The ambient hut: Castlesiege

The Council of Trees

Dungeon synth is the expression of a desire to return to innocence, at least the explicitly high fantasy variant touted on ‘The Council of Trees’ by Castlesiege. Far from being a disparagement however, this observation is made with a view to unpacking the ways in which dungeon synth articulates a yearning for humanity to collectively return to a state of infancy. Fables, fairy tales, mythologies, all populate literature and media aimed at children, but these themes – whether aesthetically or philosophically – maintain a strong grip over our imaginations well into adulthood, beyond it allowing us superficial relief from the relentless drudgery of material demands.

The Tolkienist branch of fantasy that evolved from 1950s onwards was a branch of postmodernism. One maintaining a particular interest in the myths and legends that populated pre-Christian Northern Europe, combining and montaging them in new and novel ways. This is an expression of a communal (as opposed to personal) desire to return to youth, a desire for humanity to collectively return to a pre-modern stage of naivety. An epoch – however fabricated in modernity’s collective psyche – where much of the world remained undiscovered, its physical mechanics could be influenced by spell and ritual, and personal action was determined by a clear sense of right and wrong borne out by the reality that confronted individuals.

Castlesiege embody dungeon synth’s interpretation of what it means for post rational humanity to reacquaint itself with an imagined form of the pre-rational. A glossy, idealised view of human experience before the age of discovery and enlightenment, when the figments of myth and legend held as much sway over people’s lives as algorithms and big data currently hold over our own. The fantasy genre harnesses the technology of industrialisation – whether this be print media, computer graphics, digital recording techniques, or the internet’s infrastructure – to explore and articulate a vision of pre-industrial humanity. Importantly, the vision expressed by advocates of high fantasy are conscious of, but untroubled by, what the reality was for the majority of people living in an age that lacked basic healthcare and civil liberties.

Under this reading, we could view Castlesiege as a form of reflexive naivety. The artist and listener are aware of the obvious fact that the fantasy world expressed on ‘The Council of Trees’ is completely fabricated, professing no realism, borrowing the imagery and perceived romance of antiquity’s inherent simplicity. They are also aware that expressing this through entirely electronic instrumentation and digital distribution carries with it a degree of irony. But they wilfully, with eyes wide open, turn away from these contradictions to indulge in the sensation of collective infancy untroubled by the internal contradictions of such an act being carried out by digital natives.

Authenticity, faithfulness to any source material, or historical accuracy, all are far from the point. What matters to high fantasy dungeon synth is the expression of this yearning. It draws on a set of shared aesthetic and sonic symbols. The interpretation of these symbols is agreed within the community to constitute the ontology of fantasy as a desire for infancy, simplicity, adventure, quests defined by their clarity of purpose, and esoteric mysticism with boundless potential for lore renewal.  

We all know the escapism and vibrant world building of high fantasy are concocted entirely from our imaginations, triggered by chimeras of folklore and pre-Christian theology, but we collectively negotiate and interpret what the aesthetics and common musical themes and timbres utilised across dungeon synth signify despite their inherent syntheticism, and we have all silently agreed to participate in this naivety.

If we did not, and instead engaged in precisely what I am doing here by interrogating the hidden guts of dungeon synth’s regressive ethos, the spell would break, and we’d be left with nothing but the reality that it’s time to return to the office and crack on with the desk job. ‘The Council of Trees’ is emblematic of dungeon synth as a postmodernist commentary on our desire to wind back the clock to humanity’s infancy, to re-imagine it as a utopia where risk is always reducible to clear moral binaries. As society grows more incomprehensible, unjust, destructive, and recklessly hedonistic in its nihilism, the regressive appeal of reflexive naivety is not hard to understand.   

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