I’m not above writing one or two (or three) inflammatory articles aimed at this bizarre subgenre. Bizarre because it even exists, but also because it has the audacity to cultivate and maintain a reputation in the peripheral vision of many music fans well beyond its borders. Yet I keep returning to it. Like a Christian trying to make sense of their theology in a late capitalist world, desperately trying to discern the face of Christ in a bowl of Coco Pops, I keep looking to dungeon synth for answers it probably cannot provide, and it stares dolefully (and a little vacantly) back at me, persistently being.
The criticisms I often level at it are all predictably low hanging fruit. It sets the bar pretty low for musical ability and content (the familiar muzak charge). Content saturation is overwhelming, with hoards of individuals churning out album after album each year, made only worse by the fact that the creator to fan ratio is very high. And then there’s those uncanny postmodern traits that it is seemingly unaware of yet insists on playing up to. A genre fixated on medieval or fantasy imagery, rendered entirely through digital means, delivering fragments of musical ideas from baroque, renaissance, medieval, and European folk traditions entirely via computer powered home studios.
Whilst this is not a criticism in itself – it is after all closely married to geek culture at large – the unawareness of this factor from within the subculture strains credulity. Speaking of geek culture, a final worrisome factor is that of the in and out group mentality that can so often melt into toxicity. This last may be an odd point to make from a metal perspective. But I make it not because elitism is bad – I happen to think that if practiced correctly it is actually good – but because dungeon synth has very little to protect in terms of quality content and artistry. Elitism is not formed around knowledge or passion for the craft, but literally around being in with the right (online) crowd.
But once again I find myself stepping back from the greatest hits of “fuck dungeon synth” for the sake of a fresh appraisal. And I realised that there is one large box tick that dungeon synth has in its favour lacking in most metal subgenres to date (although the tide is shifting). That of musical democracy.
What do we mean by this? Well it’s important not to lose site of the fact that the way we have consumed and understood contemporary music is an incredibly new phenomena. Not just in terms of the kind of music that has been possible since the 1950s and how it is distributed, but our understanding of who can and should make music. For centuries – outside of an isolationist religious elite – music was made by people and for people. Folk songs were transmitted by word of mouth, and took on new and unique versions precisely because they were not written down. It was only with the advent of European harmonic classical music and the rise of the virtuoso that music started to shift to the celestial realm of the genius. The exclusive pursuit of a chosen few with the talent and will to craft a symphony.
Folk music persisted in one form or another under the radar for sure, blues being one particularly influential variant of this. But with the advent of pop music in tandem with post war capitalism, the surplus leisure time and money that became the norm in Western societies turned music into an iron clad commodity. And the idea that there were artists on stage and mere people in the crowd solidified in our minds.
Metal is just as guilty of this as any other subculture. We deify certain individuals and by extension the albums they create. Recording technology locks these moments in time. They are the definitive version of a piece of music, with all other live or cover versions mere aberrations. They are also works that take much dedication and talent to produce, not something all of us have the time or the ability to pursue.
Bubbling under the rise of internet’s hegemony over music consumption – for all the contradictions and panics it has caused in musical communities – is a trend toward democratisation. It’s easy to forget that the internet is still an incredibly new artefact given its universal prevalence in our lives. Whatever trends we have seen over the last thirty years have been mere opening salvos in what is likely to be a decades long push and pull of competing powers. But underlying it all is this sense that creating music is accessible, easy, democratic.
Now although dungeon synth is one such instance of this, given the above critique it would be odd to cite it as a good outcome of the internet age. But beyond the usual charges of simplistic music and overwhelming amounts of content, there is a sense in which this just doesn’t matter for dungeon synth. Sure they release albums. But these are not treated with the same deification that a classic rock or metal album is. They are released twice or sometimes thrice a year by the same artist. They are rarely released in physical format, and when they are it is usually an extremely limited run of cassette tapes liable to decay.
This is simply a community throwing out ideas and seeing where it takes them. It’s a pursuit that almost anyone with a laptop and a broadband connection can engage in, regardless of musical ability and knowledge. Each dungeon synth album is not designed to have its every atom consumed and understood in the same way we would for a traditional LP. They are moments in time, shared and distributed within the community, only to be forgotten just as quickly. Different variants of dungeon synth branch off depending on an individual’s interests, and they may take on specific traits based on their influences in much the same way that traditional folk songs often split into several different versions across different groups of people.
Now it may be a stretch to foreshadow quite such a revolutionary outcome from this odd starting point. But it is enough for now to say that maybe the kernel of something more radical sits beneath this unreal little pocket of music. Ever since the file sharing era we have been witnessing the decay of musical hierarchies. And it’s all too easy to shrug and say no new music is produced anymore despite the plethora of new albums that come out each day. We are undeniably drowning in content that no one individual can keep up with, even if they focus on one particular genre. But smuggled beneath these fundamental paradigm shifts in consumption there may be a Trojan Horse that will come to fundamentally change our understanding of just what music is, how it should be consumed and shared, and who has the right to make it.