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.