Scouring the rich history of intros and interludes that litter extreme metal albums – particularly black metal – it’s no wonder that some felt inclined to develop these pieces of ornamental furniture into a fully realised style. In keeping with metal’s penchant for overly specific genre labels, the regrettable term ‘dungeon synth’ is now the widely understood label for this brand of dark ambient that wraps medievalist and fantasy imagery into the ultimate geek genre. What started out as the first clutch of Mortiis albums, and solo/offcut works from Vikernes, Satyr, and Rob Darken amongst others, has since grown into the definitive touchstone of obscurity for committed black metal fans and novelty seeking tourists alike.
Notable more for the self-referential, premeditated amateurism and highly limited-edition releases (usually on cassette), the music itself is little more than an elaboration of the short ambient works bookending black metal albums the world over. Such a fate was not inevitable however. The complex driving black metal fans to seek the holy grail of cultural obscurity finds its conclusion in dungeon synth for sure. But if the self-congratulation and knowing, irony-drenched norms of the genre were swept aside, a flowering musical style could take shape. One that offers the yin to black metal’s yang. A temple of contemplation, meditation, and stasis in contrast to black metal’s stirring urgency. And like a visit to a temple, it can offer clarity, a midwife for new ideas and philosophies that inform our behaviour in other aspects of life (i.e. metal). Let’s tease out this point further with this week’s comparison.
Sequestered Keep from Salt Lake City – a location that just screams medievalist fantasy – offer a fairly typical example of the sound that most people with a passing acquaintance with dungeon synth would call to mind. The size of their discography – nearly twenty albums in less than five years – is a testament to how easy and cheaply this music can be churned out. Once the right home set-up is achieved, the raw musicality comes easy if one perceives the underlying structure and meaning to a work as an afterthought. The fixation on minimalism and simplicity with little musical talent or theory required to pull it off means a production line approach to releases can quickly be set up; churning out LPs on a quarterly basis. The synths ideally need to be of a suitable vintage, models from the early 1990s being the sweet spot, but failing that a bank of midi sounds will suffice.
Now, at this point the subtext in the above needs nipping in the bud. Minimalism, lack of talent, simplicity, cheap sounding equipment, none of these things are detriments in themselves. In the right hands they can be used to create music that transcends the means of its production into artistry with timeless resonance. And it’s on these terms that the music must ultimately be assessed. We can pass comment on the gear, the music theory, the production, mixing, and arrangement all we want. But such observations – although illuminating – take us no further than an assessment of craftsmanship. To get us to the realm of music criticism, we have to look at how these factors help or hinder the finished product, i.e. the music as artistry.
So, does Sequestered Keep’s album ‘The Fortress in the Timeless Fog’ released in 2015 stand up to such a critique? It certainly embodies all the trappings of dungeon synth. The minimalist keyboard lines are so rudimentary that we could call them tantalising suggestions of melody if we’re being charitable. These are articulated through synth tones imitating horns, strings, harps and so on, which in their overt artificiality take on sui generis qualities totally distinct from the instruments they were designed to imitate. And this is where the style’s greatest strength can be found, yet also its Achilles heel. Using these techniques, Sequestered Keep manage to create that ethereal, dreamlike atmosphere that invokes a fantasy world just out of reach beyond our veil of plastic and concrete, but the music is so stripped back, so minimalist, that it never manages to amount to anything more than a suggestion, a hint at both another reality of imagined history and of music yet to be fleshed out.
Minimalism itself can also be a powerful tool. Self-limitation is often where artists are at their most creative. Yet here we are given a series of disconnected suggestions, with no unifying thread to bind these pieces together. The tracks themselves are pleasant enough to listen to. They instantly immerse us in the atmospheres so prized by the dungeon synth cult. But it is not clear what it’s saying beyond “here’s a series of sounds that invoke that thing you love”. This is in part a function of the genre’s status as a soundtrack to fantasy literature and roleplaying games. But we are not evaluating it as a soundtrack, we are evaluating it as an album that posits value as music on its own terms. And beyond a series of pleasing yet half-formed sound tapestries, there is little on offer on ‘The Fortress in the Timeless Fog’.
Comparing it to a piece like Burzum’s ‘Tomhet’ makes this point even plainer. If we take ‘Tomhet’ on its own terms, setting its context as a commentary on the preceding black metal tracks, the track itself – whilst certainly minimalist both in execution and philosophy – has a clear forward direction, an abstract yet very much present message to be communicated, one that threads through the entire piece. Sequestered Keep offer tantalising hints at this – see ‘An Ancient Weapon Centuries Lodged in a Towering Skull’ for example – but they remained hints, buried beneath dungeon synth’s ultra-obscurantist dogma.
Khand – from Massachusetts, another part of the world known for its medieval castles – by contrast offer a take on the dungeon synth format capable of withstanding scrutiny on its own terms. By that I mean the music comes across as a complete artistic work independent of the curator notes and beginner’s guide to irony required for other modern works in this arena. Their debut LP ‘The Fires of Celestial Ardour’ released back in 2013 offers a broad survey of dark ambient that nevertheless maintains a unifying vision across the many corridors and rooms that are opened out across the album’s runtime. The secret to Khand’s success – aside from the raw composition and arrangement that we’ll get into – is their willingness to utilise technology and musicality that other dungeon synth artists deliberately shut themselves off from. Yet the end result remains true to the original dreamlike naivety that many found so compelling about the style initially, before it got drenched in self-referential in-jokes and insurmountable layers of irony.
Khand use rich string tones of ephemeral beauty, invoking joy mixed with a sense of loss at perceiving another world just beyond the reach of our concrete bordered reality. Synth tones – that in other settings would immediately provoke comparisons to an 80s retro vibe – are given a new lease of life in this celestial, dreamlike journey through tone tapestries. The low hum of legato keyboards is offset by sharper piano, harp, and pizzicato string tones with more attack, capable of articulating simple but playful melodies that drive the first half of the album forward; before this eventually gives way to the swirling brume sitting beneath the music once more. The drum machine is perhaps the most deliberately artificial aspect of Khand’s flavour palette. But it is usually deployed at the apex of the music’s rising tension, meaning the synthetic percussion is far from a distraction, and merely serves to build the momentum of the mounting keyboard harmonies and minimal sequences as they gradually build to finales.
The reason the Khand formula works so well is because it finds that balance between staying true to the original innocence and whimsy of the fantasy genre that spawned this style of music, while still expanding the boundaries of its expressive range with notable doses of musicality and technology. ‘The Fires of Celestial Ardour’ is still a modest album, ethereal and subtle in a way that burrows under the skin. The simple nods to medievalist melodies and childlike wonder are all there. But these find themselves in a setting that screams authenticity. We do not listen with a raised eyebrow, Khand do not stop to wink at us every five minutes, letting us know that it’s all for show, all for the sake of burying ourselves in a form of music that has little to offer besides a celebration of limitations and overt camp. We find the same overall intent and sound pallet reach a new level of articulation and joy through these simple pieces that stretch from the lyrical to the ambient, all the while retaining the unbridled wonder of a child’s dream.
So no surprises that we are coming down on the side of Khand this week. Listening to both albums in succession will make the case more plainly than any words can. The lesson is really very simple, and it’s not one that can be found in the tools that were used to create this music; an artist’s setup will inevitably dictate the direction of the music as it’s arranged. But that’s precisely the problem. ‘The Fires of Celestial Ardour’ feels like a grand unfolding, as various techniques, tones, and musicality travels in winding and pleasing meanders. Whereas ‘The Fortress in the Timeless Fog’ is what happens when the equipment and music are selected and written with a pre-determined goal in mind. In this case that goal being a self-referential and ultimately static micro-genre shackled by creative incest, and burdened with irony so pervasive that its procreators barely even recognise it as such anymore.