A Love Letter To Low Fidelity

Low fidelity, or "lo fi," has been an aesthetic trend among dungeon synth perhaps since its inception in the 1990s. The term refers to the production quality of the recordings, which gives the sound an unrefined feel. Dungeon synth's beginnings came from musicians making solo synth records in home studios and releasing them on underground tape labels, making the lo fi aesthetic inherent to the meager systems these artists could cobble together. This at-home production, combined with dungeon synth's love for fantasy, gives the genre a sense of escapism that traverses its production limitations. Much like a fantasy paperback with garish artwork on its front cover, there is a charm in the unrefined. Dungeon synth's low fidelity both anchors one in reality while traveling to imaginary places. This sheer veil of imagination reminds one that fantasy does not have to be bold or perfect to be loved, rather the places where one goes or the means they use to get there can be flawed yet still utterly beautiful. The lo fi aesthetic is what separates dungeon synth from the greater sea of ambient music, as its bedroom qualities evoke a sense of intimacy as it casts its spells.

"Raw Ambient" is a term I use when talking about dungeon synth that leans very heavily into this low fidelity. It is not an established genre, rather a stylistic direction. Raw ambient's production is a key component to the sound, but in a passive manner rather than an active player. Lighter than dark ambient, more accessible than dungeon noise, more noisy than comfy synth, and less depressive in its emotions than most "old school" acts, raw ambient's true neutral parameters are abstract, yet can be used as a signpost to delineate a sound. Raw ambient is also a visual style, as its covers are hand drawn or made to look distressed or faded with age. This visual style mimics the photocopied aesthetic of black metal demos, but they are updated to adopt monochromatic or minimal color palettes instead of just black and white.

In 2017, the label Order of the Weeping Willow sold tapes to people who figured out how to go to a website, solve a text puzzle, and then put in their payment information. This esoteric business practice led to a handful of tapes being sent to people all with blank tape faces, minimal design, and even more bizarre arrangements of sound. Most of the tapes came in thin plastic with labels that really looked like they were printed at home. One only knew about these tapes through forums, and even now there is no real effort to make the music available digitally. Noise, neofolk, drone, and experimental sound pastiches were all hallmarks of this series, which reveled in the joys of secrecy and low fidelity. Both in sound and acquisition, Order of the Weeping Willow tapes were for people who wanted to hear dungeon synth stripped of its excesses or hear a sound before it went through any sort of refinement. I feel this quest for raw ambience started with classic and old school acts and continued aesthetically through labels like Order of the Weeping Willow. The future of raw ambient, though, is still being written.

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2019 saw the release of Flies the Coop by Hole Dweller, which offered listeners idyllic serenity that was submerged in noisy production. Its sound and cover have become iconic for the style of dungeon synth that combines serene melodies with raw atmospheric noise. Sunken Grove released Binding Branches a year later, a small kingdom of minimalist wonders in quaint and somber sound. Over the course of the last few years, tape labels have dedicated themselves to producing raw ambient with the same elusiveness as Order of the Weeping Willow. Below are a handful of 2021 releases I have deemed "Raw Ambient" that remind me of wizards casting experimental spells in their laboratories before they show them to the world at large. They are as coarse as they are fantastic and it is a style that I hope is explored even more as it continues to walk between the dark and light with dimmed ambient sound.

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The artist behind Fogweaver, Snowspire, Hideous Gomphidius, and the caretaker of Fableglade Records, has always been filled with surprises. Worlds Between, the debut from their new project Keys to Oneiria, was released without any announcements save for a few cryptic instagram posts. Luckily for everyone involved Worlds Between was released shortly after without having a puzzle to be solved. Keys to Oneiria possess many qualities heard in the artist's previous projects yet Worlds Between revels in the fog of low fidelity with melody hiding behind its gloom. With a devotion, and dedication, to other raw ambient artists like Secret Stairways and the aforementioned Sunken Grove, Keys to Oneiria presents a devastatingly beautiful world which hangs in the shade of neutral greys. Through its feature length running time, Worlds Between finds strength in subtlety which pays tribute to an old school spirit but with an aesthetic that is entirely contemporary. Worlds Between comes from an artist behind so many diverse projects that continues to offer worlds where anything is magical and everything is filled with the shadow of intrigue.

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While I am discussing the third release from the label Verdant Wisdom, any of the releases could fit in thematically to the subject of this digest. Verdant Wisdom is a UK label who has embraced the mantle of raw ambient as well as limited and secretive releases much like the aforementioned Order of the Weeping Willow. Though one can find all of its music digitally and with links to the actual artists' pages, acquiring a tape from Verdant Wisdom comes with being at the right time and place. This esoteric physical space pairs with the music, all which has a misty quality and settles into a field of serene calm. Middlewood, the artist, released this self titled debut at the beginning of 2021. Its melodies walk hand and hand with the sounds of wind and other woodland ambience. Middlewood the record is a wonderful place to start in the catalog for Verdant Wisdom, as its music paints an idyllic scene that isn't entirely comforting, rather a summation of hardships and triumphs. There is something grounding about the cover, as a house swallowed by hand drawn trees compliments this music on a metaphysical level. Middlewood, as well as Verdant Wisdom, continues to be a mystery for people who want to travel into the woods and be swallowed by its ambience.

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I feel like we are going to be talking a lot about mysterious labels. With no way of purchasing digital copies of its music (unless you pay 999$), it is my hope the label allows unlimited streams of its music as its 25 physical tapes have long been sold out. Acanthus is (probably) a US based label who has had four limited releases. Lichencloak and Festival of Aix are the most recent with the other two, Forest Walk and Windeye being earlier in February of this year. The tapes from Acanthus all come with green tinted monochromatic labels all with the same tape design. The Bandcamp professes Acanthus is an anonymous mask artists adopt to further remove themselves from the world. In this way, Acanthus is a single entity with each release a part of its universe. While I suggest listening to all of these streams, Lichencloak is one of the most serene out of the roster with luminescent melodies which barely peek out of the bog of atmosphere. Though one side is available for preview, Lichencloak's secrecy and distant sound is exquisite and mesmerizing. Lichencloakis possibly from a well known artist, who has surrendered their name for a wonderland of brume that rolls down misty banks and obscures everything once in sight. I appreciate the sounds and style of Acanthus and its cadre of artists and hope for more in the future... even though I will be unlikely to ever buy a tape.

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Lost Armor Records is a US label devoted to old school dungeon synth and raw black metal. Lost Armor is also the warehouse for the projects and aspirations of the artist Mist, who plays in most of the projects. Mist and their related projects could fit in many aspects of this digest on raw ambient as well as raw black, dark ambient, and noise. For now we are focusing on the recent release between Coniferous Myst and Alkilith. Cerulean Descendants offers its listeners ambient melodies which are covered in a rim of dirt and caked with grime. Split between two sides, each artist approaches the idea of serenity and bargains with additions of distance and noise. This dichotomy between the majestic and the profane is something both artists have devoted their studies towards. Cerulean Descendants and the larger work Lost Armor rests on the more nosy side of raw ambient which oftentimes approaches noise and dark ambient. One can certainly use this split as an introduction to a world that might be larger than you are ready to metnally process at this moment.

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I have discussed Realm of Sleep Records as a repository for the work of artist J Brown. Realm of Sleep Records, and all of the work of this artist, was an inspiration for the idea of raw ambient. Releases from Wistful Gardens and Of Antler And Oak and their monochromatic covers showed me a world of raw ambient that was released in limited quantities. It felt special and understated and most of all quiet. Of Aconitum is the newest release from the project Herbarium and its spectral ambience is something that I find endearing. While never breaking through the train of mist, the 18 minute release marches a ghostly procession through its running time and is a stellar example of the aesthetic that defines raw ambient. Much like the other projects, Herbarium is dedicated and focused on the worship of a plant, namely Aconitum—also known as Wolfsbane, The Devil's Helmet, and Queen of Poisons. While one can start anywhere in the Realm of Sleep, Of Aconitum feels like a shimmering guide that takes one through a faded landscape and encourages you to smell its toxic flowers.

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Hermit Knight was released while I was writing this article. Dungeon synth moves at an expedited pace and many wonderful releases occur in the middle of finalizing an article. Hermit Knight is from New York and also connected to the people who run Weregnome Records. Originally set at 10 copies,Hermit Knight received such a response that a future run of tapes are being planned. Hermit Knight is a triumphant ambient set amid a tarnished sound. Much like Hole Dweller, its sound mimics vintage film and television soundtracks which have been sitting in basements for decades. Mournful and ecstatic, Hermit Knight's debut showcases the small plights of the dungeon synth community and is the sound of small victories when 10 tapes sell out to an enthusiastic crowd. This is the sound of people having the time of their lives in faded photographs.

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