What is dungeon synth? Where am I? Why is this here? Dungeon synth began as a style of grim fantasy ambient that would serve as intros, interludes, and full releases played and traded among black metal musicians in the 1990s. The style didn't really have a name outside of things like “dark dungeon music” and was a nebulous sound of non-metal by the underground metal community. During the early 2010’s, the genre experienced an internet revival with a new wave of composers, which in turn, led to its name being coined by The Dungeon Synth Blog. This revival of dungeon synth, as a style, took the old sound and expanded it to a world that moved further away from its dark roots yet still retained its metal adjacent fanbase.

I have been following dungeon synth since 2014, writing album reviews and articles, interviewing creators, and organizing compilations for its creators. I have written primers for the genre, am a moderator for the dungeon synth subreddit, and am currently working on a book on its history. One of the reasons I have embraced this style so thoroughly is that I have found the intimate nature of the music, combined with the small space between fan and creator, endearing. Further combined with the fact that this style exists almost entirely on the internet, and one has a charming genre that could only exist in a post-2010 age. One of my hopes in this digest is to bring dungeon synth to a new audience and I hope this series of articles is useful to people who may not know, or want to know more, about the style.

This feature and subsequent articles will be about new dungeon synth releases as of 2021, which marks almost a decade of the genre's modern revival. If you are interested in starting at the beginning instead, I wrote an introduction and primer for reddit’s metal community. Below are new releases from new artists who are doing what dungeon synth always has done -- releasing wonderful music in great supply to its internet-based community. It may not be what you were expecting, but for some it will be the exact thing you are looking for. Use it for reading, music for roleplaying games, or just a chance to travel to unknown places without leaving the comfort of your home.

-Jonathan Carbon

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Wallachian Cobwebs might be a great place to start for anyone new to dungeon synth, including those coming from heavy metal, or fans of the genre looking to rest eternally in a cold sepulchre. Carrying the torch of the 1990’s dungeon synth sound, this US artist creates symphonies for the damned, which is both melodic and burgeoning with atmosphere. Night Sobbed a Potion Diseased is a strong followup to 2019’s Hearken to the Moon Whisper, which gained a bit of notoriety with a 2020 tape release by Dungeons Deep Records. Night Sobbed a Potion Diseased continues the journey into crypts that worships the genre’s dark ambient roots but with melodic ambience. At 37 minutes, this release makes a grand statement for the artist as one of the more competent dealers in gloom and despair. Weaving orchestral synth with haunted voices that float through the album’s dark corridors, Wallachian Cobwebs is both an aristocratic vampire and tortured ghoul while Night Sobbed a Potion Diseased is a record that is both lurid and forever entertaining.

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Ulk is from the Netherlands and their 2020 release, This Divine Shelter, was important for many due to its grasp on sound and mood. This follow-up release, Shellbound, continues the sound of hazy, medieval variety dungeon synth, which is both mystical and appealing for anyone that enjoys getting lost in enchanted forests. Shellbound sees a return to the landscape of sadness and warmth with a record that, while allowing the listener to escape to a wooded world veiled in fog, is doing real world charity by donating all of their digital proceeds to the preservation of sea turtles. This sort of charitable action isn't uncommon with dungeon synth and its philanthropic nature makes already pleasant-sounding music even more appealing. There's going to be a tape release of this record from the very wonderful Gondolin Records, who consistently puts out great music and whose supply is usually gone in a matter of minutes.

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Finally, some peace and quiet. Aindulmedir is from Sweden and in 2019 their release, The Lunar Lexicon, was a tremendous gift for those looking for some music for monastic contemplation. Dungeon synth comes in many varieties, from the lush and orchestral to the very minimal and solitary. The Winter Scriptures marries both the cold style of winter synth with the improvisation nature of one composer creating works in the bleakness of cold. Aindulmedir offers the world a 55 minute soliloquy on the nature of desolation and through music no louder than flickering candles in a sparse cathedral.

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This compilation just came out and now I need to rethink how I process music as I would be upset if I didn't mention the music label Cosmic Ocean. Aside from being a wonderful tape label with bright cassettes, this UK outfit just released one of the more complete compilations of the current English dungeon synth scene. Well-known artists like Runecaster, Sunken Grove, Portcullis, Villein, and Maiden Hair stand side by side with other artists who are just as wonderful but have yet to be discovered. While this compilation covers dark ambient and dungeon synth from the UK, it is a fascinating dive into the dreamy and surreal sounds of this wild scene.

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Moonsworshipper is a great label that has always been the weird kid of the dungeon synth scene, showcasing things from raw black metal to avant classical to dungeon noise. Torchlight is perhaps one of the most normal releases in recent memory but the weirdness still creeps around its corners. Of Breathing Forests & Uncharted Seas is a dedication to escapism and the sea as a medium in which to lose oneself and become detached from reality. Escapism is a continual theme in dungeon synth, one which can be a wholesome exploration to a more complex set of emotions. This undertone of escapist sadness runs through Torchlight’s release, with music that is both captivating and feels like it is searching for something of comfort through dark corridors.

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Perhaps you are here for full immersion. Allow me to introduce you to Castle Zagyx. Doors to the Battlefields of Ertbe is a testament to the spirit of dungeon synth: within the confines of one's bedroom are worlds as tall as the universe and wide as the expanse of time itself. Castle Zagyx is from Spain and their work has always concerned itself with symphonic majesty that flies around these spaces on the wings of dragons. Doors to the Battlefields of Ertbe is the score of a world built by its composer with each of the tracks concerning themselves with some aspect of life or lore within it. Worldbuilding is one of the most interesting aspects of dungeon synth, as the albums are an atlas in which to sketch the boundaries of great empires and high drama. Castle Zagyx has many things to tell you and it is all majestic.

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Next up, board the ship of imagination! Ur Pale has been a favorite of mine since 2018 with the release of Water Tombs & Crimson Horizons. A self anointed composer of sea synth, this Polish artist combines dungeon synth with the sway of sea shanties, which coalesce into a surreal voyage out on the high seas of imagination. New Dawnis eternally optimistic and its music is instantly intriguing, bringing to mind vivid hues of crystal clear waters and the promise of adventure. The album’s Bandcamp has a dedication I feel is perfect for this sound, as it urges the listener to “Embrace the zephyrous blow and let yourself adrift through the ultramarine waves.” Ur Pale sails through sonorous waters aided by a crew of fantastic characters all ready for a lifetime of adventure.

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There are many great things I can say about the UK label Vicious Mockery. Aside from having a cool Dungeons and Dragons-inspired name, the label dedicates itself to small tape runs of artists that seem to appear out of nowhere. Vegtam is from the Netherlands and dedicates their work to creating minimalist music that is suited for anyone restless with wanderlust. Dungeon synth is still very much a bedroom style and the DIY aesthetics from composing, recording, and packaging of music is integral to its sound. The Wanderer is a work of dedication, with its melodies comparable to the hazy figure on its cover, ever lost in an immense landscape. There are stories here that are split between six parts and six videos of nostalgic aesthetics. This is a release for people who love to walk without any particular destination in mind.

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While I enjoy it when other people find music, I do like it when I find something I feel has the potential to be loved by others. Cambrinus is from France and, at this moment, I feel this debut might be one that is appealing to a larger audience. If this had a tape release, it would sell out in a matter of minutes. L'Ancienne voie is a wonderful balance of fantasy ambient and subdued tones, a sound which is at home both in a forest or high above towers looking over a kingdom of fog. The artist weaves landscapes that are both Medieval fantasy and history with a full record of subtle tones and shades. I feel this would be enjoyed by most if given the chance to emerge from its home in the woods. I look forward to seeing how this release does later in the year, or at least until winter.

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One of my favorite aspects of dungeon synth is finding the weird. Due to the nature of at-home recording and the propensity for creators to do whatever they feel like with little barrier to creation, one can encounter some truly unique sounds. Water Nymph is an oddity, but it's surrounded by a similarly strange cadre on Grime Stone Records. Heroic Pond of Love is a formal fête, where you are invited to dance with creatures of the sea to an orchestra played by crustaceans. With equal parts tranquility and gleeful absurdity, Water Nymph has found at least one person who has accepted their invitation for the strangest dance under the sea.

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Image Credit: Arthur Rackman - The Meeting of Oberon and Titania (1905)

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