Friday, January 1, 2021

Elffor - Into the Dark Forest... (1998)

You race against the wind on your swift steed, faster than reason and without a moment’s pause, but still you do not know if you’ll make it in time to warn the city of the approaching horde.  Sword at your side, grim-faced and determined, you vow that any who seek to slow your mission will never get the chance before your blade meets their neck, and you will not even lose a step.  But as the shroud of night descends, leaving only the stars illuminate your path, you are forced to slow your course as you navigate the tangled edge of the haunted forest.  Without cutting directly through those cursed woods you would have no hope of arriving before the city is reduced to smoldering rubble.  Knowing you'll be met with dire forces of supernatural malice within, but steeling yourself and pressing forward, confident that even such eldritch power will cripple against your cold resolve.  With no path fit for riding, you dismount your horse and send him on his way as you turn to charge into blackness.

Elffor is a legend of dungeon synth, and one of the few that can be said to have continually carried the torch since the early days, and always with consistent quality of craftsmanship and uncompromising spirit.  Into the Dark Forest... came out in 1998, and even for a first output so far back had already found his voice and a relatively high standard of production that has been held to ever since.  However it is the only Elffor album that could’ve been considered pure dungeon synth, at least until after the resurgence with his Dra Sad series.  The intermediate albums incorporated much more black metal elements.  Black metal vocals are thoroughly present in this album as well, though no electric guitars or blastbeats are to be heard.  The vocals might be a turn-off for many listeners, especially those who are not also black metal adherents, but I appreciate that aspect about them.  Even though I do think it might be a better listening experience without the vocals, I respect the strict declaration of this still being fundamentally a black metal vision, not just some fantasy soundtrack stuff.  It imparts the sense that this is serious business, or at least that the artist is very serious about this work.  Probably outsiders might hear these vocals and see the cover art and think it all the more comical, but with that attitude it can only ever be partially appreciated at a distance.  By design such listeners are not granted the full experience. 

But that’s not to say it’s abrasive or unapproachable, in fact I feel like there was conscious effort to make this as accessible for the target audience as possible.  This is not one of those records which the listener has to fill in the blanks with their own imaginative wanderings to have a substantial experience.  Unlike most dungeon synth this is not just background music.  It’s directly-engaging.  All the action is right there in the foreground. 

The mood rarely strays from a sense of the epic or majestic, and yet manages to stay interesting throughout, even on repeated listens.  New riffs and textures are consistently being introduced.  Beyond the orchestral rompler sounds we all know and love there is extensive use of subtle pads, wind, and thunderish noises in the background, which might go unnoticed but do a great job filling out the mix and keeping it subconsciously interesting, often moving and changing, and without ever drawing attention away from the actual music.  The overall sound is as classic as can be, but executed with such a high level of compositional detail and structural development that I think the only albums from this time period that are really comparable in those terms would be Wongraven – Fjelltronen and Mortiis – The Stargate.

Though the mood of grandiose majesty is always primary, there is a contrast between feelings of meditative wandering and a sense of exhilarated urgency.  That latter mood gives this album an energy that is often lacking in the genre, one of the reasons why I think it does a good job actively bringing the listener into this fantastical world.  I believe it is considered a classic by pretty much all who are familiar with the foundational dungeon synth works, but still seems like it isn’t quite as well-known as it deserves.  I don’t see it discussed nearly as often as some other significantly lower-effort works of the late 90s.  Perhaps this is due to the fact that Elffor has such a large discography of similar albums, this one just tends to be overlooked as another like his most recent, but to my ears there is a special magic here, that mysterious authentic feeling only truly found in material from decades past. 

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Valor - La Lune Noire (1996)

There is a desolate temple sitting on a hill.  It has been abandoned for centuries, its furnishings untouched by man, but ravaged by time and nature.  It is the deepest hour of night, and the moon is so bright that it burns the skin.  One can sense that ghosts wage constant silent warfare on the grounds outside.  But within the temple even the silence is silent.  The shadows rot the floorboards.

This album never seems to lose my interest, and I’ve been listening to it for a number of years now.  It sounds both ahead of its time but also like an impossible-to-replicate snapshot of the past.  It has a sophisticated sort of minimalism, in a way that seems clear about its intention to be simplistic in pursuit of its atmospheric goals, and yet it does this without ever seeming self-indulgent.  There's nothing flashy about it, and I think that's one of the things I really like about it, nothing really stood out at first but for some reason it stuck in my mind and grew on me more with every listen.  It feels like a healthy meditative experience to me. 

This structure is very minimal and repetitive.  I never find myself bored however.  The sound is comforting.  The album doesn’t attempt to directly challenge the listener but rather just provides a sort of nourishing fertile ground on which the listener’s thoughts and ideas can grow.  It reminds me a lot of Hate Forest – Temple Forest/Arthur – Blackstarblood, in that it is largely static, by the time each trance breaks you usually find yourself in the same place that you started.  There are things changing over the course of the track, but they are so subtle as to almost go unnoticed as one simply gets lost in the drift.

I love the sound of the machine the artist is using here.  It sounds like an old-school sampler, or maybe primitive computer software of some sort.  The samples are harsh, lots of pops and clicks, which add greatly to the atmosphere of the sound.  I think it would be hard to reproduce this sort of timbre today.  It could be done, but it would be hard to make the choices that give that same synthetic grit, which produces such a powerful sense of otherworldly nostalgia. 

This is one of those special albums that really makes the pursuit of esoteric music seem worthwhile.  This is a Dark Age Productions release, a label which has actually returned to activity in recent years.  I originally discovered this (as well as many other essentials) from the great Asmodian Coven blog.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

90's Canon

There are a lot of new people coming to the genre these days, and things have changed a lot since I started this blog.  It might be easy for new listeners to overlook the foundational albums of the 90's, and I think it will be useful to list them out.  This is meant to be a sort of essential roots list.  If you feel something equally influential is missing, please comment.

These are all pure dungeon synth except Summoning, which will be the only exception.  Summoning is integral to the foundation of this music.


Mortiis - The Song of a Long Forgotten Ghost (1993)
Mortiis - Født til å herske (1994)
Mortiis - Ånden som gjorde opprør (1995)
Mortiis - Keiser av en dimension ukjent (1995)
Mortiis - Crypt of the Wizard (1996)
Mortiis - The Stargate (1999)
Fata Morgana - Fata Morgana (1995)
Cintecele Diavolui - The Devil's Songs (1996)

Burzum - Dauði Baldrs (1997)
Burzum - Hliðskjálf (1999)

Wongraven - Fjelltronen (1999)

Summoning - Minas Morgul (1995)
Summoning - Dol Guldur (1997)
Summoning - Nightshade Forests (1997)
Summoning - Stronghold (1999)

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Dungeon Synth Bulletin Board

Facebook sucks and bulletin boards are awesome.  I've been hoping for a dungeon synth forum ever since the Facebook communities started appearing, and now someone's finally come along and made one.  It's pretty great so far, check it out:

Saturday, March 5, 2016

Sequestered Keep - The Gift of Men (2015)

After departing from the chamber of shadows, I immediately proceeded to the door on the right.  I checked the handle, found it to be surprisingly unlocked, and proceeded in.  The room contained nothing visible but myself, in every possible form.  I was in a hall of mirrors, with mirrors on the walls, floor, and ceiling, mirrors in every direction I turned, but instead of a hundred mirrors there were thousands, each split and curved into many others, like the eyes of a fly.  The mirrors were arranged also so that they reflected each other directly, so that in each I saw an infinite continuum of further reflections, and with each further reflection there seemed to be a slight change, so that I felt as if I were surrounded by a massive crowd of different individuals, even though I knew myself to be alone in that cramped corridor. 

I saw myself in every conceivable incarnation, wandering through this hall, versions of myself that were brave, cowardly, beautiful, ugly, exciting, boring, fat, thin, male, female, etc.  I wondered if I could even consider these reflections to be versions of me, or if perhaps I was looking at every person who ever has or will enter into this chamber.  I thought that perhaps every person who could ever exist was in a way a reflection of myself.

I saw myself as a young person, and as I continued to pass through the reflections began to age, hair greying and skin wrinkling with every step.  And then as I continued forward I began to see each reflection as a sort of corpse, rotting away as I walked, until I was surrounded by death.

The light rapidly dimmed as the reflected forms became more skeletal.  And then at the end of the hall I saw not a mirror but a window, and through it a great cosmic vista, a vast field of swirling galaxies.  Many of the pinpoints of light on the firmament flew back and forth through this shimmering gateway like fireflies, as if the stars had wings. 

I stared at it until all the stars flew through, surrounding me, as the window became fully black.  The void seemed to grow larger.  My fear and expectation of the blackness grew as well, but I began to resign myself to it, to an unconscious rest rather than hopeless wandering.  It seemed almost comforting.

And then the black cat appeared again, casting no reflection, and all the luminescent dots of the vista scurried away like prey. 

"What are you are doing?"  the cat asked.

"I was trying to find the sun, but I'm beginning to think I never will," I said.

The cat shook his head.  "The sun?  Which sun?"

I shrugged.  "I don't really remember."

"So why are you here then?  Do you think one of those bugs is your sun?  Did you intend to catch it?"

"I didn't know what was in this room.  But the door was unlocked, so I thought I'd explore," I said.

"There are many unlocked doors in this realm, few which lead to light, and many which might lead to imprisonment."  The cat paused for a moment.  "I might know someone who can help you.  I was headed there anyways, you can follow if you wish," the cat said as he turned to leave.  He seemed to always have somewhere to be.

Despite my desire to escape the darkness, I felt drawn to the window, which moments ago contained millions of tiny fluttering suns.  I decided to follow the cat, glad to now have some guidance.  I worried that one day I'd be forced to return to that fated void, and that the starflies would not be there to greet me.

Saturday, February 27, 2016

Hate Forest - Temple Forest (2007)

Further down the Hall of Lucidity I found an unlocked door.  Opening it I discovered merely an empty room.  The walls, floor, and ceiling were painted flat grey.  There was no lighting, only the purple torchlight from the hall shining through, casting my shadow onto the opposite wall, which danced and shimmered with the sporadic flame.  I stepped into the empty chamber, gazing curiously at my shadow, which seemed to almost take on a life of its own in the strange lighting.  Its movements did not match mine.  I gazed directly at it until the blackness in my peripheral vision closed in.  And then I began to see other shapes emerge.

I began to notice trees, rocks, and shrubs, cluttered chaotically together in a thick forest scene.  I began to see shadows of mountains in the distance.  The shadow of a cave appeared, and into it wandered my own shadow.  And then within that cave I saw the shadow of a bear, which my shadow struck with his spear, vanquishing the monster.  And then my shadow marched back to his village, with the creature's head in hand, presenting it as a token of victory.  The shadows of the other men returned to the cave to harvest the meat. 

There was a celebration.  The meat was not eaten, and instead burned in flames of pure shadow, as an offering to those great Colossi who gave birth to the world.  Their forms towered above the forests since the dawn of time. 

The shadows of the villagers then danced in honor of these gods.  I was awed in an empty room, gazing utterly lost and transfixed by the magical rhythms.  I did not move at all, and yet I saw my shadow clearly swaying, jumping, and spinning amid the dance of all the others.  The shadow of a woman danced alongside mine.  I loved her, yet my shadow ignored her, lost in its own flickering pattern, seemingly from a different light source, perhaps a different torch from back in the hall.  I stepped a few feet to the left.  All the shadows shifted to the left alongside mine, but still danced to the same rhythm.  I moved to the far right side of the room and now some of the shadows disappeared into the darkness.  Those shadows to my left still danced, but now they were stretched strangely from the distance.  But the rhythm stayed the same.  I returned to the center of the room, never having removed my gaze from the scene, and though I did my best to return to my original position, something seemed off.  Everything was a bit more faded. 

I sighed, wishing that I could step into this shadow landscape and join the dance.  My shadow danced to one silent beat, but it was somehow detached from the shadows which danced around it, as if they didn't exist.  But why shouldn't they?   I could clearly see them.  I wouldn't have spent so long staring at a blank wall.  I couldn't imagine what might be between myself and the doorway to generate such shadows silently, but I dared not look, lest I cast Eurydice back to Hades.

I stared and stared, lost for a great length of time, and yet the celebration never ended, a dance under the Colossi for eternity, or until all faded.  And it was all fading.  The dancing shadows grew more dim with each passing moment, the ones furthest from the edge dissolving into blackness. 

"The door is closing..." said a voice from back in the hall.  I turned around and saw the black cat from before.  He sat and stared at me for a while before licking his paw a few times and then wandering off down the hall.

I saw that the cat was right, the door was almost completely shut, and the thin sliver of light seemed to be growing smaller.

I looked back at the wall, seeing now only my own shadow again.  It flickered from the torchlight, but nothing danced around it.  

I forced myself up and hustled back the way I had come, barely squeezing through the crack and into the hall, as the door then slowly crept closed behind me.