Friday, July 19, 2013

Skarpseian - Skygge Slottet

There is a castle.  It is overgrown, looking like a rotting stone log jutting out of the ground, once an independent lifeform, now decaying into the earth.  But there is human life here yet: simple, traditional, natural life.  They are people who also sink into the decay of earth and ages, like a rapture for ancient nobility, a slow process of being warped and twisted by the machinations of time.  We are whisked away for the length of this album, possessed by the ghost of that lost castle.

This is another release which comes from Russia, where the interest in dungeon synth seems alive and well.  This is an album which gets the formula exactly right, but also introduces a very distinct and unique vision of dungeon synth in the process.  You almost feel like you're there, amidst the cold, rotting stones.  You can sense the terrible, horrific things going on in the immense torture chambers below, and feel grateful each day that you have food, a bed, and are not condemned to those depths.

But though this might be the castle of a tyrant, a decaying fortress sinking into the earth, there is still great majesty and regality here.  I think this is particularly present on Targenur.  The great string tone almost sounds like castle gates going up and down.  You feel the immense and glorious display of power this is, coming in off the wild trails of nature into a legendary fortress of pain and order.

My first listen of this album, I was initially put-off by what I perceived to be another "noble savage" kind of dungeon synth record, one that is simple both in voice and vision.  However, I quickly learned that Skarpseian is one of the exceptions channeling this level of simplicity.  From what I can tell, this is a calculated minimalism.  While such a thing is not uncommon in dungeon synth, what is unique here is that it seems both self-aware and also pure.  What I mean by this is that it feels authentic.  It doesn't feel like it's intentionally "dumbed down," but rather that it's conjuring these ancient feelings in a way that is simply primitive: a direct, straightforward voice.  A hard feat.  Though the voice is straightforward, the message and atmosphere are cyclical and spiraling inward into oblivion, a hazy stupor of life that fades before it's even realized it'd begun.  It is an atmosphere with immense depth.

The sound of the synths here are brilliant.  Each of them seems to embrace the ugliness and uniqueness of discarded sounds from decades past.  This allows for both the immediate feelings of decay, as well as seeing the flowers and mushrooms that bloom from such a process, the spirit of forgotten history.  Skarpseian has a wonderful ear for which tones have something to offer apart from being vintage, that they each have their own beautiful unheard voice, and the artist expresses them very raw and confidently.  This has a tremendous effect, making the work seem both primitive and distinctly noble, naturally a perfect vibe for the concept of a "shadow castle."

And something must be said of the album art.  I'm personally not sure whether it's new or old, well-known or original, but it fits fantastically with the sound of the music.  It has all the misty atmosphere, the overgrown/decaying quality, the cold-looking land on the horizon, the tinge of greenish-brown earthiness, and the two black figures on the bridge, completely opaque, showing the presence but insignificance of human life in this vision.  All the major points in the music can be found by studying this art while listening, which should be the ideal goal of album art.

I've listened to this work a handful of times already, and it's grown on me more each time.  This is an album which is very focused on the vision, and because of that it's able to go much deeper than most dungeon synth I've listened to.  This album might rival some of the best, assuming it holds up on further listens.  

I strongly suggest checking it out:

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Dungeon Lore Foundation - Chapter I: 'King in the Mountain'

On the horizon lies several noble firs, a thick layer of fog, grass wet with morning dew, and a slowly approaching army of medieval warriors.  Here one will find glory and nobility, castles rising strong from the cold grounds of the north.  Here we find a vision of the medieval that is alive and strong, thrusting ourselves in the midst of that ancient scene.

Compilations are a rare thing in dungeon synth, and I'm not sure the genre is very well-suited to them, however in the case of this album it serves a pretty good purpose, which is introducing us to a number of the currently-active Russian dungeon synth artists, particular those associated with the VK dungeon synth page (who are the ones that put together this compilation).  Since compilations are varied by their inherent nature, I think this review would be best served going track-by-track.

The first track, Saga About Old Sword And Forgotten Glory, is very clean and tight, folky, epic, with war drums, battle samples, a shrill flute, and a heavy consistent brass.  It seems to glorify ancient battles, and has a strong underlying pagan feeling, to the point of being almost reminiscent of new age music, but I think it's subtle enough to just add a bit of a unique flavor to a decidedly dungeon synth track.  It fits the theme of the album as well.

The next track is on the opposite spectrum of dungeon synth: cheap keyboard, very little reverb, and sloppy playing.  This one is more along the lines of ponderous medieval melancholy, similar to Født til å Herske.  A sparse, foggy landscape of isolation and yearning.  This is the familiar sound of a lone, melancholic dreamer wandering amongst cold plains and decrepit ruins.  Not bad, but doesn't really explore any new territory.

The third track is glorious and naturalistic, really does convey the feeling of some noble creature or spirit soaring over a landscape and amidst the clouds, seeing the trees, mountains, and castles in the vista below.  It doesn't seem to go anywhere though, more like a brief glimpse into this animalistic experience.  I'm almost reminded of Nest.

The fourth track is repetitive, bright, and ancient.  Really strong sense of nature and sunlight, like a pagan daydream, but not that hokey renaissance-fair type paganism, the real thing.  Unique sort of atmosphere here, really visual and serene.  Over repeated listens this track has grown on me strongly.  The artist has a good ear for the level of minimalism best suited for daydreaming and being immersed in the atmosphere.  Not a very dynamic song, but very effective at giving the listener a sense of place.

The next track, Dungeon Ghost, is a bit repetitive and simple.  Feels somewhat like a mantra of some sort, a small single line of runes carved into a forgotten stone.  Feels like it's attempting to represent the impenetrable past, a past which is entirely alien to us today, incomprehensible even in its simplicity.  That said, while it does have an effective atmosphere, I think it's an atmosphere a bit too simple to repeat as often as it does.  It should either be more dynamic or half the length.

Merlin-Sorcerer's Awakening is interesting, bombastic and fantastical, perhaps leaving dungeon territory a bit.  It seems like this song is attempting to be a bit more symphonic, with a quite dynamic composition, however opposite the previous song, it seems to move much too quickly to ever let the listener explore the atmosphere on his own.  I think dungeon synth necessarily needs to be a bit more detached, not engaging the listener quite so directly.

Sunrise Over the Mountain Forest feels somewhat uninspired.  It's tracks like these that make me wonder whether musical experience is a hindrance in making dungeon synth.  This artist seems to have quite the traditional musical ability, however I sometimes feel that this leads to a "by the books" approach, which can act as a crutch.  Or perhaps the vision being expressed just doesn't resonate with me so strongly; that can very well be the case here, since it is one of bright sentimental serenity, an atmosphere which I personally do not value much. 

Return to Erebor is very cool.  It is synthy, with quite a few spacey patches, mixed in with the familiar medieval ones.  Like many of the tracks here, it is heavy on the percussion, but that's not a bad thing.  It makes the track quite powerful in this case.  A whole album of this sort of material, I would question whether it is "pure" dungeon synth, but that's irrelevant since it's interesting and original.

The last track is very vast and final, with a hint of menace, a sense of things coming to a final pass.  Great for an ending.  The lack of a riff-based structure and percussion make it seem a bit unrooted, compared to the sound of a lot of ds, and that works really well here and it still really has the dungeon tone.


The unifying theme of this album is of the mythic element of a king/hero who is hidden away, before arriving out of the darkness into the light of day.  That feeling is conveyed pretty well here, and if the planned nine albums pan out, I'm guessing it might be approached as the traditional hero cycle, which might make the whole collection of works a very unified and powerful vision of dungeon synth.

Overall the album seems pleasant but unfocused, bright and ancient.  It has the strong Russian pagan vibe to it, but without descending into any reenactment-festival type sounds.  It's not a "must-listen," however it does a great job introducing a lot of the modern Russian dungeon synth projects, particularly those associated with the VK dungeon synth page.

It's fascinating as an original dungeon synth compilation, giving many short differing glimpses into that other world of fantasy dreaming.  My issue with it, however, is that I think dungeon synth requires longer forms to come to a cohesive meaning.  At best I was only able to get a sense of what was being communicated, rather than the complete vision.  I think that comes down to this genre being about individualistic expression.  I'm skeptical whether this can ever be fully realized in compilation form, however I'd love to be proven wrong.  In any case, it's definitely a good way to learn where to delve further with these very talented artists.

Check it out, it's free to download: