And as our two adventurers – Clayton the Thief (Chaotic Neutral), and Kalee the Ranger (Chaotic Good) – are preparing to leave the inn at which they made such fortuitous an acquaintance, a young man in the distinctive robes of a Wizard approaches the pair. His attempt at appearing nonchalant isn’t entirely convincing as he slides a card with a strange, reddish sigil across the table and whispers “not here – by the stables in five minutes.”
The Thief attempts to take the Wizard’s measure as he strides away. His robes – a deep, emerald green that would indicate a high-born upbringing – show only the slightest signs of wear. Well-made, yes – but the Thief suspects the Wizard hasn’t been out of the Academy for long. He looks down at the card and then up at the Ranger, who nods and reaches for her pack.
They can see the Wizard pacing the length of the stables as they approach, clearly agitated. He barely waits for the duo to enter the stable before he begins to speak:
“Apologies if my behavior earlier seemed strange. I’ve spent the past three days searching for two such as yourselves to aid me in a matter of great urgency. But where are my manners? I am called Kieran, a humble student of the magical arts, from the Lee of Berks. And to whom do I speak?”
Rather than respond, the Thief stares impassively at young Kieran the Wizard (Chaotic Good). The Ranger, meanwhile, has produced yet another of a seemingly endless supply of peanuts from somewhere within the pockets on her rough leather jerkin and is busy attempting to make friends with a squirrel in one corner of the stable.
“Ah…well, fair enough,” the Wizard said. “I’ve not yet given cause for either of you to trust me. Let me explain why I’ve asked to speak with you. Did you recognize the sigil on that card I gave you?”
“Aye, it looks familiar – but I’ve seen many such symbols on my travels. Most turn out to be nothing of consequence. Is this why…”
“Don’t be obstinate. It doesn’t suit you,” the Ranger chides the Thief as she rises and brushes the dirt from the knees of her well-worn trousers. “I could tell from the way you looked at it when our young magician friend placed it on the table that you recognized it as the mark of the Goblin King.”
Aen Siedhe – At the Gates of Caer a’Muirehen
I, like many in the DS community, am a pretty huge fan of video games, RPGs specifically. One of the best of these to come out in recent years is The Witcher. Based on a popular series of books written by Andrzej Sapkowski and originally published in Poland, the Witcher games are set in a rich and rewarding fantasy world filled with complex characters, an engrossing story, and plenty of monsters (human and non-human alike). The series is hailed as one of the best of the genre by many, which is why I’m surprised that I had never come across a DS project paying homage to it until now.
Aen Seidhe, a DS project based out of Serbia, is the first artist I’ve come across to do just that. At the Gates of Caer a’Muirehen is a collection of lush fantasy DS that faithfully brings to life the setting of the Witcher series. It stays true to the heart and life of the series without being a clone of the video game soundtrack, eschewing full orchestration for a more synth-driven sound, laced with enigmatic vocals and driving drums throughout. This approach definitely works. “Forest of Brokylon” is one of the most powerful, percussion-driven DS songs I’ve ever heard, and At the Gates of Caer a’Muirehen is worth a listen even if you’ve never heard of Geralt of Rivia. The album was released digitally on NAV Records, and I fervently hope a tape release is in the works. (Kalee)
Favorite Track: “Forest of Brokylon”
Balrog – The Dark Tower
Any time that Tolkien-inspired French project Balrog releases new music, it’s good news. After releasing the stunning The Shadow and the Flame at the end of 2017, things were fairly quiet on the Balrog front last year, with only the three-song Night Settles on the Mountains coming out in February.
Balrog fans rejoice, because he’s back with a fresh batch of Tolkien-inspired goodness. The Dark Tower is a six-song EP focusing on the Nazgûls, aka the Ringwraiths, and if you’re already familiar with Balrog then rest assured that its everything you’re hoping it will be. For those not yet initiated into John Gølfimbúk’s music, then it’s pretty much everything you’d expect it to be from looking at John Howe’s cover art. This is dark, epic fantasy synth – bombastic, cinematic, and symphonic, it genuinely sounds like it could have been part of the score to one of the films.
One thing does give me slight pause, however – I’ve seen it described in several places as ‘the last EP.’ Does that mean no more Balrog? With Chaucerian Myth also apparently done after his most recent release, I don’t know if I can take both of them calling it quits right now… (Clayton)
Favorite Track: “Khamûl (The Black Gate is Closed)”
Erferis – Donker and Bloed en vuur
Erferis are supposedly the first dungeon synth act from South Africa, but you know what…I’m not sure I’m buying it. In fact, I have something of a suspicion – and I realize full well how much of an asshole I’m going to come off as if I’m wrong here, but whatever – that Erferis is actually Kastronata Prototype, trolling under a different guise.
What’s my proof? Admittedly, it’s pretty slim. On Bloed en vuur, one of the members is listed as ‘Kastriotz.’ Pretty close to Kastronata, which I suppose could be a coincidence. However, someone named ‘Kastriotz’ also left a comment on the first release. Also, LycaonDorkus has a project that used to be called Hyenameister, and if you look at the picture of greigh87, it’s pretty clearly Lord Melker from KP.
It’s their third release Joleskwkan that really seems to point to things not being as they seem. Here’s the Bandcamp description for the album:
Put two South African people on a hyena farm and endless amount of weed and this is the result.
Might not be traditional Dark ambient/Dungeon synth but definitely obvious that it was made under the influence of drugs.
Okay…so setting aside the possibility that ‘hyena farming’ is a WOW reference, things still don’t add up. Hyenameister,…hyena farming? Really cute. On Donker and Bloed en vuur, everything is in Dutch. On Joleskwkan, it’s a mix of Afrikaans and German. On the first two releases, the songs have titles like “Darkness” and ‘Hall of the Mountain King.” On Joleskwkan, they’re called “Vomit Kit” and “Fuck Pelle.” Also: Joleskwkan is so fucking awful that it has to be a joke.
The frustrating thing about it? Donker and Bloed en vuur are both actually pretty damn good. Donker is dark and atmospheric Bloed en vuur has more of a medieval feel, but with what sounds like field recordings thrown in for good measure. Honestly, Bloed en vuur is one of the more unique and enjoyable DS records I’ve heard this year, which really makes me wonder: if Lord Melker and Sigvard IV really are trolling everyone…why? (Clayton)
Favorite Track: “Saal van die bergkoning”
Erythrite Throne – Mournful Cries from Obsidian Towers
Erythrite Throne comes through yet again with a varied and mature collection of compositions which can largely be described as layered dungeon synth that frequently falls into near-neoclassical territory, sometimes with driving percussion that especially sets this release apart from the pack. The choice of string patches calls to mind a distinctly old-school tone, yet one that somehow feels rooted in the newer wave of dungeon synth as well. Some of these melodies evoke medieval atmospheres without feeling cheesy, while others are more cinematic and sorrowful, like the soundtrack to a battle that one already knows they’re going to lose.
What works best for this release is its contrasting restraint and maximalism. It slaloms between meditative trances and all-out synth warfare, crafting an esoteric journey to forgotten, haunting realms of magic and the occult. (Kieran)
Kolessa – Fires Will Sweep the Cities Built on Our Homes
Kolessa is one of the more idiosyncratic of the contemporary DS acts, and oh do I love them for it. The name ‘Kolessa,’ or ‘колеса,’ is Ukrainian for ‘wheels.’ However, despite the detailed – and, as near as I can tell, fictional – Ukrainian ‘historical’ narrative that grounds last year’s Ash-Stained Cabinet, the heavy jazz influence evident behind the traditional Russian folk motifs in the music had me believing that the individual behind it is most likely an American.
Fires Will Sweep the Cities Built on Our Homes goes even deeper into the jazz. The album notes on Bandcamp point out that the single-song, nearly 20 minute long EP is “dedicated to the ground on which the Sai Anantam Ashram stood.” Sai Anantam Ashram was founded by Alice Coltrane Turiyasangitananda after the death of her husband, legendary jazz saxophonist John Coltrane. Located in the Santa Monica Mountains, it was destroyed this past November in the Woolsey wildfires.
There’s definitely the same kind of ecstatic spiritualism in Fires Will Sweep… as one would find in a lot of John Coltrane’s work – I’m thinking specifically of the 1961 Village Vanguard recordings. More searching than elegiac, I’d consider it essential listening. It was issued recently on cassette by Canto Criptico as one side of a split with Brutus Greenshield (Clayton).
Ossa Coronata/Snarling Clearing – Split
This right here is a great split from a favorite label of mine, Moonworshipper. Always tapping in to the weird, dark, and noisy corners of dungeon synth, this split is no exception, a solid slab of foreboding, esoteric piano and electronics.
Ossa Coronata kicks off side A with one single, long-form track, titled “Ich habe Angst zu sterben Ich bin verdammt Mein Gott Mein Gott Mein Gott,” which translates roughly to “I’m afraid to die, I’m damned, My God My God My God.” This piece relies largely on an extremely lo-fi piano, so washed out in reverb that the actual notes and melodies blend together to create one massive, swirling, evil atmosphere. Alternating between glacial, spacious movements and more waterfalling cacophonies, this certainly whisks the listener away to a dark underworld filled with a distinctly ancient sense of dread.
Snarling Clearing comes through with four shorter pieces, each feeling like a brief snapshot of something larger and darker. Melancholy and melodic pads interweave with piano and square leads, creating what feels sometimes scenic and touching and sometimes dissonant and uneasy. This side feels like wandering through a forgotten landscape, but with an ever-present knowledge that some unseen evil is near. (Kieran)
Poppet – Marching Towards the Ancient Zone
So a few lines back I called Kolessa ‘idiosyncratic.’ Entropy Deity, on the other hand, seems like a flat-out fucking weirdo, and his project Poppet is easily one of the strangest outliers on the fringes of dungeon synth.
He describes Marching Towards the Ancient Zone, which came out in early February, as combining “neofolk and martial industrial elements to cultivate a sound inspired by world cultures, religions and traditions,” resulting in “a numinous kum-ba-yah.”
Honestly, I don’t know how much accuracy I find in either of those assertions. If he is drawing elements from around the world, he’s combining them in ways that make them seem completely alien. As for the kum-ba-yah…there’s a persistent sense of being out of balance I get from these songs – warped time signatures, the harshness of the drum tones – that leave me feeling more queasy (in a good way) than spiritually centered. Imagine Meshuggah with the same drummer, but using flutes and synths instead of distorted guitars… (Clayton)
Favorite Track: ‘Ecclesiastal Grove”
Secluded Alchemist – Wintry Beauty of Nature/A Glacial Grave
Winter and I do not get along. As beautiful as snow can be, it’s inconvenient (awful to drive in) and the cold makes me want to hole up in my hermit cave until Spring. I do appreciate some good winter synth, however, and this new offering to the genre by Kentucky artist Secluded Alchemist is a welcome addition. Winter synth is, by and large, pretty sparse and Wintry Beauty of Nature/A Glacial Grave could definitely be considered that. But it wanders into new territory, for both the artist and the genre, with the inclusion of an achingly beautiful and melancholic vocal piece. Do yourself a favor when visiting the Bandcamp page to pick this not-to-be-missed album up and read the lyrics to the vocal part. The words and music of Wintry Beauty combine to conjure up the stillness of slowly freezing in a lonely, snow-blanketed forest, of drifting into a final, frozen rest as the snow falls softly around you. In a good way. With this release, Secluded Alchemist almost makes me enjoy Winter. Almost. (Kalee)
Vetus Supulcrum – Songs of War and Lamentation
Even though it seems like a fairly open secret who the individual behind Vetus Supulcrum is, I know the Dutch multi-instrumentalist prefers to keep this project separate from the rest of his output, so I’ll respect that (especially since * SPOILER * I’ll be releasing the second Vetus Supulcrum album Ravenforest on cassette through my Akashic Envoy Records later this summer – but keep that on the down-low, okay?).
The name ‘Vetus Supulcrum’ translates from the Latin as “old burial,’ and Songs of War and Lamentation definitely lives up to that moniker. Dark, ominous, and borderline ostentatious in its tone and execution, it almost sounds more like modern classical than dungeon synth. It also has an unmistakable air of tragedy about it which so wonderfully fills my heart with woe. (Clayton)
Favorite Track: “Eternity Filled With Sorrow”