Naïve Magic: A Dungeon Synth Digest #9—Comfy Synth
Part I: A Quaint History (2017-Present)
Comfy synth is a style of dungeon synth that evokes nostalgia by way of gentle melodies and lo-fi production. While dungeon synth has similar goals, comfy synth revels in the wholesome complimented song titles and artwork pulled from sentimental subject matter. Fairy Tales, childhood memories, and animated animals adorn adorable album covers, which look more like children's books than fantasy tomes. Comfy synth's aesthetic is an anomaly when contrasted with the grim atmospheres of dungeon synth's history. For a genre that has a large connection to underground black metal, albums centered around mice drinking tea and local donut shops seems almost like satire. While the idea of warm and comforting fantasy ambient can be seen earlier in pastoral synth releases of the mid 2000's, the last few years have been a thriving time for dungeon synths' most sentimental style. Comfy synth is not only fascinating as a sound but has history shaped in one of the most anxious eras in recent memory.
Nostalgia is defined as "a sentimental longing or wistful affection for the past, typically for a period or place with happy personal associations." One of the largest trends in aesthetics and conceptual spaces for comfy synth is the use of nostalgia, which borders on romanticism. The period of these happy associations is non descript. In fact, the collective longing seems to be for a vague period, before the advent of contemporary technology or at least avoids the mention of anything tied to the modern age. Comfy synth evokes emotion and individual exploration of the uncomplicated, which could or could not have actually been experienced by its creator. Playing early smartphone games and television might actually be true memories of childhood for some creators, yet the aesthetic for comfy synth leans more towards treehouses, fireplaces, and blanket fortresses. These things might also be a part of the creators memories, yet comfy synth as a romantic movement is a mix of actual memories as well as borrowed ones from a collective consciousness of an imagined simpler time.
As stated before, the notion of using serene and gentle melodies existed in dungeon synth throughout its existence. Dungeon synth has always skewed towards the melodic despite the morose undertones that connect it to more abstract genres like dark ambient. Early innovators like Depressive Silence, more modern revivalists like Lord Lovidicus, and Erang used melody and atmosphere to create dynamic landscapes of melody and mood. In 2017, there was a distinct push towards embracing an entirely serene style. One of the administrators on the Dungeon Synth Forum posted a thread called Idyllic/Cottage/Comfy Synth discussing the possibility of a new style that would be in contrast to the dark and grim history of dungeon synth. Artists such as Chronicles of Jest and Fief were noted as examples of a style of dungeon synth that could be an alternative to the grim atmospheres of classic tones. Here users, mostly dungeon synth artists, discussed the merits of what wasn't even an established style, but what could be potentially a future one. Since dungeon synth flourished as an internet genre and thus moved at a quicker pace than pre internet, its evolution could be experienced and critiqued in real time. This forum thread, and others like it, represented commentary of the community self assessing. Also due to the internet, the process of making a dungeon synth album is quicker. So discussing a style, then making an album and releasing it to fans, could take a matter of days instead of months or years. While it would be a few more years before comfy synth would be codified, its beginnings were set in the crucible of 2017’s self-reflection.
The year 2019 was a lead into what would eventually be comfy synth's inception. The early part of 2019 saw isolated releases from artists working towards a gentle aesthetic. Italian artist Sidereal Fortress released Racconti Del Focolare (Tales of the Hearth) on January 1st 2019 and was tagged as "Christmas Music." In June, French artist Maudit released their self-titled debut, which was a short release of sentimental violin/synth dedicated to the symbolic poet Arthur Rimbaud. In August, Chronicles of Jest released Pastoral Daydreams which further pushed a diffused sound and use of rustic themes. These albums might have been isolated releases focusing on comforting melody, but these few crucial releases paved the way toward the comfy synth style.
One artist outside of comfy synth's scope yet crucial to its development is Hole Dweller and their release Flies The Coop. This 2019 debut combined lo-fi production and Tolkien lore. Flies The Coop presented dungeon synth in a pastoral serenity similar to Chronicles of Jest and Fief yet with more of an emphasis on low fidelity (lo-fi). While Flies The Coop deals with the Middle Earth setting, epic battles and grand adventures are traded for a sense of low magic serenity. Songs like "Dreams of Adventure, I Smoke from My Longpipe Beneath the Stars" and "An Apple Tart Between Seed Cake and Buttered Scone" were a part of the fantasy universe but were modest in their existence. Flies the Coop was a comforting record that used its lo-fi atmosphere to evoke emotions and paint a picture of vintage soundtracks. 2019, going into 2020, saw a community that was open to experimentation and more than happy to have records that evoked strong emotions as well as a wave of warm happiness. It also helped Hole Dweller was hugely popular and provided a waymark for people to enter into dungeon synth not through a cold dark cellar but rather on a warm spring day. Comfy synth's history, in hindsight, feels providential for a time period that would eventually see many people sequestered in their homes.
In December of 2019, a series of debut records were released all with the same focus on sentimentality. Grandma's Cottage by Grandma's Cottage, Little Ones Journey by Tiny Mouse, Sleep Well by The Friendly Moon, and Childhood Memories by Childhood Memories all felt like they came from the same universe but were all seemingly unrelated and unconnected. This period, which spanned from December 6th to December 21st 2019, coincided with the holiday season and would prove to be the point of inception for comfy synth. Grandma's Cottage would be posted on the Dungeon Synth Archives Channel on Christmas day and, as of this writing, has over forty thousand views. Comfy synth would soon enter into the largest year of production, which is directly contrasted with a year of lockdowns, anxiety, and isolation for most of the world. While it would be easy to imagine the music from a period of global pandemic to be grim and haunting, many fantasy ambient artists decided to stay indoors and make music about those adorable tea drinking mice.
Dungeon synth has always been a genre whose requirements for entry and participation have always been reasonable and accessible. The time to produce and disseminate music has always been expeditious, thus trending styles become fashionable sounds within a shorter time frame than other genres. Comfy synth's rise in popularity and accessibility in terms of participation led to new artists responding to releases they heard with music of their own. While there can certainly be instances of following trends, comfy synth's use of sentimentality lends itself as a tool for emotional release. Most of the comfy synth releases in 2020 felt to be an expression of the artists who now had the time and reason to make albums. There are many artists who had never made music before but found both the time and a style where they could experiment. There are also many artists whose entire body of work starts and stops in the summer of 2020, leading to an existence that only lasted a few months. This ephemeral existence is what makes comfy synth in 2020 so endearing and what makes this period feel like a collective expression of nostalgia and pathos for both its creators and audience.
2020 began not only with the afterglow of those initial winter releases but also with the creation of the Youtube channel The Comfy Synth Archives on January 9th 2020. The Comfy Synth Archives has proved to be not only the most authoritative collections of comfy synth, but also one of the most exhaustive archives of gentle synth made during this period. In June of 2020, Sam Goldner, writing for Bandcamp Daily, released Cuddling Up to Comfy Synth, Electronic’s Most Soothing New Subgenre. This article would further highlight comfy synth's status as a refuge and recreation for artists isolated in their homes. During an interview with my other site Tape Wyrm one of the creators for the Comfy Synth Archives mentioned the Goldner article was crucial and it had one of the greatest significance of that time, both for the artists and the YouTube channel." This moment is when comfy synth was almost ubiquitous among the dungeon synth community and there was a feeling of awe and dread that this was a trend that would spiral into absurdity.
The fear of trends and fashions overtaking a genre is natural and dungeon synth has gone through many growing pains while adjusting to its artists engaging in experimentation. Tension over pushing sonic boundaries can be seen in discussions on dungeon noise (a mix between dungeon synth and harsh noise) as well as the unexpected creation of crypt hop. As of writing this article at the beginning of 2022, I can attest to the fact that comfy synth did not overtake dungeon synth. We are all not under a comfy authoritarian rule, rather the boom of popularity diffused into a substantial yet marginal sound for fans. Today one can find comfy synth from youtube channels and various labels that specialize in its sound. Mouseblanket Records, Phantom Lure, Weregnome Records, Neverwood Records, and Grime Stone Records all have sporadic tape releases, which capture the same spirit that was heard in the Summer of 2020. Some of the artists who debuted in 2020 are still releasing records today. While some of the newer comfy synth releases are more subtle than others, the style is very much a thriving part of dungeon synth and will continue to offer shelter to anyone seeking comfort. 2020 proved to be a sound wave that would eventually dissipate and become an incorporated subgenre, along other niche styles. In many ways, I feel comfy synth’s history is still being written, and in five years its history will look and sound very different.
Comfy synth's popularity extended past an ironic fad, as it found something employed by other artists and poets of the past. Comfy synth touches upon something that pushes its listeners and viewers to long for a past they might not have actually experienced, but would love to just the same. While we could have done anything in the first year of the pandemic, many chose to make comforting music about those mice drinking tea. It was special to many and transported its listeners to a time and place that may only exist in the collective consciousness of a simpler time. However, this escapism is a part of dungeon synth's ethos, just instead of high fantasy or dwarves there is a blanket fortress and snow drifting on a very ancient window by the fireplace.
Part II: A Year of Comfy Synth (2020)
I wanted to collect the list of comfy synth made in 2020 because I find it fascinating when experienced all at once. When putting together this article, I was amazed at the amount of material that was released in such a short time period. Some of these artists might have even been inspired by listening to new comfy synth releases featured on Youtube, and then creating a record that would be featured on the same channel. This cycle of creation was at the heart of 2020 when everyone collectively put on more comfortable clothes. While it would be easy to include all warm sounding dungeon synth in 2020, or even releases with whimsical subject matter, I feel the releases chosen makeup comfy synth's initial first wave.