Given my unhinged tirade of last month of thought it pertinent to check back in on this whimsical little dungeon synth project. And sure enough, after less than a month I am two albums behind on Garden Gnome’s output. Notice the variations on a theme with the album titles, ‘True Gnomewegian Dungeon Synth’, and now ‘Gnomenomicon’ and ‘Gnometia’. See they all have “gnome” in the title…s’funny. For a genre that offers metalheads and wider geekdom a reflective sanctuary away from the demands of concrete and plastic it sure is stressful keeping up with the sheer volume and frequency of releases dungeon synth artists put out.
But we’ve probably lobbed enough projectiles at Fort Dungeon Synth for the time being. What to make of these two new offerings from Garden Gnome? ‘Gnomenomicon’ sees the project turn away from pure ambient to flex its melodic muscles. The first few tracks greet us with eerie and delicate synth leads that – despite their forward motion – still manage to embody the timeless wistfulness that only dungeon synth at its best can articulate. ‘Purgatory Succumbed’ has a Lord Wind circa ‘Atlantean Monument’ vibe to it, again illustrative of the melodic, almost neofolk turn a lot of these tracks take.
But as the album progresses – and it really does progress from one track to the next beyond a mere collage of sonic post-it notes – things take a turn for the ethereal, with ‘Gaia’s Whisper’ which hints at an Arvo Part vibe. This nod to spiritual minimalism – Arvo Part drawing influence from Gregorian traditions over modern iterations of minimalism – is a neat little meta-reference to the deeper historical resonance of dungeon synth, and points to the paradox at the heart of the style given that the music is rendered on decidedly modern digital technology.
Each track that follows sees the music float further away into the aether, deploying curious techniques to achieve this affect along the way. For example, ‘Moonlight Vigil’ sees the soft ambient tones in the background take up the melodic progression of the track. The harder hitting synth tones with more attack are relegated to expressing only their rhythmic and textural qualities. This role reversal only serves to augment the dreamlike qualities of the music, as the melodies are felt on a subconscious level, never fully intellectualised, hidden from the scrutiny of our rational minds.
Just as the album promises to tale off with the dark ambience of ‘Unhallowed Murk’ with its church bell seasoning, ‘March of the Chtonic Spirits’ kicks in with a refrain that would be at home on a Summoning track, and all the triumphalism that entails. Whether the switch in tone so close to the end of the album is jarring, or a bold attempt to keep the mood of ‘Gnomenomicon’ in constant churn is a debate quickly despatched by the short, quirky title track that closes off proceedings, leaving more questions than answers.
‘Gnometia’ is the shorter follow up release. This outing is chiefly orientated towards texture. Melodies are present, sure, but the album trades on contrasting tones and timbres far more than it does distinctive musical character. For instance, the second track ‘Thaumaturgical Horticulture’ (*sigh* these track titles dude) opens with tones reminiscent of Burzum’s ‘Den onde kysten’, a fine contrast given the rich and flowery opener.
And so it continues from there. The musical ideas are sparse, kept to simple yet effective chord sequences acting as a background to lead synths that are often no more than repeated note clusters deployed to fill out the sound. But the intention on this release seems to be an exploration of contrasting textures and moods, allowing the synth tones themselves to dictate the shape of each track. In this sense, if ‘Gnomenomicon’ flirts with neofolk, then ‘Gnometia’ is an ambient album at heart. The reason being that the latter is shaped by the very equipment it is written on, as opposed to the standard approach to writing a pop song say, whereby the piece is written, and then enhanced by effects boards, synthesisers, and mixing desks. This is music that was born, lives, and exists within machines, this in spite of its clear yearning for an existence beyond the materialist dogmas of modern life.
Even the programmed drums of ‘Obeah’ find themselves unable to ground this music in the notion of teleology. We exist, in suspended animation, caught in the thrall of repeated, foggy chords and minimal, windchime leads that reach off toward the timeless stars. Despite the track titles blending mystical vocabulary with references to the concerns of a garden gnome – looking suspiciously like something the kids are calling “humour” – the music is sober, sombre, understated, and remarkably unobnoxious by dungeon synth standards.
So what have we learned? A great deal actually. Maybe in treating dungeon synth like any other form of contemporary music we’re going about this all wrong. For example, if I am greeted with a new metal album I enjoy, there is a compulsion to absorb every aspect of it, to let my acquittance with the music grow and fester until each track becomes part of my psychological furniture. And this point extends to other forms of ambient music as well. I know Tangerine Dream’s 70s catalogue and their solo works intimately for instance. All of which takes time and many repeated listens.
But maybe dungeon synth just wasn’t designed for such a close acquittance with each individual release. It is simply not possible given the rate and homogeneity of releases one must contend with even from a single artist. Maybe we should look it as a near limitless body of work that we can turn to when the mood arises precisely because it guarantees *that* specific mood. We may never hear the same release twice and still not be strapped for content. And we would always be safe in the knowledge that what we are hearing is familiar and reassuring regardless. These are valuable commodities for fans of extreme music, values that we are certainly not getting elsewhere; there’s only so many times I can stick on Enya’s ‘Watermark’ and chill after all.