Realms of Magickal Sorrow
A very wide bridge links black metal to dungeon synth. Sure, each territory boasts many distant realms that would not dream of crossing this bridge, from blackened thrash and raw black metal at one pole, to dino synth and comfy synth at the other. But toward the interior of each genre there lies a bustling exchange of ideas, and populations freely traverse the border. Finland’s Old Sorcery are something of a paragon straddling this bridge, navigating this cultural precipice since their inception in 2017.
It’s worth approaching Old Sorcery from this angle, because despite the dual evolution of each genre, the underlying ecosystems that motivate the music is decidedly distinct. Dungeon synth is, in essence, black metal untethered from any sense of realism, rationalism, or brute sense of purpose. Or to put it another way, untethered from “adulthood”. I say adulthood and not maturity because there is real value in compartmentalising our awareness of the ceaseless struggles of life for a time and indulging in pure fantasy. Dungeon synth – at its best – can offer such a citadel, a place of sanctuary and rest away from the violent rigours of experience that black metal – at its best – keeps us extremely alive to.
But if the fantasies of dungeon synth – whether they be medieval high fantasy, folklore, comfy synth, or the warm naivety of retro video game sound worlds – are indulged in without anchor, they lose a sense of purpose beyond the borders of the genre’s own need to reaffirm itself. This is why – when one digs to the core of online dungeon synth culture – one finds nothing but a vacuum of irony so layered it begins to looks like sincerity to the most embedded scenesters, bandcamp releases and cassettes thrown around like trading cards, and a surfeit of content with little in the way of bureaucratised quality control, making the genre impenetrably disorganised to any newcomer.
Old Sorcery sit at the apex of this dualism. ‘Sorrowcrown’ is their most compelling work precisely because it straddles that bridge, using the black metal elements to ground the listener, imbuing them with a heightened state of awareness whilst harnessing the drive to ambience to elevate the metallic realism into swirls of abrasively spacey atmospherics reminiscent of ‘Hvis lyset tar oss’.
But contrast this rather sophisticated work with their debut and pure dungeon synth album ‘Realms of Magickal Sorrow’ released in 2017. This is a work that looks meticulously designed to bookend the “classic” dungeon synth era that preceded it. A work so comprehensively generic and light on content, yet able to overcome this lack of musical ontology by virtue of its tight craftsmanship, its expert selection of patches and tones to achieve the exact right level of dreamy atmosphere, and the bare minimum of melodic fragments to populate the picture, thus maintaining the engagement of listeners unaccustomed to pure ambient.
From this angle albums like ‘Realms of Magickal Sorrow’ begin to look like ambient’s answer to power metal. The basic framework may look like ambient. But it is unlike pure ambient, in that it fails to centralise the key motivators of the ambient genre, such as manipulations of sound over composition, altering volume, texture, key, timbre to explore the emergent sui generis properties growing from this compost, with any explicit melodic or harmonic qualities being almost incidental to this task.
Traditionalist dungeon synth of the Old Sorcery variety attempts to replicate the feel of this textural manipulation, just as power metal attempts to craft the feel of heavy metal, but then diverts the project toward evocations of fantastical and dreamlike soundscapes lifted straight from our childhood imaginations, articulating this via proto melodies and refrains with a half lyrical quality to them, that are ultimately directed to a project of undiluted escapism.
This divergence is not necessarily a bad thing, there’s nothing to say that ambient music should not be developed in this way. But all too often dungeon synth falls short on delivering content with lasting, multifaceted appeal one can truly sink their artistic and analytic teeth into. Old Sorcery certainly stand ahead of the pack in this regard, but they seem to be strongest when working in elements of black metal. ‘Realms of Magickal Sorrow’ has much to recommend it as a fine introduction to the genre. But it does not hold to ‘Sorrowcrown’, which ekes out narrative arcs, tension, rest, and contrast over its lengthy runtime that are simply lacking here.