Distant Myth: Trogool and the Dungeon Synth of Yesteryear (Interview)
In the Mists Before the Beginning
2015 might not be that long ago, but with everything going on, 2015 almost seems like a different century. In terms of dungeon synth, 2015 is a part of another era. Covering dungeon synth for almost 10 years has shown a style which has grown out of a bedroom microgenre into something which just had an in person festival for three days. As the genre gets larger and covers a wider expanse of time, the pool of unknown artists deepens. This is why names like Trogool, which at one time commanded a serious amount of attention, now rest in distant myth. At the Northeast Dungeon Siege, I was talking to veteran fans and label owners who all remember Trogool and the mid 2010's releases. In 2023, Trogool carries less recognition than names like Fief, Erang, and Thangorodrim. For as many of the larger names in dungeon synth there are just as many amazing lesser known artists which slip into obscurity. Names like House of Hidden Light, Barak Tor, and Synth Bard are all names linked to a rich history. In 2023 we have the ability to highlight names of the past and potentially uncover a treasure trove of music that was never released to the public.
Trogool is a US based artist who was widely mentioned in 2017 for the release of their second record Beyond the River Skai and to a lesser extent, their debutIn the Mists Before the Beginning. I can still remember the excitement people had when discovering Trogool's music, as it combined orchestral escapism for themes pulled from early fantasy writers like Lord Dunsey and H.P. Lovecraft. Trogool's pieces felt like pastoral symphonies arranged in reverence to imaginary worlds. They were hymns to great works and fantastic places and combined with the fact that Trogool's releases came in years rather than months, Beyond the River Skai felt important as it could be the last release in some time. It was like discovering the next great artist who would release momentous records for the next few years. Trogool created a follow up intended to be released in 2018 called The Embroidered Robes of Myth, and for reasons soon discussed was never released.
The lore and myth surrounding Trogool has fascinated me to no end and for years I thought of this artist lost to time. I also love music that only partially exists or exists in theory. Recently, I was put in touch with the artist as they are seeing old albums reissued by the venerable Out of Season. In the Mists Before the Beginning, originally limited to 100 CD copies, is finally seeing a tape release by Out of Season. This archival work by the artist and the label underscores the effort by this community to enshrine the figures of the past not as superior to others just as a part of our collective history. My time spent with Trogool discussing the past revealed an artist who not only is passionate about the music but is modest in their view of themselves and the importance of their work on the landscape of dungeon synth. The Story of Trogool also is a fable on artists as people with fascinating and banal reasons for existing or not existing in our dungeon synth world.
I always enjoy tracking down and learning about albums that could have existed but for whatever reason did not. It feels like listening to an artifact from an alternate timeline where 2018 came and Trogool released their followup and it now is another album for people to discover. This is why listening to "The Rowan Tree (King of All the Isles)" from The Embroidered Robes of Myth is so special. Much like previous material, there is a professional sense of purpose which has marked all of Trogool's material. While the artist has stated this material is not up to their current skill level, the amount of polish and complete nature is wonderful. "The Rowan Tree (King of All the Isles)" sounds and feels like a scene from an entire adventure that just decided not to exist. Perhaps this is what draws me to the music of Trogool as they continue to fascinate even after years of mystery and silence. I thank Trogool for releasing this track after many years. For me, it continues to build upon the myth of the artist and is very exciting to listen to after so many years. Perhaps it will enchant another one day.
Read an interview with Trogool below.
It has been a few years and many worlds away from 2017. What have you been doing for the past 5 years?
It’s crazy that it’s been that long! I have been busy, and unfortunately that meant no releases in all that time. Things just got really hectic starting in about 2018. Among other things, I started trying to figure out a real career path (which ended up falling flat). I was moving around and changing jobs and starting and quitting grad school. Earlier this year I finally finished my Master’s thesis, and that is actually directly related to the new Trogool music I’m working on.
I finished a follow-up to Beyond the River Skai in 2018 that I now call “The Lost Album” (The official name is The Embroidered Robes of Myth) because it was supposed to come out and never did. It will though, and hopefully sooner than later. After that was finished, and other things demanded my attention, I of course kept working on music. But I had reached a point where I really needed to push myself to grow a bit more. So, over the years, I started to seriously study music theory and production, got more comfortable tinkering with and building PCs for the purpose of making music, and worked on dissecting my own approach to writing music, because the approaches I was using prior to that weren’t working as well as before. I feel I’ve made some very good progress, at least from my perspective. Also, after about 16 years of sole use, I switched from FL Studio to Reaper as my main DAW. So there was a little bit of a learning period to get through.
During all that time, only fellow musician friends and acquaintances have heard what I’ve been up to, because they’ve been kindly workshopping everything and helping me improve. For a while, I didn’t want to release the “Lost Album” before something new, because it’s no longer representative of my current skill level; but I still think it has enough strengths to stand on its own. It’s probably better to put it out before the new stuff I’m working on, simply because that stuff is a bit different (because the source material is a bit different). The “Lost Album” is more apparently connected to the sound and atmosphere of the two existing releases. I have projects other than Trogool that I would like to get off the ground, too, so hopefully next year will be a productive one for me, musically.
How did you get into the idea of playing dungeon synth? What were you doing before you knew what DS was?
Well, before I knew about the genre tag “dungeon synth,” I was already into the music that collectively came to be filed under that banner. In a way, I was already doing DS as early as 2006ish. I was always really attracted to the idea of making music “at home” with computers or “keyboards” or whatever. I’m not sure when the interest first developed, but it probably goes a ways back, because I was into the music I heard in video games as a kid in the 90s, and I seemed to have figured out, even back then, that it was done in some mysterious way that didn’t necessarily involve live performers but was instead a more solitary pursuit. I didn’t really know anything about how that sort of thing was done until I got a little older, though.
On one of the first family computers we got in the 90s, my brother installed a freeware program called TabIt, which was sort of like an early Guitar Pro program that you could write stuff out in as guitar tablature, and it could even access a General MIDI soundbank, probably from whatever soundcard you had installed. Even though I’m a guitar player, I never really made much use of tabs, and I never really got to be any good with TabIt at all; but I think that program is technically the first computer-based music production software I ever used, and it sort of gave me a vague idea of what was possible. I got my first (cracked!) version of FL Studio from a high school friend in maybe 2004(?), and started learning how to sequence with just the mouse because I didn’t have a MIDI keyboard. By 2006, I had bought a legit copy of FL and was learning everything I could about DAWs and plugins and samplers and synths and all that. I have tons of not-so-good tracks burned on discs somewhere that would probably be called “Dungeon Synth” today, but which had no real genre tag back then. I just called them “dark ambient,” or something like that.
At the time I was sort of a typical high school kid who felt he needed to wrap all his musical interests in a “metal” presentation, but I was always interested in the non-metal aspects of the bands I was listening to that reminded me of music I liked before I was all self-conscious about it (basically when I just liked music without worrying about it). Bands like Dimmu, Finntroll, Ensiferum, Blind Guardian, Rhapsody, etc., were all fascinating to me, and I knew about Nest because of the association with Agalloch. (Nest was a really cool mysterious entity back then because all you could really find were a few tracks on MP3.com, and the burned CD I made of those tracks was like gold to me until they released everything on Bandcamp.) I was talking with a friend around that time about how Bal-Sagoth’s intros and interlude tracks were so incredible, and he told me about how Mortiis had albums that were basically like “album-length intro tracks.” That corresponded with the 2006 Earache and Projekt reissues of the Era I stuff, and I bought up all except the first album, which I could never find in that edition. I was so excited to find those albums, and they really expanded my musical horizons. Some of my earliest experiments with orchestral samples were based on the question, “what if Mortiis style music was made with more realistic orchestral elements?” I made a goofy track called “Crypt of the Lizard” to see how that would go; maybe I’ll find it and release it for fun one day.
Anyway, to actually answer your question, I was hell-bent on making some kind of epic folky symphonic metal back in those days. From about 2006-2013 I tried to make that my main focus, and I made a couple of recordings with my project Waves of Amphitrite. They’re not very good, though, and I had a bit of a crisis after which that project ended. I went back to the drawing board after that to figure out my strengths and weaknesses. I realized that my main interest really seemed to be in the virtual orchestra area, so I figured that, since I had managed over time to gather all the tools I needed to do a project from start to finish, I might as well focus on that. It was sort of a coincidence that around that same time (2015), a friend of mine who shares my love of atmospheric music showed me Arath, and that was pretty much how I discovered that there was a whole new scene with new artists doing stuff in that style. That was a great time because it gave me some direction, and that’s where Trogool came from. I was frankly sick of trying to write expressive personal lyrics; I just wanted to write some instrumental music inspired by stories I found evocative. It was just the perfect marriage of sound and aesthetic—the one I always wanted—and the fact that there was finally an audience was a huge inspiration. Part of the issue in the past, before Trogool and my knowledge of the scene, was that there weren’t really a lot of people who would listen to that kind of music. It was “cheesy” or otherwise quaint and uninteresting to most people (or at least I thought).
How was the reception for 2015's In the Mists Before the Beginning versus the 2017's Beyond the River Skai?
I think they were both received pretty well. I think some people liked the simplicity of Mists more than the colorfulness of Beyond. I think some people didn’t like Beyond because it was too “bright.” People who didn’t like Trogool in general cited the fact that I used samples instead of synths, and therefore couldn’t be “dungeon synth.” Others just said it’s not “dungeon” enough. The thing is, I don’t really care about adhering to genre labels religiously. I tag my music as DS simply because I feel that that audience is likely to be the most interested in what I’m doing. I’m not dogmatic about genres, and I like variety. Genre labels have a place and are useful in a lot of ways, and the DS tag has been great for getting like-minded people together and helping people find music; but it’s also been a source of contention (at least back in 2017), because people get so hung up on being literal.
But anyway, digressions aside, I think the reception was largely good for Beyond because people seemed to enjoy Mists and were excited for, and maybe a little surprised by, what came next. I’m always trying to do better, but you never really know how people are going to respond. I try to make music I enjoy, and I try to improve in various ways with each new project, but at the end of the day, we never really know how things will be received, do we? That’s one thing that has been weird for me since I started actually releasing music to an audience: on one hand, we make music for ourselves, but then we have the audience to consider. It seems weird and scary at first, but eventually you realize if you’re being true to yourself, you’re also being true to the listener, because there will always be those who like or dislike what you do, simply based on personal preference. It’s just one of those mind-set things that takes experience, I guess.
From memory it was a success that I saw on many end of the year lists.I was very flattered that people liked my stuff so much as to include it on a year-end list. I do wish I had been able to follow up with a new album as fast as I had promised. I feel kind of bad about that. I listened back to the material for the “Lost Album,” and I feel like I can hear the energy of that time in it. I was really working hard on making something that would please both myself and everyone who liked Beyond.
How did you find the dungeon synth community at the time of the release of Beyond the River Skai?
The community was, I guess, quite different in 2017 than it is now. I haven’t been following any of the message boards or anything since probably 2018-19. Many of the people I conversed with are no longer there either, for whatever reason. Like I said, there was also some contention back then that I tried to stay out of. There were multiple groups popping up that were all just the same thing but run by people who had issues with people from the other groups, and everyone was just spamming these groups with links to their latest project that they just wrote six albums for over the weekend. I have no intention of ever telling people to quit or go away; I don’t go looking for drama. I’m just not really into arguing or forcing my opinion onto others, and it was getting to the point in those groups where people weren’t really conversing with each other anymore (or if they were, the conversation just wasn’t one I had anything to contribute to). That said, it began as a very intelligent and healthy community of like-minded people that I fit in with, and I’m sure that sort of thing is still going on in pockets of the internet. I’d really like to get back to being active and having some presence again in the near future, but I’ve always been more into private conversations and small groups anyway. It seems like the larger a group gets, the less authentic the conversations can be. All in all, I’m glad there is still a community, though, and I’m happy to see the genre thriving.
Your albums are very orchestral with hints of Ennio Morricone in tracks like "Beholder of Ocean." Do soundtracks or scores influence your work?
Some of my earliest favorite music was from my favorite movies, like Jurassic Park, for instance. I do love film scores, and they have undoubtedly had a big impact on me, maybe even more so now as an adult with some musical knowledge, looking back and re-experiencing them with a trained ear. Soundtracks in general are something I’m always after in my Discogs want list, ha! Lately I’ve been listening a lot to a re-recording of Korngold’s score to the film The Sea Hawk, as well as a really cool re-recording of Herrmann’s score to Jason and the Argonauts. Poledouris is one of my favorites (for obvious reasons). Also, the late James Horner wrote a great, underappreciated fantasy score to the cult classic movie Krull. I’m big into those types of movies. They’re fun and they tend to have equally enjoyable scores. Another favorite of mine is The Beastmaster.
Scores are interesting because they were often the place for experimentation. I’ve been reading a book called The Science of Sci-Fi Music (by Andrew May) that, in part, goes into this concept of cultural coding. That’s a really interesting concept in itself. It’s basically just tropes: why does a track sound “like the desert”? Why does one “desert” track succeed in bringing me there, while another, equally “desert,” track falls flat? It’s just fun to think about why a score works for a given movie or game. And, of course, sometimes they’re just great to listen to without overthinking them. Not that I want to psychoanalyze myself here, but I bet film and game soundtracks played a role in preparing me to like music, like metal and dungeon synth, that is so tied to themes and aesthetics. Video game soundtracks, too, have been really important to me all my life. In much the same way as film score, they were ubiquitous and varied. I listen to so much game music, new and old…
If you could recommend three of your favorite game soundtracks, what would they be?
Oh man, that is a hard one; I’m so bad at picking just a few “favorites” of anything. I’ll name a few that are all very different from each other, for the sake of variety. Michael Hoenig’s soundtracks to the first two Baldur’s Gate games are awesome, and really very impressive for the time they came out. Those are probably the most obviously related to the music of Trogool, because they’re in the orchestral fantasy style (I would love to pick his brain about what gear and sample libraries he used back in the late 90s). I love old Sega Genesis soundtracks too. The Genesis basically had an FM synth for a sound chip, so it was capable of some really cool timbres. Ecco: The Tides of Time (specifically the Genesis version) has a cool soundtrack that I’ve always found inspiring. Age of Wonders is a computer fantasy strategy game with a great soundtrack that was made with a tracker, I think.
Trogool's reissues can be found at Out of Season's Bandcamp page.