The ambient hut: Arcanist


Do you ever wonder what it would actually be like to exist in the worlds depicted on dungeon synth and black metal albums covers? Artworks that speak of high adventure, mysticism, the binary moral codes of battle and the obscurantist esoterica of mysterious pantheons. These works – even those of a violent or threatening aesthetic – beckon us in, inviting us to inhabit these worlds in a more literal manner than the music sitting behind the artworks.

But now and then the thought strikes me, whether of actually existing or fabricated history, or of an explicitly fantastical origin, the music these covers are put in service of would simply not exist in these worlds. The heavy industry, mass production, global supply chains, power grids, and raw materials required to create a genre like dungeon synth would negate the fragile ecosystems implied by these visual renderings of fantasy, wilderness, and augmented history. The inherent tragedy of expressing this deep yearning, this wistful desire to be swept away into these worlds through technologies and means of distribution, the very existence of which implies the impossibility of such tranquil, solitary, unspoiled scenes of fantasy, adventure, and mysticism. The mundanity of consumer capitalism is a prerequisite for the existence of the computer and synthesiser, yet through this we articulate our desire to be free of this totalitarian plastic boredom.   

It is with this rather melancholy preoccupation that we turn to ‘Poseidonis’, the debut album from French dungeon synth outfit Arcanist. Although referencing the weird fiction of the early 20th Century, specifically Clark Ashton Smith, medieval and renaissance aesthetics, and the dungeon synth that preceded it, if one took this album at face value without any foreknowledge, it would present as remarkably futurist. Arcanist profess a love for the Berlin school of ambient, and are clearly attempting to meld this with more traditional dungeon synth ephemera.

With all that in mind, good form requires that we acknowledge that ‘Poseidonis’ is a cut above the usual dungeon synth furniture music. The synth patches are rich, the melodies fully matured, the arrangements nuanced and engaging. Although they borrow heavily from the harmonic sequences of Tangerine Dream et al, the tracks are shorter and more focused, they present as more literal narratives than the abstract, non-linear story arcs of their German forbears. Indeed, amidst a backdrop of multi layered chord sequences and detailed sonic soundscaping lead refrains crop up like themes in a novel, and though expressed via synth tones they feel as if they were written for acoustic instrumentation, such is their expressive and spontaneous presentation.

With that in mind, it’s worth asking if we should even consider this a work of dungeon synth. The artist self-identifies as such, but this work is almost too sophisticated to be branded as such. Or, to be charitable, we could say it is one of a handful of works that elevates the form above its current semi-ironic/semi-novelty status, and into a “legitimate” musical expression.

There is a willingness to explore music for its own sake, both traditionally formed and explicitly experimental. One can enjoy this as a sonic journey in its own right, totally divorced from the dungeonic tradition. But further, the odd chimeras that make up the conceptual material of artists like Arcanist always invokes that feeling of disquiet. The futurist 70s music Arcanist profess a love for awaited a bold utopia that looks more remote now than ever, and will probably never arrive for humanity. Equally, the fantastical and historic aspirations of dungeon synth are complete fabrications, stitched together from artistic wish lists rather than any desire to communicate meaningful expressions to the world.

It is perhaps unfair to burden ‘Poseidonis’ with such steep demands. It cannot bare the weight of questions that should be aimed at the dungeon synth movement more broadly. But the retro-futurism of this album mixed with its dungeonic aspirations make for an uncanny brew of postmodern play. But if we set that aside for the sake of a moment of pure experience, this album stands apart from the usual crop of dungeon synth for its sophistication, expressive range, and multifaceted arrangements one can get lost in at their pleasure.

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