In the 2019 novel A Song for a New Day, Sarah Pinsker imagined a world where music culture was changed by global pandemics. Performances by bands were streamed by an omnipresent corporation and live music was outlawed, sending its scenes into illegal underground venues. Aside from being written one year before the 2020 Covid pandemic, this speculative thought experiment was a fascinating perspective on how global crises would affect music. While reading this book, I kept thinking about how internet genres like dungeon synth would fit into this maybe not so speculative scenario. The multi-day D.I.Y. dungeon synth festival series Northeast Dungeon Siege has reshaped my understanding of how this genre fits into the world of performance as it grapples with events like global pandemics. Perhaps it is not as simple as I once thought—and for that, the style continues to be an enigma and source of fascination.

Performance has always been a foundational aspect of music. An artist holding a concert for an audience has been an integral part of music history. The internet is a strange thing and has changed the way we experience music and dungeon synth, for the most part, exists as a non-performance-based genre. Much like other microgenres (including vaporwave and witchhouse), dungeon synth exists as a release-based genre with little to no expectation of performing live. This allows the barrier for being a dungeon synth musician to be lower, thus allowing more people to participate who otherwise wouldn't have the gumption. One can be a dungeon synth artist and never leave their bedroom, let alone play their music live. This isolated aspect of the music is something that is most intriguing when dealing with the aforementioned global pandemic.

The 2020 COVID pandemic shut down the majority of entertainment outlets. Many musicians who relied on performance for income and social advertisement found themselves rudderless in a time with few opportunities and even fewer assurances. Dungeon synth musicians were not as affected as others who relied on performance. Postal services and mental well being of the musicians aside, dungeon synth existed in 2020 much like it had in 2019 and the year before that. It was a genre that was seemingly unaffected by a global crisis. While it is certainly a fanciful idea to think of this form of music as resilient to the real world, thus reinforcing its thematic of escapism, one has to deal with dungeon synth’s blossoming concert scene and how it adapted to this changing world.

The 2020 Northeast Dungeon Siege (NEDS) was supposed to take place April 3rd-5th in Worcester, Massachusetts. This was to be the festival’s second public outing and also an expansion to the previous series. It was to be held at a small yet intimate club called The Raven where the previous festival was held. Its organizers consisted of Phranick and Naginah of the Massachusetts based duo Sombre Arcane, and its fans were a mix of locals and out of towners arriving for the unique experience. As many can remember, April of 2020 was not the best time to be holding concerts and like many other performances, NEDS 2020 was cancelled and moved to a streaming platform with many changes to its lineup. While this fate was shared by many festivals and artists last year, the unfortunate circumstances led to a hybrid model for the series which settled into an unexpected surprise.

I watched this year’s NEDS festival with fascination and awe as the organizers not only managed to pull together some of the most venerable artists to perform, but also made the idea of streaming performances feel organic. Live music and streamed performances have had many successes and learning experiences in the past year to what is simply a substitute for a live experience and what is an extension. Dungeon synth's history as a bedroom genre lends itself to this hybrid model of streamed performances: as artists played in their living rooms, porches, or in the woods, each performance from this year’s NEDS festival felt like a showcase of personalities that ranged from the very theatric to the very utilitarian. While it is certain fans and organizers desire a live gathering, this hybrid model seems plausible for the future. As we make our way through 2021 into the future, the NEDS series has proved to be resilient in showcasing that dungeon synth that can operate in many aspects of performance.

I had a chance to speak to the organizers of the NEDS festival about the past, present, and future of dungeon synth performances, as it navigates a world where the idea of playing live may not be a certainty.

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How do most artists respond when asked to perform both in person and streamed? Are there artists that appreciate the sentiment but decline to perform?

For the in person festivals, almost everyone that we’ve reached out to has been very enthusiastic about getting involved. Yes, there have been a handful of artists who have expressed that they appreciate the invitation, but have declined. This has been due to everything from new family members on the way to work, to not knowing how to play the music live yet, to not believing that the music should be performed live at all. No one has been rude about declining and there have been relatively few declines in general.

For the streaming events it's been a bit more varied. Firstly we moved to streaming last minute due to the virus cancelling the in-person festival that was scheduled. Not everyone had the ability or technical requirements to be able to stream yet so unfortunately we had to swap out a number of acts that we were looking forward to seeing, but fortunately there were enough people willing to fill in their spots that we were also looking forward to eventually seeing them perform.

For our first streamed festival in 2020, almost no one (including us) knew how to stream. Shane spent a lot of time getting up to speed with all of the required technology and then reached out to the artists over virtual meetings and helped them install the software they needed, and helped with audio redirection etc. Since then streaming, or atleast web conferencing, has become more of a day-to-day operation for a lot of people so we’ve seen more and more people willing to give it a shot, and people are getting more comfortable really upping the ante. It’s really opened up our audience now that everyone can watch it. We followed the path that was forming in front of us, and stumbled our way through to finding something that has really allowed the still new “live” performance of DS to thrive.

What have been some drawbacks and benefits to switching to the streaming setup?

The main benefit to switching to the streaming setup is expanding our audience and artists beyond what was possible with the physical fest. It also has allowed for monthly 4+ band shows called Dungeon Skirmishes. There certainly is not enough interest for us to put together a monthly local show and even if there were, the pool of local artists would run out after about three. After the 2020 streaming festival we swapped from a fully “live” live-stream to pre-recorded performances. This allowed several more artists to get involved as they do not need a stable internet connection and can explore some avenues of performance that would be difficult to do fully live. It also allows us an easier time running the amount of artists that we do. In the live setting the 15 minute change-overs are a lot of work on the artist and stagehands. In the live streamed setting, it’s technically pressing play on some videos and songs to fill the intermission. That’s not to say that it isn’t filled without its own challenges but a lot of that is self-inflicted.

The major drawback from switching over to streaming is really the energy and connection of being together in person with a couple hundred people from around the globe that are all interested in something so niche and personal. The twitch chat is a workable substitution, but it just isn’t the same. With the first festival it was the first time anything of the sort had been done, and it was filled with artists who largely had never played live before, and with faces that had never seen each other before, and Mortiis was headlining. There were quite a few people who got to meet each other after years of talking together in comments and forum threads. There was a lot of magic there. We think that magic will continue. It is true that dungeon synth listeners tend to be on the introverted side but if you talk to those who came to the festival you will hear introvert after introvert tell you how it was one of the best experiences they have had and that they made a lot of deeply meaningful friendships. (There were quite a few extroverts there too and they had plenty of fun as well.) Both are great for their own reasons. We intend to continue in both directions, and merge where possible.

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What did Thorsten Quaeschning (Of Tangerine Dream) think of playing at a dungeon synth festival? Did anyone have to explain the style of music or was he aware?

Thorsten joining the Dungeon Synth Cult group is what sparked the idea of inviting him to perform at the festival, as it seemed obvious he was at least partially aware of the scene. He said that he would be happy to do it and he went on a bit of a deep dive for a couple of weeks. We spoke over instant messenger about the projects that he found inspiring and he asked for some specific recommendations. We were honored and really happy with the level of interest and dedication that he had. He could have taken our money and done anything he wanted but he really studied and added some dungeon synth stylings to his personal stylings. An homage to Dungeon Synth from Thorsten Quaschning was not something most of us would have seen coming!

From the two in person events you did, could you see dungeon synth be an in-person scene compared to a virtual scene of music?

Oh, absolutely. As wonderful as the virtual experience has been, those that can make it to the physical festival have definitely stated that they want to get back together in person again. The downside to the in-person festival is that the scope of artists and viewers is reduced. We are hoping that our next festival can be done in a hybrid mode. We are hoping to not only stream the in-person festival, but also stream some global artists into the venue. This will all take double the amount of work, so we will see what we can actually get done depending on the amount of volunteers we get.

How did the gaming setup go? Do you need any DMs for the future to run OSRs?

Prior in-person Siege events showcased tabletop gaming, but due to time constraints and conflicting schedules, a tabletop session couldn't lift off this year unfortunately. The limitations shifted our focus to blending the first three days of the festival into a showcase of video games with a dungeon synth-like aesthetic and highlighting NEDSTV Season II content. The most surprising part of shifting the focus was typing "dungeon synth" into Twitch's search bar and yielding results of creators who were already showcasing the music on the platform in some way. Thankfully many of the individuals we reached out to during that search were enthusiastic about the idea of creating pre-festival content for the channel, whether it was gaming or otherwise. Although the video game content was well-received, it would be nice to get back to NEDS tabletop roots, though. As of now, it's more about finding the willing bodies that have the dedication to make a campaign happen live for the world to see. If that is you, reach out, and let's talk.

What does the rest of 2021 look like and what about 2022?

For the remainder of 2021 we will be putting a lot of focus on NEDSTV Season II, which is a 13-week regular schedule programming. On Wednesdays we’ll have "Analog Dungeon" which has Eidolon showing off their 800+ dungeon synth tape collection about 5 at a time. They go through each, discussing what they enjoyed about the release and showing off the tape itself. Thursday nights we’ll have Phranick’s production show “Of Guild and Craft” which will be airing live as he goes through production tricks, deep listens of classic releases, and has guests to talk about all that goes into making a dungeon synth song, release or label. We’ll also be joined this season on Monday nights by Retcongreg who has been streaming regularly 2 - 3 days a week Possibly most exciting we’ll also be bringing back the Dungeon Skirmishes, which are like little mini-sieges of 4 artists, once per month - with an afterparty in the NEDSTV subscriber discord. Also we’ll be putting on more intimate performances within the discord’s “Bard Gallery” voice channel as well as continuing to host the “Conservatory” sessions we’ve been having where folks share their work with each other in a casual and welcoming environment - regardless of genre or discipline.

What about your plans for North East Dungeon Siege 2022?

Currently we are planning on regrouping at the end of the Summer to see where we stand with Covid before making any decisions. We want to make sure we are providing a safe experience for everyone. It seems like the world is starting to open up and the vaccinations are flowing (in America at least). This festival relies heavily on non-local attendees so we need to make sure that not only are airlines and hotels running at a normal capacity, but also that our potential attendees feel safe taking advantage of them. If we have our way 2022 will be a physical festival at the Raven which will be streamed on Twitch. We are also hoping to have some international artists streamed into the venue and broadcasted on the stage projector so that we can continue expanding the worldwide participation that streaming enabled.

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And now, we return to the Digest…

Spell of Unseeing is the work of Tim Rowland who had lent their craft to projects such as Hole Dweller and Bellkeeper. Rowland has an uncanny knack for channeling visions of the past and future and the debut from Spell of Unseeing is exemplary of this talent. Where as Hole Dweller pushes the progressive aspect mixed with retro synths and Bellkeeper explores the lore of the Dark Souls series, Spell of Unseeing travels to the early days of dungeon synth with monuments dedicated to its past as well as portals into its future. Much like the title indicates, Weaving Light and Shadow, the debut from the project, is a tapestry of the solemn and the majestic, paying tribute to luminaries such as Depressive Silence and Mortiis with sounds as magical as they are solemn. Rowland‘s work takes that sense of bleak magic and pushes it towards a place which is both reverent to the past while looking forward to the future. Spell of Unseeing, and whatever project name Rowland uses, promises excitement and Weaving Light and Shadow is another chapter from one of the more interesting artists in recent memory.

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Kyvon is new, with only two releases just this year. Despite the short time, this US artist has already landed a tape release with the fantastic label Ancient Meadow. It is not difficult to see why given the quality of Kyvon and their frostbitten fantasy. Frozen Grimoire follows the very competent debut The Memoirs of Lexx Fellmirr with similar thematics. Frozen Grimoire is inspired, dedicated, and constructed around the theme of a wintery setting with high fantasy and deep magic rolling in its icy locale. While the artist’s work has always leaned towards the style of winter synth, Frozen Grimoire surrenders to the aesthetics and plunges their fists into mounds of snow. With songs reaching into the 10 minute mark, Kyvon manages to ensnare an audience for a concert among ice and magic. The visual addition of Frozen Grimoire’s cover, which resembles an old Dungeons and Dragons module, sends this release over the top into the arms of listeners who just want to make a new character for this adventure.

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Desolation Plains is a US artist who not only is releasing their debut album but also an integrated, interactive game. This is wonderful, as character sheets, gamebooks, and other roleplaying ephemera only strengthens the bond between this style of music and immersive fantasy. Desolation Plains takes this further by offering a hex crawl game using the MÖRK BORG rules system to accompany the debut Sword of Hailstone. The craft and care that went into this debut is evident, as the full record package is full of wonder and magic. Inspired by the masters of dark dungeon synth, such as Old Sorcery and Murgrind, Desolation Plains is stylistically similar but never as bleak, since their music has an inherent sense of fascination and optimism. Sword of Hailstone offers the listener a multimedia experience that goes far beyond standard music and brings the participant into a world of role playing, danger, and wandering skeletons.

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Voices of the Ainur is a small label / podcast that has been featuring aggressively unknown artists since early this year. Now at 11 releases, this label is coming into their own and featuring some wonderful excavations from the far reaches of the dungeon synth kingdom. Meadow Grove is a Finnish artist who has been chronicling the life and times of the character Lord Baerston since 2019. Where some artists go for the passive medieval sound, Meadow Grove chooses to cast their music in high contrast with epic sounding synths that are both flamboyant and captivating. The Triumph of Lord Baerston is the first physical tape release from the artist and perhaps one of the better entry points into their style of epic dungeon synth. Eternally bright and luminous, The Triumph of Lord Baerston encapsulates the care and craft of a fictitious character set against the backdrop of bedroom wonder. If you come for anything, come for adventure and high drama.

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Draped in Shadows is the work of Sven Strack, also known as Murgrind. Murgrind is nearing legendary status in the dungeon synth community for 2013’s Journey Through the Mountain and 2015’s Inheritor of the Forest Throne. The work of Murgrind worships at the altar of classic dungeon synth while still carving out its own status in the contemporary scene. Draped in Shadows is a new venture for Sven Strack, which takes this reverence for classic dungeon synth and casts it in even more shades of darkness. .​.​.​And in the Autumn Night the Black Castle Rose II (original title in all lowercase) is the follow up to the 2019 debut of the same name and sees the artist still at the bottom of a cavern. Continuing to delve into the darkest of dungeons, Draped In Shadows wanders in catacombs, collecting artifacts and remnants of long dead adventurers. With thematics ranging from the aforementioned darkness to vampiric reverly,.​ .​.​.​And in the Autumn Night the Black Castle Rose II is intended for long protracted moments of grief and remembering. It is not a cheerful record, yet its beauty is celebrated by those in deep shadows.

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In 2020, Serbian artist Glog released three hypotonic releases, which ranged from dark ambient to neoclassical to winter synth. Two of those releases saw tape releases on two different labels this year: Zimyak's CookBook: Drunken Lamb Goulash on Weregnome Records and Lord of the Fourth Wind on Gondolin. I feel this is a wonderful time to take shelter in a witch's hut while a strange stew is being made in the corner with an artist who is wild and wonderful. With a monochromatic album cover, Lord of the Fourth Wind presents itself as a tome of raw magic, which is both inviting and chilling. Through six tracks of considerable length, Glog strikes a balance between melodies that hypnotize and others that terrify when creeping out of dark tunnels. This is the charm of Glog as the atmosphere can be as strange as it is comforting. If this Lord of the Fourth Wind is interesting to some, know that the artist's repertoire is varied and full of surprises like a witch's hut at the edge of the woods.

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Weregnome Records is a newish label that has dedicated themselves to bringing some of the more odd and ill fitting dungeon synth varieties to town and selling them at a ramshackle stand. It is always a party with this label and I never know what I will end up with. The Sacred Mound by Swedish Artist Borg is more like a mythical forest being than a record. This 2020 release is one of many in the artist's repertoire that takes the majesty of folk music and transforms it into a woodland pageant urging its listeners to dance until the trees come alive. With as much dirt as shine, The Sacred Mound is an embrace of the ugly and the divine, which showcases both the seren calm of dungeon synth as well as the tangled brambles of music that lays out in the hinterlands. I never thought medieval influenced music could sound so dangerous and unpredictable.

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The label/collective Nuova Materia lists their music on the Bandcamp page as “cinematic music from unseen worlds.” Zofie Siege, the artist, and the release, When Fate Was Fair, are the second release from Nuova Materia and continues this project's quest to be as nebulous as possible. With a hand in dungeon synth, dark ambient, drone, and folk music, as well as inspiration from the Berlin School, Zofie Siege plunges into worlds that are beyond the reach of most people and plays concerts for mythical creatures beyond mirrors in abandoned mansions. When Fate Was Fair is a truly astounding work that is dedicated to fans of the raw and ethereal sounds of dungeon synth as well as the spectral forms who creep around abandoned mansions. I am a supporter of strange sounds and Zofie Siege is right on this track, making chamber music for dreams that might be heard in worlds unseen.

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Lovi is a good place to talk about medieval folk and its relation to fantasy ambient. Similar to Borg, Lovi explores dungeon synth outside of the castle catacombs and hallowed halls and in the wild and ancient forests. Kirmukarmu is this Finnish artists’ second release and continues the even more specific style of Nordic folk, which uses the sound to explore the traditions and sounds of Scandavian mythology and culture. Kirmukarmu comes to us from the mind and heart of Otso Mäensivu ,who lent his talents to the Finnish funeral doom band The Shape of Despair. Lovi might seem to have journeyed far from the bleak atmosphere of funeral doom, yet the craft and dedication of the artist is something that still lends itself to soft medieval folk. I have always believed medieval and Celtic folk to be inherently connected to the genre of dungeon synth and Kirmukarmu strengthens my belief.

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Library Of The Occult is a UK based label that specializes in...well...the sounds of the occult. Told through an alchemical landscape of 1980’s synth, 1960’s library music, and 1940’s paranormal pulp fiction, this music collective uses synth as a means of expressive narration. The Dream Division, as well as most acts on Library of the Occult, are the work of Tom McDowell. Legend of Lizard Lake is Dream Divisions’ third release and sends the listener on a joyride of thematic and expositional terror. While music can be classified as synthwave, Dream Division spends most of its time studying the manuals of John Carpenter, Mort Garson, and Vangelis with a release that is the soundtrack to the coolest movie never made. Legend of Lizard Lake is entirely entertaining through its running time and cements Library of the Occult as a visionary that will probably go mad with their visions.

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Italian collective Heimat Der Katastrophe is astounding and really could have an entire page of text dedicated to its releases. Since 2017, this tape label has released music ranging from ambient punk to minimal synth to outrun to dungeon drone. Its aesthetic lies anywhere from forgotten RPG manuals of the 1980s to post WWIII fallout to the dystopian technocracy in the year 2525. CREUTZFELDT JAKOBS is from Sweden and In the Bright Darkness is the group’s first release, and it is something that I never would have thought of but absolutely craved. Dedicated to the sound of Eastern European synth laying both outside and in the iron curtain, this group rides a wave of aesthetic that feels effortless and absolutely sublimeIn the Bright Darkness comes with the description of being "inspired by old BBC-soundtracks and early 80´s balkan-synth scene” while “composed and recorded using old synths, tape decks and other forms of obsolete technology.''. This is a sound that is moving beyond dungeon synth to, perhaps, something else entirely. The artist, and label’s openness for other sounds and full experimentation allows people to explore worlds far beyond home and outside of their time period.

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