Kaptain Carbon’s Top Dungeon Synth of 2021
2021 was an important year for me as I got the chance to start a dungeon synth column for Invisible Oranges. I have been following the dungeon synth community for years and this new publication allowed me to share my obsessive ravings with more people. 2021 continued my amazement for dungeon synth for not only the amount of quality releases by both artists and labels but also the positive nature of everyone involved. When I first discovered dungeon synth in the mid 2010's, there was an enthusiastic energy which galvanized everyone involved to continue exploring and imagining. The last few years for dungeon synth has continued this initial feeling as the dungeon synth scene continues to be a positive environment for both artist and listener. While I am sure nothing is absolute and you can find negativity anywhere, I have admired the progressive nature of this scene both in sound and in spirit. This, of course, is just the opinion of a person who has decided to be really into a niche style of music and make monthly columns about its music.
20. Mirthquell – Return of the Ancient (Independent, USA)
19. Kyvon – The Frozen Grimoire (Ancient Meadow Records, USA)
18. Sunken Grove – In The Shades of Sleeping Leaves (Independent, US)
17. Desolation Plains – Sword of Hailstone (Independent, USA)
16. Water Nymph – Heroic Pond of Love (Grime Stone Records, USA)
15. LICHENCLOAK – A004 - LICHENCLOAK (Acanthus, USA)
14. Old Wizard – Old Wizard II (Independent, Italy)
13. Aindulmedir – The Winter Scriptures (Hypnagoga Press, Sweden)
12. Erang – PRISONNIER DU RÊVE (Independent, France)
11. Jenn Taiga – Lunar Nocturnes and Esoteric Incantations (Tridroid Records, USA)
Out of everything on this list, Wallachian Cobwebs is perhaps the most morose and grim of the lot. Night Sobbed a Potion Diseased might make the most sense for people coming from heavy metal. Wallachian Cobwebs is a shrouded figure beckoning in a sea of fog and gloom. It urges its listener to travel further into desolate lands comforted by wailing cries. At 37 minutes, Night Sobbed a Potion Diseased is not only an old school dungeon synth inspired record, it is a glacial declaration of unshakable grief. If the cover is any indication, the listener will be clumped over a table succumbing to inevitable cobwebs and dust.
Whenever I listen to Hewer of Caves, I feel I am catching a group of forest elves busy at work on some magical construct. I interrupt them yet instead of being upset, they invite me into their confidence to share their secrets. Cutting of the Calyx is constructed from idyllic synth, medieval aesthetics, and powered by an arcane atmosphere. Cutting of the Calyx is a release which is minimal in its production yet its execution paints dense forests inhabited by friendly creatures. I never expected to run into a release like this and Cutting of the Calyx and Hewer of Caves turned into one of my favorites for 2021. I never expected this but am grateful for its experience.
I feel the music for New Dawn is inspiring enough to want to join a pirate crew in a world that is far away from the present. Since 2018, Ur Pale has been working in the hilariously populated field of "sea synth." New Dawn is your standard dungeon synth but now dancing a jaunty jig on the deck of a golden boat. Invoking the ghosts of seafarers, mythical monsters, and underwater treasure protected by mermaids, Ur Pale whisks its listener far away from land to plunge in the pastel waters of an endless ocean. New Dawn continues the tradition for Ur Pale to trade dungeon synth's monochrome color palette for something more bright, vibrant, and possibly with a little bit more flair.
Dungeontroll was a Canadian fantasy synth artist who up until 2021 produced nine records of melodic and medieval synth. Mournful Melodies of Ophior's Grotto is the final record from a conceptual series detailing vignettes of a fantasy world. The closing chapter for this saga is perhaps the most engaging and immersive release to date. While adhering to the bedroom aesthetics of dungeon synth but also employing enough craft for immersion, the music of Dungeontroll is a classic sound which is escapist in its nature, almost begging its listener to forget their surroundings and travel into the creator's imagination which has been named "The Forests of Uzohr."
Sage of Seers represents dungeon synth's ability to be unassuming. Released in June of 2021 with little fanfare, Watching From Within is a gripping release I feel no one has heard but would love if they did. With equal parts melody and atmosphere, Sage of Seers constructs lullabies which entrance its listener in ambient hypnosis. Part of the obsession with this release is the lack of information regarding its composer, if there will be a followup, or if I am just dreaming this whole time. Accessible and yet utterly mysterious, Watching From Within represents unassuming treasures waiting for others to discover its riches.
The use of Tolkien lore and imagery isn't new in the world of dungeon synth. You can go back to the genre's roots and find people obsessed with Tolkien. Ithildin's use of Lord of the Rings as a theme may not be novel but it turns into a vehicle for one of the most intriguing and unexpected dungeon synth records of 2021. With both traditional bedroom fantasy ambient that occasionally lapses into surreal experimentation, A Long Expected Party is a model for the unassuming artist who releases their work without much fanfare or even promotion. Packed within its modest running time is an adventure that very much like its literary inspiration takes its listener on an adventure into unexpected places. A Long Expected Party reminded me of why I enjoyed this genre so much with its lofi landscapes which are both cozy and challenging.
Usually, I only like to review and include material released in the current year. Dungeon synth is different as there is some music which only came to light in the current year. Additionally, there is a large period in December which gets released and discovered the following month. Earthly Delights is a compilation of music made in December 2020, combined with January 2021 tracks, and released on tape by Neverwood Records. Earthly Delights serves as a proper introduction to Chanterelle which is dungeon synth's most reliable mushroom dealer. At its very core, the music for Chanterelle is bare synth over droning atmospheres. At times, there is barely anything here but within those empty spaces vast ghostly kingdoms are created. With mystical minimalism and delicate footsteps, the music of Chanterelle dances around like fairies making rings on the forest floor. Few times in my career as a dungeon synth fan, have I been so enamored with a compilation and a collection I am ecstatic was put together.
Who would have guessed 2021 would be the year of not only a new cinematic adaptation of Dune but also one of the best dungeon synth records devoted to its lore? L A N D S R A A D was perhaps not expecting this amount of attention as their debut The Golden Path is seeing a tape release from Vicious Mockery and a deluxe edition from Violet Nebula. L A N D S R A A D is a project from the UK based Orcus who is also behind other ventures such as Scenic Railway and Wych Elm. The Golden Path is a landmark record not only for dungeon synth but also the emerging appreciation for Berlin school and cosmic synth and it could not have come from a more component composer. The fact L A N D S R A A D chose this time and this theme for their debut feels like the fateful alignment of celestial bodies. The Golden Path's soundscapes combined with the story of Dune makes it an unofficial companion to the new movie and an official soundtrack while I reread the novel.
Jake Dunwoody was the artist behind Effluvium. In the mid 2010's, I wrote about Effluvium in my dungeon synth digests, always saving the work for the end of the article where all of the oddballs would gather. Effluvium's work was challenging and inspired me to be weirder and unconventional. The work represented the untamed weirdling spirit which made dungeon synth so wonderful and unpredictable. Effluvium was a talisman which could inspire others to take chances and be odd. Earlier this year, Moonworshipper Records released Symphony #2, a posthumous release and memorial for Jake Dunwoody who passed away in May of 2020. Symphony #2 is a memorial of working material that serves as a testimonial and best guess to an unfinished work that no one will truly know how it ends. Symphony #2 is dangerous and unpredictable and defies even the conventions of dungeon synth. It is truly a spirit of the strange. I never thought of Effluvium as a traditional artist and these chaotic chords of dissonance will be how I will remember Jake and the work of Effluvium.
It was difficult to put my top 10 list into order as I enjoy the chaos of "no specific order." I also found more than 50 releases I could enjoy this year. I knew however, that Keys to Oneiria and their debut Worlds Between would be near the top. This certainty was not just because its creator lies behind so many projects in this community but also because Worlds Between is a touchstone fantasy ambient release which might define dungeon synth for many years after. Keys to Oneiria is a project from the creator of Fogweaver, Snowspire, Delmak-O, and Hideous Gomphidius, as well as caretaker for Fabelgalde Records. Keys to Oneiria's debut represents the hazy journey one person undertakes when traveling through dungeon synth. It is mystical and archetypal providing only vague directions in a world of fog ultimately leaving most of its decisions to its listener. Its world is full of tragedy and wonder which both dance throughout a space of raw ambience. Words Between is a record I would give someone new to dungeon synth as its presence leads into so many more questions and explorations. It inspires one to wander without any destination chosen. Worlds Between, even outside of the oeuvre of its creator can stand as a singular doorway into a world of melancholy and magic approaching places undiscovered.