into the blackness of the void.
Hey, great article!! My son recently has been doing some Dungeon Synth that can be found at apothecarium.bandcamp.com/releases . They’re fairly rough demos, but a really good start! Thanks for shedding light on this subgenre. I think I may spend some money on Mortiis!
If anyone want to get more in touch with the scene, I’m the owner of the first ever printed magazine covering the genre. You can follow at Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/masmorradsz/
Also I’m the mentor behind the project Iamí, that you can listen here: https://iamimusic.bandcamp.com/
I’ve dabbled in this genre some and found it frequently fascinating. I did not know the extent of the background, though, so thanks for filling in some gaps! Just wondering if you have any recommendations on compilations/mixes that might be easily (read: freely) downloaded for the curious who might otherwise not know where to begin. There’s a LOT of stuff out there if you just try to search it. Thanks for any suggestions, and again, really interesting article.
As of now there is no real good compilation for older stuff as I was surprised most of it even existed in digital form. A lot of this stuff came out on cassette and was never properly cataloged. The new material coming out is actually pretty manageable if you devote some time just checking it out. If Masmorra ever does a second run of the Compilation CD that came with their first zine, that had some fantastic newer DS material on it. The five places I would suggest would be:
https://www.facebook.com/groups/862116333822619/ > Facebook Group
https://bandcamp.com/tag/dungeon-synth?sort_field=pop > Newer Albums
http://vk.com/dungeonsynth > Old and new albums
http://hollywoodmetal.com/dungeon-synth/ > My articles / reviews of Dungeon Synth (biased)
https://www.reddit.com/r/Metal/comments/37g1qo/rec_center_shreddits_official_recommendation/crmhdqi > A Reddit Primer I made for r/metal
Personally, I will be mildly disappointed if not one of the Kaptain’s EDH decks contain a single “Enter the Dungeon”, “Dungeon Shade”, “Dungeon Geists”, “Grenzo, Dungeon Warden”, “Rix Maadi, Dungeon Palace”, or “Volrath’s Dungeon”.
Oh god…to really make this Dungeon Synth EDH deck work I need to run Grenzo as the commander, jam in all of the dungeon cards, RED/Black skeleton, knight, maze, and dragon cards and be okay with having a useless EDH deck devoted to an obscure music genre.
Awesome article, grew up on this stuff. Absolutely shocked Wongraven was not listed though!
Vond is another Mortiis project that was quite weird, Blakagir is the dungeon synth side project of the guy from Hellveto. Others I’d recommend are Uruk-Hai, and it has to be mentioned, Graveland’s own Lord Wind.
Brings me back!
>Absolutely shocked Wongraven was not listed though!
Jeeez. Yeah that was a massive oversight as it fits into the whole side project of a black metal band plus Fjelltronen is a great album. I actually do not know how that got left off. When I write Volume 1.5, Ill make that amendment.
Also, holy shit Aghast!
Aghast doesn’t have that kinf of keyboards.
I will second a recommendation for the moevot material…cranked up headphones in a pitch black room it will scare the shit out of you.
Sir, then, Pazuzu (Summoning), whay is it?
Great article, I have my own collection of burzum, mortiis and summoning, I never called it dungeon synth, but actually the term itself is very accurate! I used to follow your DS reviews at Hollywood Metal so I am just happy to find an article here brought by NCS.
A nice read, thank you! Too bad that you indeed left out Lord Wind, their debut was OK but it’s successor is a good listen and one of my favorites. Also, I want to mention Roger Karmanik’s Cold Meat Industry label. Agreed, they primarily did industrial and dark ambient, but some of their releases captured the feel of DS pretty well, as in my opinion the line between dark ambient and DS can be blurry. Just my thought of course. Again, thank you for the interesting article. Cheers!
Yes! Lord Wind was my gateway to DS. Through Mortiis and onto Erang, Lord Lovidicus, and Sequestered Keep and on and on. Such a rewarding subgenre to delve!