November 25, 2020 — Getting to grips with the underground genre of dungeon synth is to embark on a journey to otherworldly and fantastical soundscapes. Through misty woods, pitch-black halls, forbidding caverns, and cyclopean ruins — with the only guide being a flickering, fading torch.
So, what is Dungeon synth? Imagine the MIDI game music of the 90s MS-DOS adventures like Hero’s Quest and Maniac Mansion. Stain it with the oppressive dread of Norwegian black metal (which has evolved and reinvented itself into neofolk thanks to Wardruna) and then add a dash of medieval folk. Voila! You have now got enough components to weave the dark spell of dungeon synth.
Vocals are rare in the genre, except in some cases where goblinoid growls or background chants can be heard. Actual words are limited to song titles that barely hint at the narrative and “lore” behind the music, mostly serving to kick-start listeners’ imagination. While most synthesizer-based music evokes the glamour of a hi-tech future, dungeon synth heads in the opposite drawing inspiration only from the past. That said, the genre is not necessarily historical, but rather an exaggerated, mist-shrouded interpretation of ancient tones recreated through the mere intuition of the artist.
The fantasy-themed electronic music that powers “dungeon synth” can be traced back to 1990. A time when artists like Jim Kirkwood released epic synth-laden opuses that referenced fantasy literature and to an extent, the occult. Sources of inspiration include Michael Moorcock’s Elric of Melniboné, J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth, and diverse mythology such as pagan legend, Arthurian tales, and even the Bible.
YouTube channel Dungeon Synth Archives has done an admirable job cataloging this obscure genre, from the pioneering days of the early 90s to more recent, contemporary acts. Information about artists, labels, and where to purchase songs makes Dungeon Synth Archives an excellent starting point for anyone looking to explore the genre — especially since the handful of artists featured in this article is but a small dip into a deep well. What follows is a couple of notable genre artists.
Artists such as Depressive Silence came straight from the black metal scene and set out to emphasize sorrowful, melancholic tones with material like The Darkened Empires.
For a lighter and more ethereal take on the genre; the work of Fief (simply titled Fief I through V) conveys the feeling of breathing fresh air after traversing dusty tombs.
Some dungeon synth retrieves inspiration from historical literature rather than fantasy. Chaucerian Myth is one such example, who at one point combined dungeon synth with neoclassical instrumentation for an ambitious concept album spanning the entire Canterbury Tales.
Hedge Wizard stands out in the way the artist takes dungeon synth in a psychedelic and somewhat cosmic direction. The kind of offbeat tones Gandalf might listen to during his long puffs of pipe.
Dungeon synth can be viewed as an ambient soundtrack that brings listeners to imaginary places where ruined castles and dim dungeons are only the beginning. Venture further in, and rare subgenres like dino synth, space synth, and pirate synth will be discovered. The genre’s tendency to form subgenres is a similarity found in its more popular yet distant cousin of heavy metal.
Dungeon synth shares DNA with the black metal genre that sprang up in Norway in the late 90s. Certain musicians took advantage of the accessibility of synth technology to make experimental solo projects alongside their metal bands. The growling aggression of metal may seem distant from dungeon synth, but both styles are fond of darkly fantastic and larger-than-life elements. Intriguingly, and unlike popular belief, the black metal scene paid far more homage to The Lord of the Rings than to the Christian devil (it is widely acknowledged that Tolkien’s Norse-like sagas have given birth to a multitude of musical projects related to dungeon synth.)
Burzum was a Norwegian one-man music project founded in 1991. Although Burzum never performed live, the project became an ingrained part of the Norwegian black metal scene and is nowadays regarded as the most influential act in black metal history. At times, Burzum is also cited as a major influence on Dungeon Synth, more specifically Burzum’s droning and hypnotic tracks like Dauði Baldrs and Hliðskjálf. Burzum’s founder Varg Vikernes is a highly controversial figure, and we will not go into details on his past in this post. In his Burzum years, Vikernes openly talked about drawing inspiration from Dungeons & Dragons. However, in a 2013 interview, he claimed to have no awareness of dungeon synth or its connection to the scene — although it is more than likely that Vikernes and Burzum were as influenced by dungeon synth as dungeon synth were by Burzum and Vikernes.
Another former black metal artist who was influential in the murky origins of dungeon synth has since returned to his dark fantasy roots. Håvard Ellefsen, better known as Mortiis, experimented with various electronic sounds during the 90s. The moody soundscapes on albums like Født til å Herske and Keiser av en Dimensjon Ukjent were inspired by fantasy stories from Mortiis’ own imagination. His act was further complemented by his wearing of a troll-like mask on stage. Mortiis may have even taken a stab at coining the term for the genre through his now-defunct label Dark Dungeon Music.
Although Mortiis would later pivot to playing industrial rock and claim to be embarrassed by the rough nature of his first releases, the artist would come to revisit and re-assess his early works. The 2020 Spirit of Rebellion release saw Mortiis return to the dungeon and re-work his second album Ånden som Gjorde Opprør. Accompanying tours made Mortiis one of the rare dungeon synth artists to perform live on stage.
Another notable act involved in dungeon synth is the Tolkien-enthusiasts Summoning from Austria. The black metal band was formed sometime in 1993 by Silenius (Michael Gregor), Protector (Richard Lederer), and Trifixion (Alexander Trondl).
Unsurprisingly, the dungeon synth scene is also connected to retro gaming, mostly because the massively popular tabletop role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons inspired many would-be dungeon synth artists. With Dungeons & Dragons enjoying something of a comeback in pop culture, gamers are rediscovering dungeon synth and use it in their gaming and streaming sessions.
One trend in tabletop gaming that overlaps with dungeon synth fandom is the ‘Old School Revival’ or ‘OSR’ community of gamers, a group of hobbyist game makers who overhauled various indie products to emulate the feeling of playing the earliest versions of Dungeons & Dragons. With an emphasis on dark, deadly, and dungeon-crawling, games by ‘OSR’ are a natural fit to dungeon synth. Several artists lean into this gaming aspect, notably Gnoll and Kobold from Italy’s Heimat Der Katastrophe label. Such artists obviously take their names from classic Dungeons & Dragons monsters, and their album art and concepts evoke a myriad of role-playing books from the 80s.
From tabletop to desktop, the simple melodies of dungeon synth bring classic fantasy computer role-playing games back to mind. In attempting to construct a medieval and authentic sound using only MIDI technology, listeners sometimes wind up with the odd chiptune/folk mix, which is another characteristic of dungeon synth.
Born in 1958, Kenneth W. Arnold was perhaps the first great video game composer. His work on Lord British’s Ultima series is superb and was unprecedented in 1985. Several ports and MIDI versions of his musical works are floating around the Internet, but none of them can hold a candle to the aesthetic appeal of the Mockingboard soundtrack and reconstructions, which many consider the most accurate interpretation of Arnold’s original music.
Modern games have directly inspired dungeon synth albums. In particular, FROM Software’s Dark Souls games have many albums dedicated to the franchise.
Some video games, such as the audacious indie story The Longing fully embrace dungeon synth stylings and use it as a featured soundtrack.
Dungeon synth is currently going through a revival thanks to the accessibility of online music on top of the booming resurgence of fantasy gaming, as well as its rather newfound connection to the Dark Souls series. There has never been a better time to dive into a genre that navigates the contrasts of musical concepts like the technological and the primal, or oppressive darkness flexed between flights of fancy fantasy.
Dungeon synth sits at an intriguing intersection of music, literature, and video games. With a wealth of material still expanding, it will surely be an experience to find out to what fantastic places dungeon synth will take us in the future.
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