For some black metallers ambient side projects were a mere hobby. A testing ground for ideas, a place to hone the art of crafting atmosphere through synths, or a place of simple joy away from the carnage of black metal’s politics. For other black metallers it became much more than that. What starts as a simple exercise in hammy keyboard music with a heavy nod to fantasy fiction, ends in becoming the world’s premier goblin impersonator and leader of the most successful Nine Inch Nails tribute act. In the annals of recovering black metal artists, few can lay claim to such a bizarre title. And this, in a field where bizarre is pretty much a pre-requisite.
But it wasn’t always so for Mortiis. After a brief but fruitful stint as bassist in black metal legends Emperor, he went on to pursue his goblinoid solo project. Armed with cheap synths and a passion for D&D, he began putting out ambient albums like nobody’s business. Ambient is one of those genres that is cheap to those who can afford it, very expensive to those who can’t. Plenty of ambient music is crafted by holding down one long extended note, and layering basic harmonies bit by bit over the top of this. Essentially, it’s boring. This leads many to give up on the style altogether. But then when one comes across genuinely well-crafted music written in this long-form minimalist style, one realises the extent to which others really were phoning it in.
The surprising thing about Mortiis’ first batch of releases is their variety, and their energy. He was not the most talented keyboard player, but sometimes ignorance of the rules grants a musician a different perspective, and a different approach to crafting music. His first three releases follow a similar pattern, two tracks about half an hour in length, formed of a tapestry of melodies, atmospheres, dynamics, and ideas, rather than one flowing piece. By the release of ‘Keiser av en dimensjon ukjent’ in 1995 he had honed this approach to longer form composition. Initially one thinks they are being presented with another monolithic track built up from disconnected but themed ideas. But melodies and themes are regularly returned to as the piece progresses, almost building a leitmotif. I am surprised at how full the music is. I approached early Mortiis expecting atmosphere and filler, but not much in the way of actual music. I could not have been more wrong. Although the ideas are simple they engage the listener, they’re almost catchy.
The music itself is built from simple synth strings, horns, and chants. It really is made up of the interludes and intros common to black metal at the time, developed into a full album. But the dynamics, the variety of moods, from dark to triumph to melancholic, all is surprisingly sophisticated considering the equipment he was limited to. Despite all this I could understand his desire to gradually transition into goth/industrial music as the next steps in the years after this release. Unless he had access to an orchestra it’s hard to see how he could have developed this music any further. I enjoy it for its charms, its sparseness, but also its heart. But one has to admit that video game music and film scores hold a monopoly over this creative space despite the appeal of early Mortiis.
Which brings us screaming round to Wongraven, and Satyr of Satyricon fame. Like many of the ambient side projects of black metal’s household names, this works like an extension of his metal works. If you listen to ‘I en svart kiste’ on ‘The Shadowthrone’ (1995), you will get a sense of what the music of the sole Wongraven LP ‘Fjelltronen’ is all about, only in long-form. It’s epic, it’s dark, the harmonies and chord progressions are well crafted and pleasing. He has even overlaid this with his own clean vocal chants. And full credit to him, Satyr does have a powerful voice, both clean and distorted, and this comes through on the early works of Satyricon and on ‘Fjelltronen’.
This album is sparse, but in a good way, it balances the epic and the dark perfectly, and it transitions from one mood to the next without coming across as jarring. Aside from the dynamic use of chants, the basic building blocks he uses are much the same as Mortiis. Simple synthesizer sounds, strings, wind samples and anything that contributes to a general feeling of dread are utilised. But aside from this the music is not developed much past an extended version of an interlude on a black metal album. For this reason one gets the sense that this music if building to a climax that never arrives.
Now I (and most listeners) will probably be listening to this album for first time knowing that it is the short lived ambient side project, so we know that the music is generally not building to anything. This allows us to sit back and enjoy the moods and ideas therein. One gets the sense, like Thou Shalt Suffer and Lordwind, that Satyr was using this album as a sounding board for ideas, one that forced him to think of music from a non-guitar based perspective, rather than a fully-fledged work of art in its own right. He then decided to release it in case some fans saw value in it. There is nothing wrong with this in itself, I and many fans do enjoy it. But it means the work sounds somewhat half finished, not intended for wider consumption outside of black metal obsessives and Satyricon fans (yeah, I said it, they’re different groups).
This is a bizarre subgenre. Not so much that its musically bizarre. But it is a form of ambient music that specifically appeals to black metal fans and the odd computer game nerd. I cannot imagine fans of Tangerine Dream and Brian Eno picking up a Mortiss album with sincerity. It is the black metal we love stripped of the guitars and dramatic vocals. It is black metal telling itself a bed time story. A childish blanket of escapism, wonder, charm, and mysticism without the toxic politics of the outside world.
It is because of this sentiment, that I am reluctant to be too critical of these albums. Taken on their own merits I’m going with Mortiis, simply because it is the more complete musically. There are more ideas packed in, and it feels more like a finished product. But if you like ‘Keiser av en dimensjon ukjent’ then you will also find much to love in ‘Fjelltronen’, which as well as similar atmospheres is masterful at connecting the dots between ideas. It just feels a little incomplete. But if you have come as far as digging into the dungeon synth side projects of Norwegian black metal artists, you won’t mind this minor shortcoming.