Monday, July 13, 2015

Mitternacht - The Raise of the Secret Cities

The Raise of the Secret Cities tells the story of a great vision experienced by the "Wanderer," who glimpses an otherworldly landscape beneath the earth, and a vast, fantastical city which is cursed to repeat a violent cycle of birth and destruction.  It's a sort of symbolic meditation on civilization and history.  It's very apocalyptic, a headspace which I personally love to indulge in.  At times it reminds me of "Móti Ragnarǫkum," the Burzum track from Dauði Baldrs.  It has that same sense of soaring hellfire, however Mitternacht does not seem to share the optimistic, cleansing perspective on the situation, and instead sees the cycle as more of a prison mankind is condemned to.  The Wanderer is forced to come to terms with the fall of mankind out of nature, and even more frightening, must recognize the horror that awaits, calling forth from the end of time.

This album is pretty experimental, especially for when it was released (2004).  It feels like Burzum sometimes, and of course follows closely in the footsteps of Mortiis, however it still distinguishes itself quite a bit.  Firstly, and most noticeably, is the narration done by the artist, in English though with a pretty heavy accent.  Despite the English not being perfect, the content of the writing is top notch, highly detailed and visual, yet abstract enough that the listener does the major work of constructing the story in his mind.  The narration is the first I've heard in this style for dungeon synth, even though it would seem like an obvious idea.  I can't imagine an approach to lyrics better suited for the genre.  Some might find the vocals challenging at first, but they're easy to get used to after a few listens, and really do add a lot of texture, imagery, and originality to this experience.  The other noticeable distinction one will hear on this album compared to most dungeon synth is the presence of blast beats.  Again, it sounds weird and new at first, but I think it's really effective at creating an intense and engaging structural peak, even without the electric guitars and screaming.

Another distinction about this album, especially compared to dungeon synth albums released at the time and earlier, is the structural complexity.  There seems to be a definite intent to weave a story not just with the narration but with the music itself. The musical structure, like the narration, is set up in a way it wanders from one mood to the next abruptly, and often between several extremes of intensity, and yet it still always seems to touch back on the main thread of the Wanderer's vision.  So the effect is that it's easy to get lost in the trance of the drifting stream, but when one opens their eyes they still see the weird subterranean sun reflecting the burning city.

This album attempts a very original concept, and it does so at a high level of effort and skill, though still keeping the low-polish charm one would expect with dungeon synth.  The mood is mystical and exciting, the composition relatively ornate and yet still striking, and the lyrics detailed and abstract.  I think Mitternacht deserves a lot more recognition because he's really done something special here. 

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Dungeon Lore Foundation - Chapter II: "In Search of Artifact"

In a deep cavern you wander, torch in one hand, blade in the other.  After a long while you discover a hidden treasure, barely illuminated by the low flicker of your torch's flame.  You approach the half-buried wooden chest cautiously, always wary of traps, and upon opening it you glimpse the lost artifact, glowing of its own mystical power.  Is it cursed or enchanted?

This is the second original compilation album from the Russian dungeon synth community.  It starts out with a very rough synth, perhaps as a warning to the casual listener.  The rest of that track is quite mellow and pretty, however.  And this contrast is consistent throughout the compilation, a well-balanced mix of raw, growling tones and richly layered pads.  There's a similar balance of production complexity in the compositions themselves, providing what seems to be an accurate reflection of what's coming out of the community, with some tracks being highly ornate and mastered, and just as many seeming very primitive and immediate, and those lines blur often even in the same tracks, creating a very dynamic and fluid experience as far as compilations go.

What this album does well is conveying a sense of ancient mystery.  It captures the otherworldliness that would be expected of an artifact bearing magical powers, and it causes one to imagine the even more mysterious realm of this object's birth.  And so by hinting at a further mystery, rather than fleshing it out, this album creates a sort of enigmatic depth that is very effective.  There's also something vaguely familiar here, not of other dungeon synth, just that it has a sense of being eternal, especially on tracks like "For the Fern Flower" and "Hardening In The Flame Of Dragon," which have a particularly eerie mood of nostalgia.

I've been enjoying this album very much.  There's not a bad track here, and despite the specific theme of "artifact," the moods are still quite varied and dynamic.  I'd say this is an improvement over the last compilation, which was already quite good.  It's also simply a useful exposure to the new crop of Russian dungeon synth artists.  It's worth checking out, for sure.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Erang - Kingdom of Erang

While asleep, a vision suddenly comes to be experienced, and you find yourself to be in a strangely familiar forest.  As you start to wander, the memories return, the paths and curves of those mystical woods, and you start to reflect on all the adventures you've had in that land.  The memories come like a flood, one after the other, familiar and cherished all the more for being so long forgotten.  You think back to the terrible characters and enchanted dungeons, all your friends, enemies, and loved ones.  You shed a tear and tell yourself that you'll never forget your lost journeys again.  And then the vision fades, and one is awoken, never to recall that realm again.  

Erang hasn't changed much since it began.  Though the production values have improved, the compositions become more complex, and the moods more varied, the albums still follow the same formula as the beginning, offering a plethora of tastes, quick fragments of sentimental beauty, which then vanish like a will-o'-the-wisp.  And from the beginning that seems to be what Erang is about, cluttered sentimentality.  Though perhaps at times a bit too sweet for my liking, you can tell immediately that these expressions are true, despite the masking distance of fantasy to obscure the metaphors.  It feels very personal.

The accompanying PDF is a nice aid to the listening experience, being a 20-page collection of original drawings and prose poetry in a format similar to Mortiis' Secrets of my Kingdom.  While appreciated, I'm not sure it's particularly necessary to the listening experience, as the music does a fine job telling the story.  It is interesting to learn that Erang is developing a full world to stage his expression in a similar way to Mortiis and Tolkien (as well as every DM worth their salt).

Most of the tracks here are enjoyable, though like all the previous Erang albums, there's one stand-out track for me.  In this case it's "Then The Mocked Prince Became A Drunken Tyrant."  The mood is frantic and hopeless, and once the laugh sample is played and the bass kicks in, I'm sold.  It's an infectious hook with a palpably decadent atmosphere.  Who could ask for more?  Well, actually, it would be nice if every track on this album were as cold and catchy, but I can appreciate the rest of this album despite my impatience.  After all, it is by casting the net so wide that Erang is able to uncover such specifically engaging compositions.

Though Erang's prolific release rate and discography can be a bit daunting, and I wouldn't say any album is exactly perfect, I feel like Erang is on the cutting edge of exploring new sounds within the dungeon style.  He mixes and matches a wide variety of textures and moods, almost to the point where it's like an explorer's journal, briefly documenting each exotic place through which he passes, but always with endearment for that place.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Skarpseian - Tan Gil

The order of a quiet medieval kingdom continues, the motions and energy synchronous with nature, the death and decay in balance with the life and energy, side-by-side.  Castles rise, already ancient, and stand as a beacons power for centuries, until becoming ruinous haunted tombs, stone corpses on the horizon.  In the heart of this realm lies a single ruler, cloistered in the top of a forgotten tower, the beating heart of majesty.  Through the mystical vision of this god the world and its inhabitants come to life, subjects to the will of this power, whatever that will might be.

Skarpseian is one of the best dungeon synth artists, and not just of recent times.  He seems to pick up right where Mortiis left off, not simply recreating the wheel, but expanding upon the pure vision.  The themes and general tone here are similar to the previous album, Skygge Slottet, however Tan Gil proves that there was more to explore in this territory. The best comparison to Skarpseian would be Mortiis' first three albums, and in fact the progression of Tan Gil seems to almost follow a similar course, with the beginning being a detached blurry daydream of a desolate dark age scene, hidden in fog.  This path changes a bit with Krysset Fjellene, which is an entrancing ambient, meandering track, a hard thing to do well.  It feels like a breath of smoke gently drifting past the trees and off the cliff into the ocean.  Then the transition from this track into the next one, Tengel, is a very striking force.  The abrupt, violent shift has that perfect feeling of decadent power, a black tyrannical uprising.  

Many of the synth voices here will be familiar: horns, strings, woodwinds, and of course the timpani heartbeat.  However these tones often have some sort of characteristic that distinguishes them, especially in the second half of the album.  There are also a few distinctive synth tones, not directly relating to any real-world instrument, that stand out against the backdrop of grounded medieval imagination, for example the spacey tone that appears in the latter half of Tengel and the surreal warbling tone around the middle of Til Fjellet Grav, very unique atmospheres.

What does the atmosphere of this album specifically refer to?  It's hard to say.  I'm sure the song titles have some relevance, but as to the actual feelings that the music evokes, it's a bit more vague.  Of course diseased castles are prominent, foggy medieval landscapes, forgotten myths and battles, and other classic medieval fantasy themes, however there is also something else.  That something else is what makes dungeon synth worth listening to.  It's that atmosphere of mystery, that unformed image that seems familiar but still forgotten, as if it were somehow an obvious memory, yet can only be reached in the unconsciousness of dreams, completely inaccessible to the waking mind.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Xynfonica - A Feast for Famished Ravens

A demon slave of the mighty Azathoth is forced to view all moments in human civilization, and is then incarnated into mortal flesh to teach man of his own history.  He tries to communicate with the mortals through their own language, but is only able to gibber out an alien madness, a corrupted blasphemy of thought that serves only to poison the minds of any unfortunate enough to hear the message.  Blood leaks from the ears as brains soften, becoming ever more palatable to the unholy banquet of Chaos.  

This album is from Hekaloth Records, somewhat better known for their similar project, Shevalreq.  A Feast for Famished Ravens revolves primarily around historical events of the early Medieval period.  The Hekaloth website has since gone offline, but one can still access some info on this album with the "wayback machine."

Raw synth tones repeat atonal melodies with seemingly no reasonable arrangement.  The bass ceaselessly wanders along playing random dissonance.  A black metal growl is also ever-present, barking out lyrics that have the historical specificity of a textbook.  As one would expect, all these disparate elements manage come together to create a perfect hole, evoking the pleasant feelings of restlessness and nausea in the listener.  The abyss gazes first here.
One needs only listen to the sample track below to recognize that this is the greatest dungeon synth album ever composed, if not the greatest work of musical art.  Mortiis is dead!  Long live Xynfonica!  All other dungeon synth is now irrelevant.  Give your sanity to the feast of Xynfonica or suffer the wrath of the primordial sultan himself.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Murgrind - Inheritor of the Forest Throne

The distant murmur of battle is carried on the wind, like a ghostly whisper of warrior apparitions, cursed to wage eternal violence in a life or death struggle without end.  As one slowly drifts past the jagged peaks, one sees that ancient field on which the spirits still conduct their timeless warfare, invisible to the mortal eye.  Through some old magic those lost armies are raised, their humble villages remade, their forgotten gods praised again, their stubborn feuds invoked anew. 

Inheritor of the Forest Throne is a serious, epic return to the dark ages as they might've once been, with a sense of vastness and grandeur, and yet still an earthly realism.  I wouldn't say it is "grounded" however, as the long statements and constant layer developments create a perpetual sense of movement, and this united with the distance of heavy reverb gives the listener a sense of flight, soaring above an awe-inspiring landscape untarnished by man.  Man is only to be found in dark, hardscrabble corners of the world, either living alongside nature in prehistoric barbarian villages, or desperately suffering against it in a forlorn medieval castle, always at the mercy of a hostile universe.  One can only face such a reality with resilience, honor, and pride, glorifying every hard-fought triumph.

If most dungeon synth is like video game music, Murgrind's album would be better compared to film soundtracks.  It has a level of polish that is rarely heard in dungeon synth, reminding me somewhat of Mortiis' The Stargate in its professionalism.  It certainly still has that classic dungeon synth sound however, with the 90's digital keyboard style, sticking primarily to the more realistic tones such as brass, flutes, strings, choirs, timpani, etc.  The melodies fall strictly into the traditional dungeon synth mood, staying somewhat static in its grandiose, "epic" tone, conveying a sense of endless combat.  It is reminiscent Lord Wind and its major influence, the soundtrack of Conan the Barbarian.

Also like a film rather than a video game, I find the experience of listening to this album to be a bit more passive than is typical for a dungeon synth album.  Most dungeon synth is somewhat unfinished, requiring the listener to actively fill in the gaps with his own imagination, merely asking a question of the listener.  This album, however, asks the question and provides the answer; it is a finished product.  I think this effect is because there is a lot going on with the composition at all times, the listener is focused on the music itself, and so it becomes difficult to ever really disengage and let the mind wander its own course.  The more sparse, minimalistic dungeon synth is rather like an atmospheric aid for mental exploration, trance-inducing background music, while Inheritor of the Forest Throne is more of a guided journey.  In that way it would probably be a great introduction for new listeners of the genre, the mentor at the entrance of a mythic quest.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Hedge Wizard - More True Than Time Thought

A solitary magician toils away, struggling to uncover the arcane secrets hidden within ancient tomes, alchemical substances, and strange divinatory artifacts.  Removed from the world, he whittles away his time, often in vain, for those few brief glimpses through the veil normality.  He knows of the haunted statues deep in the tower's catacombs, which spring to life when the torches stop burning.  He has seen through the sphere of crystal, that lost shore of the fabled god lands, said to hold those final glimmering cities.  He has spoken with the beings that watch and weigh the affairs of mortals eternally, invisible and silent to all but those unlucky few who manage to slip through the cracks of our dimension.  He is not immortal... yet, though he wields strange powers that will astonish and bewilder, and some incomprehensible even to himself.

The first striking thing about this album is the incredible cover art.  It is perfect for the sound, pure magic.  It's like a mix of illuminated manuscripts, 70's van art, and mental asylum art therapy.  It has a primitive mystical ugliness that matches the sound of the music exactly.  

There seems to be a significant Burzum influence here, particularly noticeable with the track Odd Visions, which would not sound out of place on Dauði Baldrs.  Fortunately, Hedge Wizard is not nearly as repetitive, and seems to always switch the melody or add another layer before a tune ever begins to overstay its welcome.  It also sounds like there are some nods to video game music here, such as Cemetary Violence, which almost sounds like it could be a Castlevania track.  In the sense of the spirit conjured, I also find this album somewhat reminiscent of the Isengard track, "The Halls and Chambers of Stardust the Crystallic Heavens Open," in that it somehow manages to hold some subtle otherworldly feeling far beyond what the simple melodies suggest on the surface.

The tightness and level of detail in the composition leads me to believe the lo-fi aesthetic is fully intentional.  There is no wasted space here.  Every wrinkle contributes to the complete vision.  The recording quality is pretty bad, but not in a way that anything is lost; it only adds to the obscure and archaic atmosphere.  

There is so much originality in this album, but it is still true dungeon synth in the most saturated form possible.  Even though the general sound is familiar, the loving textural exploration of these synths displays fresh sonic discoveries.  They groan heavily with low bassoon/oboe tones, often sounding far more like toys than professional equipment.  There is little noticeable reverb, especially relative to most of the genre, and that allows the primitive sound of the synths to shine through to very good effect, especially the shrill, shimmering pads.  Strangely enough, the raw production creates a sort of distance, without needing the help of reverb.  It makes me pictures drifting clouds of pixel fog surrounding and obscuring the work desk of a feared alchemist.  Only a legendary potion-maker could distill dungeon synth so purely.