A tough love letter
I was on the point of losing patience with dungeon synth entirely when I came across the oh-so whimsical project called Garden Gnome, who have just put out an album entitled ‘True Gnomewegian Dungeon Synth‘. With a name and cover art that strain credulity, it appeared the genre had finally disappeared completely up its own arsehole.
After lying back, thinking of England, and giving the thing a spin however, I am forced to dial back my rage and offer ‘True Gnomewegian Dungeon Synth’ (shudder) an honest and fair review. What a time to be alive. Gnomeway is not a place, this project apparently emanates from a land well known for its medieval castles…Los Angeles, California.
If – like me – you think that comedy has no place in music whatsoever, fear not. The first thing to note about this project is that the humour goes no further than the packaging for the album, all serious the moment you hit play. What greets the ear is a surprisingly sombre and restrained take on this micro-genre. One that – in terms of raw musical information contained on this short album – outdoes many apparently sincere contemporary offerings in the dungeon synth realm.
Gentle folk melodies float out of the foggy aether rendered on synth patches. An array of instrumentation follows in a succession of differing tones from flutes to horns to strings. All are accompanied by a minimal dark ambient backdrop, and are left to pick out gentle melodic lines in solitude, each voice is given a moment to shine unaccompanied by further orchestration, thus creating the lonely, dreamlike quality that *can* make this genre special.
What makes this album stand out is the feeling of motion. All the familiar calling cards of dungeon synth are there – the fantastical atmosphere, the childlike yearning, the wistful retreat into imagination – but unlike so many offerings in this style these qualities are not static hints, mere suggestions at what the music could look like. Here the melodies – and indeed the graceful dancelike motion of the rhythms – grants them a sense of motion, of journey, of a beginning, middle, and end, however modest this structure turns out to be in reality.
The music itself also explores a surprisingly diverse array of moods. From simple amoral yearning for the world this music invokes to become a reality, to majestic darkness, to playful, almost humorous dances of staccato notes, or the swelling and epic qualities of a track like ‘The Travesty of Winter’s Ire’. All are basic, but this project is able to use the simplistic qualities of dungeon synth to its advantage and build these atomised elements into a story that is greater than the sum of its rudimentary parts.
So why call out this project for special mention? For a number of reasons, most of which are nothing to do with the album itself. If dungeon synth is to avoid going the way the British folk revival – another genre birthed with the best of intentions but quickly eaten by irony craving obscurantist addicts – then it should not take a project called “Garden Gnome” – with an album filled with tracks seemingly named using a random fantasy word generator – to raise the stakes for a barely breathing form of music.
I come down hard on this little pocket of dark ambient because there is real potential within this style. Burzum, Mortiis, Wongraven, and later Khand have all shown what this music can be when the self-referential irony is dropped, and a musical vision is given space to grow. Even acts like Switzerland’s Mordor – although exhibiting a much more pronounced metallic edge to them – had a unique vision that spoke to many of dungeon synths strengths.
It might be a self-fulfilling prophecy given the name of the genre. Condemned to be defined by artists who release cassette only albums every fifteen minutes, reducing the fragile art of music making to trading cards, and circling round an ever more restrictive vortex of in jokes whose source of humour is no longer clear even to those allegedly in on the gag.
‘True Gnomewegian Dungeon Synth’ is remarkable only insofar as it is unremarkable for a piece of metal adjacent ambient. The musical properties are modest, the motion of the tracks is present but minimal, and the melodies are catchy but uncomplicated. But it’s truly a sign of the times that such fundamental aspects of music are worth pointing out at all. The fact that a project called Garden Gnome comes out looking pretty dignified is maybe a sign that the scene needs to have a word with itself. We know there’s real value buried behind the crowds of basement projects churning out releases by the pound. Don’t let sheer content saturation be the lasting legacy of a genre that has the potential to sketch out truly unique sonic spaces if talent, time, and a bit of quality control is applied.