Naïve Magic: A Dungeon Synth Digest #2
“Obtaining Magic Items” or “The Incredibly Entertaining and Entirely Optional Hobby of Tape Collecting”
This column is an exploration into dungeon synth and its presence in 2021. Each month I will be discussing new releases as well as some thoughts on its blossoming as a distant cousin to underground metal. Today’s article is about cassette tapes. One of the more enjoyable parts of dungeon synth, and something that mimics underground metal, is the presence of cassette tape releases and the potential for a collection sphere. Dungeon synth tapes (and other media) have become its own sidequest.
I, like some people, enjoy collecting dungeon synth tapes and find the practice of acquiring new releases to be a charming and accessible hobby. While collecting tapes might seem like an ironic lark meant for looking hip with analog media, the economy of tapes has as much to do with practicality as it does aesthetic. Tapes are inexpensive and through sites like Bandcamp, can be sold to consumers without the need for any physical storefront. Tapes provide a chance for consumers to directly support artists while growing a physical collection of something they enjoy. Dungeon synth tapes have grown into a ritualistic dance of labels and artists doing small to medium productions of tapes, which are dropped on a certain date and time and sold until the supply is exhausted by eager fans.
Tape releases can be a milestone for new artists who can use this as a celebration of a first complete album. It can also be a crucial rerelease of an album that only saw a digital run or went unnoticed upon its initial release. Combine this with a prolific release schedule by many labels and artists, and one has a community that has become entwined with its tape commerce.
While there is an aftermarket for these tapes, dungeon synth is in a strange space where its physicals are rare but the style isn't popular enough to make them valuable. However, tapes have become a way for artists and labels to create a physical connection to its fans with many of the packages arriving with notes, trading cards, candles, and other bits of ephemera. For a genre that almost exists entirely online and deals with the imaginary, the personal connection has allowed it to become even more charming and endearing. Tape collecting has become an exploration into the personal while still separated by vast distances.
Before I get into new releases, I want to thank all of the labels who have operated over the past couple of years (and almost decade). I owe as much gratitude for dungeon synths labels as much as the artists for providing me a physical sphere to this hobby. Collecting tapes is not necessary for enjoyment, but provides, in my opinion, a tangential aspect to a scene which resides high above in the clouds. Procuring tapes each month is like searching for magic items, not for the intention to sell but rather to add to a collection that is entirely personal. There are obviously more than the ones listed but these are the ones I have found to be good for getting into tape collecting and the ones I owe much of my collection to.
Out of Season
Realm And Ritual
Dark Age Production
Serpent’s Sword Records
It is not uncommon for composers to have multiple projects that explore different themes and aesthetics. Forest Shrine is a side project of the composer behind Sweden’s Werendia. Where Werendia explores brilliance in oppressive harmonies, Forest Shrine feels more elusive and retrospective in the woodlands. Forest Memories is a compilation of all material produced between October to December of 2020. The compilation comes on a double tape release from the venerable Dungeons Deep Records. With equal parts haze and magic, Forest Shrine presents reflections that are broken into musical chapters. The massive survey of the artist that this compilation presents with each part of its story makes Forest Memories feel ancient and something out of a legend. This compilation has been many people's introduction to this project and I feel it is the perfect place to start.
Old Wizard's music may be one of the furthest from dungeon synth’s black metal roots, but it also may be the sound most accessible to newcomers. When presenting dungeon synth to people, the pitch of "music for roleplaying games" is one that makes sense to many already familiar with the hobby of video and tabletop games. Old Wizard’s idyllic ambience feels like the perfect background music for fantasy inspired games. It is also the music that underscores the connection with the realm of fantasy, continuing dungeon synth’s love for escapism. Old Wizard II continues the work heard in 2020’s Old Wizard and combines neo-classical melodies with pastoral haze, which turns into an epic journey across the landscape to greater adventure.
Dungeon synth derives a large portion of its aesthetics from Tolkien-based fantasy. With its history grounded in '90s tabletop roleplaying games and the world of Middle Earth, there is a large contingent of high fantasy themes throughout dungeon synth releases. This is why I enjoy seeing tapes exploring other areas of speculative fiction. Landsraad is fully devoted to Dune, Frank Herbert’s 1965 science fiction epic. The Golden Path is the debut from this UK artist and it manages to illustrate Dune’s mystery and wonder with electronic elements taken from the Berlin School and New Age genres. With this stellar debut, Landsraad potentially sets up a six part series, which could explore each of the books through the lens of space based dungeon synth. Combine this with the excitement of the new movie releasing later this year, and one has an exciting project that will turn your eyes blue in anticipation.
DIM has been doing something wonderful for the past few years. Once a year, this Canadian composer silently releases a record of medieval wonder without much fanfare or even announcement. Compendium Reliquiae is the fourth release in the Compendium series, which began with Compendium I in 2017 . Since 2017, each release in the Compendium series has been a vignette of a journey that travels through pastoral villages or plunges to the depths of a long forgotten citadel. The title Reliquiae indicates the remains of something or a sense of finality and compared to Compendium III, the release offers a sense of ending. With the soft ambience of idyllic synth combined with echoes of past journeys, Compendium Reliquiae is a veteran adventurer returning home to live out their days in peace and with memories. If this truly is the end of the Compendium series, I take solace in the fact it has been a wonderful expedition.The emotional closing of this release is something that affected me more than I thought it would as this artist has always been a pleasant companion.
I have always appreciated the weird and wild. Scrying Glass is from the USA and has dedicated themselves to making their sound the same way a mad alchemist dedicates themselves to making dangerous potions. With as much to do with dungeon synth as pushing its boundaries, Scrying Glass peers into the future and continues to mould dungeon synth with jaunty melodies that compliment its worn paperback album cover. While progressive dungeon synth is still being smelted and forged, the desire to combine synth with wayfaring melodies that care less about genre boundaries feels exciting and dangerous. Beyond Sight is the artist’s debut whose liberal use of aesthetic and sounds makes this record so fascinating and endearing. It truly is someone toiling over a cauldron with the very real possibility of explosions and mayhem
“30 Copies / Hand Made / Numbered” on a Bandcamp page is always something I find amusing. This is where small excitements are born -- with a small batch of fantastic self released first editions on tape. Wydraddear remains elusive and this French artist has certainly made an impression since their debut, The Castle Above The Mist, sold out all copies within hours of release. It is not difficult to see why, as its hazy melodies float down hallways of abandoned manors. The Castle Above The Mist embraces the depressive atmosphere of dark ambient and other classic dungeon synth but still clings to a structured sense of consonance, which in turn transforms it into a ghostly dance among the departed. Add to this the popular style of a monochromatic album cover and one could see a future tape run that would beg for more than 30 copies.
An Old Sad Ghost has always been an advocate for gloom and despair in a sound that has its fair share of such atmospheres. Since 2017, this artist has released music on their own time and schedule, amassing a Bandcamp page showcasing compositions like a graveyard of black and white headstones. Sometimes An Old Sad Ghost’s music ends up on tape, while others it remains as a digital specter. A Universe of Sorrow is the third “release” in 2021 and is one of these digital specters. At 18 minutes, this composition dedicates itself to its name with a sound that evokes mourning, loss, and transcendence. It is best to encounter An Old Sad Ghost music much in the way you would encounter a ghost, where you appreciate the moment as it passes through you in the dead of night. I have spent much time discussing tapes and would like to end with a non physical release that, with any hope, will find its way onto a cassette so it can haunt people in person.