Thursday, April 1, 2021

Soporific Sorcery - Sarcophagus Symphony II (2010)

There is a valley in a distant land, and standing far below those drifting sands, a dead forgotten pharaoh dreams in endless slumber.  Surrounding the sarcophagus sits an assortment of funerary paraphernalia, all the appropriate magical talismans and treasured artifacts from his life lived so many centuries ago, and it is through that ancient magic and those undisturbed burial rites that this king remains conscious in his physical mortification, a ghoul forever wandering the sprawling halls and cluttered chambers of his monumental tomb, a seat fit for a living god, and continuing to honor that divinity in death.  It is only as you stumble through with your torch that the sacred stillness is finally broken and you find yourself face-to-face with the being itself, dead but still permeated with some powerful alien force fully lost to the knowledge of man.  With not a single spell of protection having been placed on your vulnerable spirit, you find yourself immediately succumbing to the curse, and you are possessed.  You are no more the humble archeologist, but now become the living god-king of the last undiscovered tomb, and there you remain for further untold centuries in a state of eldritch lichdom, content to gaze endlessly at the unlit stones by which you are buried, seeing all that was or ever will be, at one in sacred undeath.

Coming out in 2010 and being dubbed “torture chamber music,” it seems that with this album Soporific Sorcery was deliberate in his attempt to faithfully raise the ghost of “dark dungeon music,” and had even conceived of it as a distinct genre a year before the term “dungeon synth” was even introduced.  I think that connection is quite obvious because there is no other reason to refer to this music as a “torture chamber” except as a reference to “dungeon,” and in fact I would say it is more light and whimsical than most dungeon synth that had been released up until that point, by no means tortorous.  To my ears it borrows most of its sound from Crypt of the Wizard, sharing the same sort of rubbery synth timbre, whimsical moods, bouncy pizzicatos, and short, circular melodies.  The actual song structures however seem to pull more from the two Mortiis albums prior to that one, with 10+ minute tracks that build slowly and repetitively, putting the listener into a trancelike state as they proceed through the epic journey.  So I’d say for anyone who is a fan of Ånden som Gjorde Opprør, Keiser av en Dimensjon Ukjent, and especially Crypt of the Wizard, this album is definitely worth a spin.

The sheer length of the album might be a bit challenging.  Clocking it at nearly an hour and a half, and being fairly static in its mood, I generally find my attention wandering at some point with every focused listen, and rarely am able to listen to the whole album in one sitting.  I think it probably would have been better as two separate 45 minute albums, but it works perfectly as background music or by taking a break at some point halfway through and returning where you left off at some later time.

My guess would be that these notes are programmed via midi rather than actually performed, because I never once noticed a mistake or off-timing, but my ear is not the best for that sort of thing and I would not be surprised to learn this artist is simply a perfectionist in that regard, because there is still a genuine organic feeling of life in these orchestrations that is not typically shared by albums that forego any keyboard performance in the recording process.  Despite the minimalism and repetitiveness, the composition is always developing, never stuck on the same riff for more than a handful of repetitions without a melody changing or a layer being added or removed. 

I cannot tell whether this is a synth, keyboard, or even a soundfont, but these are classic textures that I always enjoy.  It sounds like a standard sort of PCM rompler, though I don’t feel like I’ve heard these versions of the “General Midi” template before.  These types of sounds are the heart of traditional DS in my mind and for me they never get old. 

It should be noted, all Soporific Sorcery’s albums have been free from the beginning, not even name-your-price, just straight-up free.  I respect this a lot, a clear-cut statement by the artist that they’re not doing it for the money in any way.  What’s even more interesting, I don’t think this artist cares much at all about people even listening to his music.  I don’t remember ever seeing him going around promoting his albums, and I’m pretty sure when albums are free rather than NYP on Bandcamp they don’t even appear under new releases for the genre tag (and this one isn't even on Bandcamp).  I hardly ever see Soporific Sorcery mentioned, and yet he’s continued on to release four more excellent albums since this one, the most recent being 2018 as of this review.  I love that.  That makes it fully-known that these albums are made purely for the love of the music, not for money or even reaching an audience, whether that be just for the pleasure of making it, or perhaps the artist craves this particular sound so much that the only way he can hear more of it is by making it himself.  Either way this is the sort of radical creative individualism that I’ve always wanted to think of DS as embodying.  But of course the predictable downside of that approach is that such material is difficult to discover and rarely receives the appreciation it deserves, so make sure to check it out.

Monday, March 1, 2021

Mortiis - Født til å Herske (1994)

Fog drifts over rolling hills on a grey cloudy day.  There are too few trees and too few mountains.  The only form to break through the mist is a black rotting tower in the distance.  Even from so far away you can see its decay, its moss-covered bricks, its black hole windows, consuming every poor soul that wanders too close, condensing those souls into a pinpoint of spirit effervescence, locked away deep in its dark dungeons.  But out in the landscape the ghosts are free to wander, lost adrift but not trapped, content to hope that the clouds might break over some distant horizon, an ever-fought denial of the gloom. 

I’ve been listening to Født til å Herske for about fifteen years now.  I’ve always loved it, but I also feel like I’ve never fully cracked it.  It’s cold, monotonous, mysterious, and wearingly solemn.  It’s like the dungeon synth equivalent of plainchant, a dim ray of light within the darkness, only able to illuminate an enveloping void.  But somehow the light is never fully consumed by the hungry shadows.  I remember reading a Mortiis interview from this time period where he described his music as being even darker than black metal, which I think is inaccurate.  It faces the darkness rather than embracing it.  It’s a bit bleak, but it gives me a feeling of stoic determination, an inner drive to continue pushing forward even in the face of utter ennui.

Beneath the static gloom-wandering there’s a subtle feeling of excitement, a sense of wonder at a world of the mind manifesting through the keys.  Before this (and The Song of a Long Forgotten Ghost demo) the only real dungeon synth was short individual tracks featured on black metal albums, so I can only imagine that Mortiis would have taken great pleasure from seeing such a novel concept come together so successfully.  The idea was to take the listener on a journey into another world in the same way as the old space ambient pioneers, except instead of taking the listener into space, taking them into the mystical medieval lands suggested by black metal’s most atmospheric moments.  This had never been done before, and yet just immediately fell into place and had the power to transport a listener to somewhere they’ve never been.  It must’ve been an electrifying experience to produce this album, a real magic spell.

But that sense of creative satisfaction seems to be masked and restrained by an attitude of strict solemnity.  This album is very serious, despite some of the cheap sounds, and of course despite the campy original cover art of Mortiis with the prosthetics and medieval garb, pompously pointing his finger.  But the earnestness of that serious tone overpowers the naive surface cheese for those willing to allow it.  I think it was meant to cater to a black metal audience first and foremost, and with that, especially back then, is a very bizarre worldview, humorless and narrowly-focused, only concerned with the biggest life-or-death questions man faces, rejecting all frivolous things, societal, aesthetic, and emotional.  This self-serious attitude might make it seem even more campy to outsiders, and I think Født til å Herske can even be appreciated on that level as an exotic curiosity.  But for those who wish to experience it as intended, I believe an effective method would be to suspend one’s disbelief and attempt to think with a black metal attitude:

We live in desperate times, torn from our state of nature by a cruel historic fate.  The soul of humanity is at stake and steadily collapses into a pit of decadence and despair.  The only way out of that certain doom is complete societal destruction, to rebuild anew in some distant future.  So we are in a place of nihilistic despair, and all we can do is howl to the moon with our piercing shrieks and screeching tremolos.  We know too much and are unable to laugh anymore at the tragic truth.  But upon tiring and returning to the cave we can dream, of what once was and what could be, but only after we’ve forgotten this corruption as we finally drift off into slumber.

Something like that.  I don’t think it’s a healthy way to look at the world in daily life, with such intensity at all times, and I’d imagine that’s why most of the old black metallers eventually grew out of such complete commitment to that way of thinking.  But I believe to understand where this album is really coming from it’s necessary to at least temporarily don some kind of mental mask and try to put oneself in a mindset of that perception being true and these fragments of beauty being an oasis in a spiritual desert, and of seeing it less as a piece of entertainment to be consumed and more as an unrefined shamanic ritual spontaneously manifesting from the void, recognizing that the effectiveness of such magic is reliant upon participatory imagination.

Monday, February 1, 2021

Neptunell - Empires (2003)

The sun shines brightly overhead on a warm summer morning, but you still find yourself chilled as you wander through the ancient ruins of a city, now fully overgrown deep in the forest.  This place is forbidden, the entire forest said to be cursed.  You know nothing of who might’ve once lived in this sprawling stone metropolis, but your imagination soars as you gaze around at the marble pillars shrouded by foliage, the moss-covered mosaic cobble streets, and the majestic fragmentary statues which remain so lifelike as to seem as if they were once the citizens themselves.  It’s no wonder that this place is feared.  It must’ve been like a city of the gods, except that it was always inevitably doomed.  It’s a familiar story, man challenges the gods, and in his hubris, for a brief moment, convinces himself that those gods have been defeated and replaced, forgetting that it is not the gods who prevent us from entering their domain, but instead simply the passage of time, the curse of mortality.

The production here is very cold and digital.  It sounds as if the composition is programmed rather than performed, everything very rigidly quantized, and the instrumentation is raw General Midi sort of fare.  In fact this sounds a bit like straight-up midi music, like .mid files rather than mp3s.  That’s not meant as a criticism.  I actually think there is something quite cool about that, a pure focus on composition to create an original expression within the shared language of GM sounds.  Of course there’s nothing especially unique about this approach to DS, even back in 2003, but one interesting deviation is the extensive use of a distorted tremolo guitar sound, which I’m pretty sure is not an actual guitar but rather another sample-based sound.  This has the interesting effect of making the album still seem to be pure DS despite the addition of the metal timbre, just because it still sounds so much like a keyboard.

The composition is fairly sophisticated.  There is a good deal of contrast between long and short riffs, and always new elements being introduced.  This is one that can benefit from a focused listen I think, rather than just relegating it to the background.  And structurally there seems to be a journey in mind. Rarely are previously-heard riffs repeated, to the extent that it may require multiple listens to really get a sense of these tracks as cohesive songs, not something that is meant to be immediately accessible and hook the listener at first glance.  At times it is even a bit dissonant, seeming to intentionally try and repel the listener, such as the track “Her Sombre Horizons.”  Those tensions are generally resolved though, clearly a lot of thought having gone into how the path develops over time.  The struggles are intended and rewarded with a satisfying course of rumination.

The mood is gloomy and melancholic, never overtly sad, but there’s a sense of coldness and being weighed down, and a deep loneliness.  The sense of isolation makes the album title, Empires, seem somewhat ironic.  The last image this music brings to mind is throngs of people, marching armies, and towering monuments.  What this album evokes for me is ruins of empire, everything having crumbled long ago and now being overtaken by the one true empire, nature herself.  In that way it seems to me the concept is largely a reflection upon the fact that no matter how big and seemingly all-powerful they become, all empires still fall.  Like our own short lives, it is the condition invariably shared, that everything dies.  But hope is not lost because always corresponding with that tragedy of inescapable loss is rebirth.  Life will always find a way to reemerge and eventually thrive, and with it vast empires which might stretch on into incomprehensible millennia, perhaps free and glorious or perhaps cruel and tyrannical, but they all will meet their end eventually.  Even all memory of their existence will fade, and so we are just left to wonder and marvel at the vast cosmic scope of what once was and now forgotten. 


Right now the only way I'm aware of to listen to Neptunell - Empires is by downloading the four tracks individually (“,” “,” “,” and “”) from this website:

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 you press 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.