As you may have noticed, we are living in an incredibly tumultuous era. Acts of random terrorism, insane lone gunmen, the rise of far-right politicians, genocides in Africa, rape accusations, and even social media addicts turning into flesh-eating zombies! We live in a time when there is a need for… escapism; to escape into something which doesn’t exist (or has anything in common) with the world in which we live in.
There’s also the so-called ‘rise of the nerds’; being one is just way cooler than being a hipster these days… right? Superheroes like Peter Parker and Tony Stark, series like the Big Bang Theory and even Dexter, the Lannister dwarf from Game of Thrones, the kids from Stranger Things, etc. I could continue. When a peculiar zeitgeist like this emerges (the popular rise of ‘nerdy’ interests intersecting with societal and political upheaval), well, we’re bound to witness the birth of genres in the music industry which clearly manifest this desperate need for escapism—and dungeon synth is perhaps the king of these artistic manifestations. So, just what the hell is dungeon synth anyway?!
There are a number of different paths that one could take towards understanding this genre. Back in the early days of black metal, a number of heavy metal musicians would try their luck at creating instrumental and soundtrack-based music. I could mention the famous historical face of the genre and former bassist for Emperor, Mortiis; Die Verbannten Kinder Evas and Pazuzu, both of which featured members of one of atmospheric black metal’s most beloved bands, Summoning; Burzum; Neptune Towers, which was of course one of Fenriz‘s (Darkthrone) comparatively few side-projects; Wongraven, one of Satyr of Satyricon‘s also comparatively few side-projects; and plenty of others. All of this would be happening in the nineties, but the genre wasn’t ‘officially’ named or recognized at the time. It was simply lumped together, hidden somewhere in the record stores between black metal and electro (or inquired about through obscure mail-order catalogues). As time went on, the style of dungeon synth, through its relatively sporadic releases and the brief lifespan of its artists, went silent if not outright dead. Only Mortiis and Burzum would continue the tradition, though Mortiis eventually went on to focus on pleasing glowstick-juggling cybergoths and Burzum more or less continued with his black metal/ambient aesthetic.
We should also explore the nostalgic background element with dungeon synth. In my childhood, I loved the animated Lord of the Rings film and other sword-and-sorcery-themed flicks on VHS, playing Fighting Fantasy books, reading Conan comics, role-playing games on my Commodore 64, and, of course, playing Dungeons & Dragons and other fantasy-themed role-playing games (with actual books and dice) with my friends. At the risk of sounding like ‘Grandpa Per’, I’ll say that it seemed like a simpler time back then. In fact, there was only one thing to worry about: not getting bored (or doing homework!). The world of fantasy/role-playing games was a method of getting rid of that boredom.
To conclude, there are only two essential elements working behind dungeon synth to give it its defining aesthetic: Instrumental and soundtrack-based black-metal intersecting with the ol’ days of Tolkien and Dungeons & Dragons. It is a retro-based journey into the digitally constructed dungeons of an earlier era.
And now the part that you have been thirsting for: some recommendations. These recommendations are based on modern-era releases, not those of the former artists discussed and which pioneered the style. We’re assuming if you’re reading the Heathen Harvest Periodical to begin with, then you’re likely already familiar with the roots of dungeon synth to some degree. If, however, you are indeed seeking genre-defining recommendations from the early days, then both BandCamp and No Clean Singing have excellent articles on the subject on offer. Now, on to our modern-era recommendations…
Fause Knicht was a project started by Miles Haney, who has worked within the boundaries of black metal and noise for the majority of his artistic output. This demo was released back in 2013 and issued on tape via the project’s Bandcamp site. It was later reissued via infamous Canadian imprint Tour de Garde. Demo I is a unique treat for the ears, and is unusually difficult to describe. Like Depressive Silence‘s legendary 1996 demo, the cover art defines the music well enough without words. In this case, there is a kind of chivalry-themed esotericism at work. It says to us that this is sacred music for armor-clad crusaders; it is strangely melancholic and yet battle-themed at the same time. Some of Demo I can even be said to sound a bit like a primitive and minimal version of one of this periodical’s all-time favorites, the Moon Lay Hidden beneath a Cloud.
Old Tower is one of the most widely recognized and purely underground artists to hail from the Netherlands with a loyal cult following, and they have been churning out haunting and atmospheric dungeon-themed cassettes since only 2015. …from the Dark Outlands was my first experience with their music, and it successfully drew me in as a fan myself. Old Tower lurks a bit further on the sinister/malevolent side than Fause Knicht. Here, dark wizards like Saruman ponder their mischief in hidden chambers. Yes, Old Tower develops some of the genre’s best music in the modern age through its occult whispers, evil organ-driven synths, and drones with occasional ritualistic drumming. Originally released as a split cassette with Sacred Dominions.
Another release that has received a lot of well-deserved praise is the debut from Hedge Wizard, More True than Time Thought. The album was released in 2014 on cassette and digital formats via Bandcamp (are you starting to notice a trend?), and due to popular demand, it was reissued again on cassette in 2017. More True than Time Thought is another sort of wizardry-themed album, with a bit of a dusty atmospheric texture like sorting through arcane books in an abandoned ivory tower. Being of a slightly melancholic aesthetic, the album delivers its music through fantastic lo-fi melodic synth-work and surprisingly atmospheric percussion. It’s a simple lo-fi work at its core, but it’s also a powerful achievement that works! Less is more in this case.
It can be difficult to escape the influence of J. R. R. Tolkien in everyday life, and Nazgûl is no exception! This fantastic album was made back in 1996 on cassette, and reissued in 2016 (making it an adequate choice for this list). A cult gem of an album which has survived the test of time, Ash Nazg Durbatulûk… brings us back to the time of home computer RPG games, playing Eye of the Beholder on your Amiga perhaps? All the elements of dungeon synth can be found on this album: long forgotten dungeons, martial drumming, breathtaking and epic synth-melodies, and more. The track dedicated to Boromir in particular is absolutely incredible! Ash Nazg Durbatulûk… is a sought-out cassette so be sure to snag it immediately if you find it. Want to play Dungeons & Dragons with your old chums again? This album works perfectly as background music for such an occasion.
A strange creature from Umeå in Sweden hides behind this project. Erdig‘s Hiob is a grim and blackened esoteric/religious experience about forgotten times and lore. Primitive in production with almost 8-bit sounds, Hiob throws you back in time to playing Forgotten Forest on the Commodore 64. Chunky, raw, and noisy midi synths are bound to hypnotize you here, literally and inevitably making its audience feel like they’ve gotten lost within a dungeon, spiraling deeper as they seek their escape. Hiob, however, is not necessarily a traditional attempt at dungeon synth; in fact, it has been crafted in a more experimental, almost noise-driven vein.
If my recommendations haven’t helped to quell the gaping void within you that craves the dark retro majesty that is dungeon synth, then I would recommend snagging a Paypal account if you’re one of the few people in the developed world who don’t already have one and sign up for an account on both Discogs and BandCamp. It just so happens that the dungeon synth has been tagged as a genre on both websites and you can easily just click on said tag to bring up a listing. From there, you just need to scroll down the entire marketplace and find what interests you.