Naïve Magic: A Dungeon Synth Digest #4: Heimat Der Katastrophe (Interview + Roundup)
Love In A Radioactive Era: The Weird Fiction of HDK
The cultural concept of liminality has gone through many changes leading to an idea in sort of a transitory space. Originally, liminality described the transitional period one would enter after a rite of passage or ritual between two stations of being or thinking. The term liminality, or liminal space, has been applied to cultural transitions that describe the ambiguous social, political, or cultural metamorphosing stages, where the past has been discarded yet the future still has not been established. In this space between things, everything once known no longer applies, but the new has yet to be confirmed. It is an uneasy and exciting space where nothing exists concretely and everything is possible. Liminal space has also become a popular aesthetic to describe physical spaces, which hold the memories of old establishments. The concept is defined by pictures of old shopping malls, schools during the summer, or the shell of past cultures. The clash between the current situation and its perceived past provides an uncanny space for its participants. Liminality is what I think about when listening to the releases from Italian tape label Heimat Der Katastrophe (HDK). While this might seem like an overreaching concept for a tape label, the concepts and aesthetics formed in these releases push one into this space where the past is gone and the future has yet to render.
I have been interested in HDK since their earliest dungeon synth releases. Kobold’s The Cave Of The Lost Talisman (2017) and Basic Dungeon’s Tunnels & Treasures (2018) saw dungeon synth cast in the sounds of old computer games. The label pushed the retro aesthetic through both visuals and sounds, which made these dungeon synth releases feel like a world of their own. While dungeon synth was mine, and many others, entry into this label, it is only after one gets in that they start to find a whole catalog of music that defies conventional description. Everything from minimal synth, library music, harsh techno, to Poliziotteschi soundtracks is packaged together and released on tapes with heavy fictional aesthetics. Strange backstories that mix facts and mythology provide the background for the releases, which cast the listener into this transitory space between truth and fiction. Adding onto this, HDK has also embraced tabletop games within their releases, which lead to a strange catalog of music that also possesses various degrees of interaction with the listener. HDK is a music label, an art project, a game supplier, and also an author of weird fiction.
One of the more intriguing facets of this label is a micro series called “Post Nuclear Wave.” This series has focused on the imaged landscapes told in the language of dystopian thematics. Beginning in with David Stone’s ガンマの年の反乱軍 [The Renegades Of Year Gamma] (2018), the post Nuclear Wave Series is part clearing house for vintage obscura and part worldbuilding, where the future is defined by events that have yet to occur. Other releases like CREUTZFELDT JAKOBS’ In the Bright Darkness (2021) are “inspired by old BBC-soundtracks and the early 80´s balkan-synth scene” while BMKH’s BMKH (2020) reflects on Italian history during the Cold War through minimal synth, artsy industrial, and soundtracks of police movies. There are also releases like TSAR-BOMB’s Bajkonur (2020) that tell the tragic tale of a failed Russian space exploration while Max Roguish - Lightbrite (2020) tells a different tale with a vampire biker seeking revenge in a post-fallout megalopolis. The pastiche of sounds and styles, combined with the love for tabletop games makes these releases, both in the Nuclear Wave Series and on the rest of the catalog, feels dangerous, confusing, and intriguing.
I included the most recent CREUTZFELDT JAKOBS release in a previous digest. When writing about it, I thought about how I could probably do an entire feature on this label as they continue to be a marvel in thought and sound. Luckily for me, the custodians of HDK were kind enough to answer some of my questions. They were as excited to talk about their releases as I was to listen to them. We mused over games, niche genres of music, and obscure Italian horror movies in a clandestine basement in an undisclosed location. It is my hope that one day I will truly understand the mind of this label, but I feel each time I have a grasp, something new muddles my understanding. Perhaps it is this space between knowing and not knowing is where these ideas flourish and make worlds that have yet to ripen.
HDK seemed to have begun partially in the dungeon synth scene. How did the label begin and how do you feel dungeon synth was involved in its creation?
HDK: Among the many strange genres we are passionate about, dungeon-synth (DS) certainly had a privileged role for a certain period which coincided with the beginning of HDK, but at the basis of HDK we would say that it is simply a generic concept of "weird instrumental music". We also like to focus on the descriptive and narrative power of music, which is why we love those kinds of music that "decorate the spaces" or the soundtracks. As for the DS, we were young when the classic records came out in the 90s. Did we like them? Probably not. We were misfits in our twenties and just wanted to headbang all day. When the DS revival began in 2014-15 thanks to Bandcamp, we suddenly became fans of those sounds that we had previously snubbed. I think that many people have lived this strange parable. Over the course of 20 years the way music is used has changed a lot, bringing more reflective genres to find new spaces and ways of listening.
How was HDK born? We hate it when people say what we're about to say, but basically it is: HDK was born... by chance. Mainly to release the first catalog's number, KWME's Soldiers …, something we had recorded on commission and that was sleeping in our hardisk. The first print run of that tape sold 2 copies. It cannot be called a success. Then, that summer of 2017, a furry humanoid named Kobold knocked on our door with the album Cave Of The Lost Talisman and it felt magical. When we released that and the first Basic Dungeon album (which one of us composed during his lunch break at work) we had no expectations but soon discovered that a lot of people loved those albums as much as we did. We discovered - months after months - a very lively scene, spread all over the world, full of passionate people and it was very good for us. So we went on, and here we are, a hundred albums later.
HDK goes beyond one genre and in fact seems to operate on the crossover of different genres. Where do you find these artists? Do you seek them out on the internet or are some of them in the local underground?
We respect very much strictly-DS labels like Gondolin or Out of Season and many others, which only release DS records and have an exclusive devotion to the genre, but we would not be able to have this seriality and coherence under the musical aspect. We are too messy in our moods and interests not to mix (sometimes clumsily) different inputs. The concept of "game" is the basis of HDK, so... we like to play: mix different genres, concepts, elements with a little recklessness and see what comes up. Sometimes it's good, other times it's not, but the good thing about music is that you don't risk anything if things go wrong.
We come from the punk scene and there we know a lot of creative people with a healthy anarchist view of music and art. Today it is not difficult to find guys who are part of punk bands and who simultaneously cultivate strange electronic music/visual art projects ... Some HDK artists such as Black Tiger, Polonius, Hoppo, BMKH, Gnoll, Kobold, Spectraum, Doom Catacomb, Dunjon Magik. .. they come from the punk or indie scene and are people we see every day in our city. Some of these even ... we are ourselves! :)
Then there are cool artists strictly-DS like Sidereal Fortress, Vandalorum, Pafund and Mausolei with whom we came into contact via e-mail, so the collaboration was born through the internet. We think that, beyond the music that is always important, the setting and the concept are fundamental: DS music is highly evocative, it must transport us to another world, describe landscapes and tell stories. Many times, when an artist offers us his record, a lot of the work we do together is focused on enriching the music with all that imagery that makes some DS albums unforgettable. In fact, the best way we prefer to work is to "commission" a story (or a real RPG module) and then have it set to music by providing the artist with a tracklist. This is how HDK's most popular albums were born.
The label seems to be friendly to the punk scene. Are you integrated with the local Italian punk scene? Do they also share your vision of strange music?
We are 100% involved in the local punk scene. Each of us has been playing in punk bands since we were 17-18 years old. We traveled the world with our punk band called Kalashnikov Collective and organized hundreds of concerts in Milan with local punk collectives. We are the oldest punks in our city and sometimes young people make fun of us for it, as young punks should do with old ones. Over so many years, we have absorbed every aspect of the DIY ethic of underground punk - it has been so important in the creation and management of HDK. In Italy, anyway, the DS is not such a widespread musical genre in the punk community ... I think it is a genre appreciated mainly by metalheads and, at least in our case, by RPG enthusiasts.
You began a micro series / genre called Post Nuclear Wave which seems to be an aesthetic genre as well as a musical one that combines a lot of different genres. How did that begin and where is it going?
It is definitely a conceptual and not a musical series. The "Post-Nuclear Wave" series is at the same time a look back on the clichés of the pop culture of the Cold War era, which we lived as children, but also on real life in those years and on the common feeling of people. There is a reworking of that paranoid imaginary that characterized our childhood in the 1980s, but also of the whole era in which the world was divided into two opposing blocks: the fear of a third world war, secret space programs, espionage, the atomic apocalypse ... we are passionate about the history of the cold war, especially from the point of view of the Soviet bloc and we wanted to inaugurate that series to decline this passion in music.
For some reason, I feel you could recommend some old weird movies I haven't seen. Give me a double feature to watch with friends.
Wow, in our life we have seen more weird movies than normal, that's certainly not a problem. We recommend some DS-vibes Italian classics including La Maschera del Demonio [The Mask of the Devil] (1960), Suspiria (1970) and E tu vivrai nel terrore! L'aldilà [.. And you will live in terror! The Beyond] (1980). If you are an experienced on old Italian giallo-horror and you have already seen these for sure, we will give you some really rare but absolutely incredible titles like L'amante del Vampiro [The Vampire's Lover](1960), Nuda per Satana [Naked for Satan] (1974) , Assassinio al cimitero etrusco [The Scorpion with Two Tails] (1982), Rats - Notte di Terrore [Rats - Night of Terror] (1984).
What have been some of your favorite 2021 releases? This could be dungeon synth or something beyond.
The thing we like about the Dungeon-synth is that it is often a starting point for developing weird and original musical directions; in 2021 we loved Scrying Glass’s Beyond Sight, Dream Division's Legend of Lizard Lake and Dungeon Guerrilla's Hunt on the Nazi Necromancer. If we have to mention a more "classic" DS album, we can say Castle Zagyx’s Doors to the Battlefields of Ertbe.
What does the rest of the year hold for the label? What about next year?
We will try to make regular releases throughout the year and the next, of course if our mental health supports us. Obviously we have a lot of strange projects in the works, this is obvious. We will soon start releasing our most famous albums on vinyls in the "HDK Classic Series". Before the Covid Era we were planning a DS Festival in Milan & Berlin with our russian friend, maybe we can resume that idea…
Even though I have a pile of dungeon synth related material to review, I am going to conclude this article with some of the 2021 releases from HDK. While I could talk about their entire catalog, just pulling out a few tapes from this year will illuminate the variety of sounds. Much like the label, this roundup will begin with dungeon synth and end somewhere far beyond. I thank HDK for doing what they are doing, as I feel it is a magnet for people with weird taste in music and ones who desire experimentation of sound.
Many of HDK’s releases come with a conceptual flood that I feel could intimidate or intrigue certain people. Red Gremlin’s The Rise of the Gazunderlings comes with the pitch of combining fantasy RPG monsters and pro labor politics. Referencing the UK Miners Strike of 1984-85, the Gazunderlings rise up and rebel against the Goblins, who have exploited the Gazunderlings for far too long. Told through the narrative of minimal dungeon synth, Red Gremlin transposes history and politics with fantasy aesthetics in a release that even comes with stat blocks for the protagonists. Using the language of noisy dungeon synth, which really sounds like a processing machine for computation, Red Gremlin takes on an important pol;itical and social cause and deals with it in the realm of fantasy. It is a fascinating release which is intriguing in both the realm of the real and the imagined.
Lone Wolf is a gamebook (interactive fantasy fiction) series from the UK that began in 1984 and currently has 31 volumes detailing this martial art / sword & sorcery epic. Gnoll’s Flight from the Dark pays tribute to this seminal piece of interactional fiction with an unofficial soundtrack to the series. Taking dungeon synth and shadowing it with John Carpenter synthwave, Flight From Dark is a fitting tribute to a game series that deserves more attention. This is Gnoll’s 6th release on HDK, making it one of the longest running artist(s) in the label. Flight From The Dark also comes with official artwork from the series’ original illustrator, making this release an escapist passion project from people who truly adore gaming.
Basic Dungeon serves an important purpose for HDK in that the label can worship at the altar of old fantasy video games. Since 2018, this artist(s) has made dungeon synth but with the aesthetic of a soundtrack for a 16 bit Sega Genesis game. This project was one of the first HDK releases and I have a feeling it is heavily connected to one of the labels’ creators. Perils In The Slums Scenario 3 is the third part of an interactive module that sees unnamed adventurers entering the final dungeon called the Maze of Death. This release comes with a dungeon map with different scenarios keyed to parts of the dungeon. The soundtrack is a whimsical carnival of chip inspired dungeon synth that oozes off of the tape, conjuring images of sprite based dungeon crawls and scary monsters as dark as a backlit screen.
The Dungeon Synth Magazine (DSM) series is something that HDK has been operating since December of 2020. Part zine and part showcase of new talent, these tape releases feature four dungeon synth artists from various locations all with lengthy tracks for discovery. Later in July we will be getting the third volume from this series, but to catch up before that release we have tracks from Glog, 13th Scale, Alkilith, and Nekmunnit. While only some of those names might be familiar, the discovery aspect of this magazine is part of the experience, with each track offering an accompanying zine of fiction not unlike the pulp stories of the golden age of magazines. The DSM series is one of the most exciting new series this label is producing, as it showcases a variety of dungeon synth talent with an extra step in immersion.
Doom Catacomb has been making music since 2018 when they released The Empire Of The Necromancers. Using classic dungeon synth as a sound and dedicating it to the fiction of Clark Ashton Smith, Doom Catacomb struck an accord between droning Berlin School soundscapes, obscure nautical history, and weird fiction. Polar is the fourth release from the mysterious entity with an album dedicated to the arctic voyages of 16th century explorer Sir Hugh Willoughby. Accompanied by an extensive zine detailing the perilous voyage through the Northern Sea Route, Polar seeks to pay tribute to Willoughby and his crew who perished during the voyage. Through hazy Tangerine Dream-esque soundscapes, Polar is a eulogy to this ill fated captain and seeks to construct a tombstone made from the drones of winter synth.
Speedway’s Deathblow is perhaps the one example I can point to in order to illustrate the interactive immersion in these releases. Not only is this release a fantastic ride in retro minimal synth, which sounds like slowed down synthpop running on worn VHS tape, but it is the soundtrack to a complete tabletop RPG game. By using a d4, listeners and players can enter the world of Deathblow, which is populated by cartoon-like gangs, seedy landscapes, and action scenes out of a Charles Bronson film. The rule system can be read on a website, which presents a very loose and chaotic approach to tabletop games and assaults one's idea of organized play. The lite rules system combined with the aesthetics compliments the music, which will run endlessly as you trawl the streets of Reaper City looking for trouble.
In the world of weird, A. Ralla takes the silent crown of being perhaps the weirdest of the lot. La Gabbia Umana is the soundtrack to an unaired science fiction television movie that was supposed to be broadcast in 1979. Due to the death of its director, Antonio Rasiera, from complications of an unknown disease, the production was never complete and its finished material, like its soundtrack, was archived in the basement of the Docuvideo TV network. The La Gabbia Umana soundtrack only survives today due to an anonymous sender who uncovered the reels and sent them to the HDK office. This is the moment when one has to decide which reality they would like to live in. One is where the backstory is a fictional aesthetic and the other is where non-existent soundtracks are unarchived and worshiped on cassette tapes. Both are honestly valid and both are extremely fun.