Dungeon Synth Conjures the Past

November 25, 2020 — Getting to grips with the underground genre of dungeon synth is to embark on a journey through a variety of fantastical soundscapes. Through misty woods, pitch-black halls, forbidding caverns, and cyclopean ruins; with only a flickering, glowing torch to guide you.

So, what is Dungeon synth? Imagine the MIDI game music of an ’80s-’90s computer RPG. Stain it with the oppressive dread of Norwegian black metal (which has evolved and reinvented itself into modern-day Nordic folk in the style of Wardruna and Danheim) and add a dash of medieval folk, and, voila — you’ve got enough components to weave the dark spell of dungeon synth! Vocals are rare, except in some instances of goblinoid growls or background chants. Actual words are usually limited to song titles that barely hint at the narrative concept 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 goes in the opposite direction and conjures the past. That said, the genre is not necessarily historical, but rather an exaggerated, gothic, and mist-shrouded interpretation of ancient tones reemerging through the intuition of the artist.

The fantasy-themed electronic music that powers “dungeon synth” can be traced back to around 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.

Find the Sound of the Underground

YouTube channel Dungeon Synth Archives has done an admirable job of cataloging the length and breadth of this obscure genre, from the pioneers of the early ’90s to contemporary artists. Information about artists, labels, and where to purchase tunes in this genre 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 are but a small dip into a deep well.

Below follows a number of noteworthy creations in the genre, courtesy of Dungeon Synth Archives [YouTube].

Jim Kirkwood — Master of Dragons

Although some artists like Depressive Silence came from the black metal scene and tried to emphasize a sorrowful, melancholic tone with tracks like The Darkened Empires. For a lighter and more ethereal take on the genre; Fief’s works (simply titled I through V) are a breath of fresh air after traversing dusty tombs.

Hedge Wizard is an example of an artist who takes dungeon synth in a more psychedelic, and cosmic direction. The kind of thing Gandalf might listen to during long puffs of pipe-weed.

Some dungeon synth-works take inspiration from historic literature rather than fantasy. Chaucerian Myth, for example, combines dungeon synth with neoclassical instrumentation in a concept album spanning the entire Canterbury Tales.

Dungeon synth music is an ambient soundtrack to imaginary places. Ruined castles and dim dungeons are only the beginning. Venture far enough and you’ll discover rare subgenres like dino synth, space synth, and pirate synth. Dungeon synth’s tendency to form subgenres is also one of the similarities found in its more popular cousin of heavy metal.

Scandinavian darkness

Dungeon synth shares some DNA with the black metal genre; certain musicians took advantage of the accessibility of synth technology to make experimental solo projects alongside their metal bands.

The bombastic aggression of metal may seem very distant from dungeon synth, but both styles are fond of darkly fantastic and larger than life elements. The black metal scene also paid more homage to The Lord of the Rings than to Satan and produced several projects related to dungeon synth.

Burzum is sometimes cited as an influence. Some of Burzum’s more droning, hypnotic tracks (particularly on Dauði Baldrs and Hliðskjálf) go for that same feeling of dark mystery. Varg Vikernes, Burzum’s sole musician, has been open about taking inspiration from Dungeons and Dragons. However, in a 2013 interview, he claimed to have no awareness of dungeon synth as a genre or connection to the scene.

One 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. They were also 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 record 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 black metal project involved in dungeon synth is Tolkien-obsessed Summoning from Austria. Via two side projects named Pazuzu and Mirkwood, Summoning Silenius eschewed screeches and guitars for dreamy synth.

Mirkwood – Mirkwood

A genre for gamers

Dungeon synth is also connected to retro gaming. The massively popular tabletop role-playing game Dungeons and Dragons inspired many creative artists. With D&D enjoying something of a comeback in popular culture, gamers are discovering dungeon synth as inspiration or audio playlist for their sessions.

One trend in tabletop gaming that overlaps with dungeon synth fandom is the ‘old school revival’ or ‘OSR’ community of gamers. They overhauled various indie products to emulate the feeling of playing the earliest versions of Dungeons and Dragons. With an emphasis on dark, deadly, and dungeon-crawling, OSR games are a natural fit to dungeon synth as a whole. Several dungeon synth artists lean into this, notably Gnoll and Kobold from Italy’s Heimat Der Katastrophe label. They take their names from classic D&D monsters, whose album art and concepts evoke the RPG books of the ’80s.

Gnoll, The Citadel of Evil

Kobold – The Cave of the Lost Talisman

From tabletop to desktop, the simple melodies of dungeon synth recall classic fantasy computer role-playing games. In attempting to achieve a medieval sound via MIDI technology, you wind up with the odd chiptune/folk mix, which is a characteristic of dungeon synth.

Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar Complete Soundtrack

Modern games have also directly inspired dungeon synth albums. In particular, FROM Software’s Dark Souls games have more than a few albums dedicated to them.

Kalameet – Age of Fire

Dungeons of Irithyll – Journey Through The Dark

Some video games, such as the audacious indie story The Longing, fully embrace dungeon synth stylings as a featured soundtrack.

The Longing – Original Soundtrack

The legend continues

Dungeon synth is enjoying something of a revival thanks to the accessibility of online music, on top of the booming resurgence of fantasy gaming. There’s never been a better time to dive into a genre that navigates the contrasts of musical concepts like technological and primitivism, or oppressive darkness and flights of fancy. Dungeon synth sits at an intriguing intersection of music, literature, and games. With a wealth of material still expanding, it will be interesting to experience what fantastic places dungeon synth will take us next.

Nicholas Montegriffo

Poetry is the strongest form of magic. I help out with PR & promotion for Legendo Music. Presently focused on dark folk band Draugablíkk. Go ahead and touch base with me on Twitter. Open to answering most questions. Rarely bites.

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