Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Into Dungeons of Delirium: A Guide to Dungeon Synth's Stranger Side

Lately, it seems you can barely traverse a piece of underground discourse without coming across mention of "dungeon synth." I'm guilty of contributing to this static myself, but I feel the recent trend of bombastic, medieval dungeon synth is missing some of the woozier, more rudimentary trademarks of the genre that won me over to such minimal sounds in the first place. I'm all for new age and otherwise higher touch stuff creeping in, as it rounds out so much of the concept, but the doors that first opened to me within the broader realm of dark dungeon music were more outsider art than they were anything else.

Perhaps this inclination many artists have towards more orchestrated music speaks to the accessibility of computer programs that assist in digital art creation, but there's something magical about simple sounds. Layered works have their own magic, but the sense that one is peering into a crude approximation of reality that doesn't resemble one's own is an experience that excites me most. While the more majestic works of newly established dungeon synth heavyweights in Old Tower scratch this itch quite well, I thought it would be worth my time (and hopefully yours) to examine a few records that capture the most delirious and peculiar side of this genre.

Roman Master- Roman Master
Roman Master is an American project that partakes in the time honored tradition of dungeon synth as an extension of black metal interlude tracks. Of their first two self-titled demos (EPs?), one is vicious raw black metal, while the other is this strained, remarkable offering of minimalist synthesized sorrow. This demo's songs bleed into one another, following the sequential theme of an individual venturing off to a guaranteed failure on the battlefield. The theme of defeat and frailty is echoed by the hissing, wavering melodies, often carried by a single thin note that just barely cuts through choral voices at their most mournful and warped. Stripped of majesty and elegance, Roman Master cuts to the heart of a specific, unimaginably intense experience.

The Embers of Tara- Realm of Sleep
Following the aforementioned Roman Master into hazy, uncertain territory, The Embers of Tara may strive to avoid such depressive themes, but delves into the uncertainty of dreams where all things that drift into focus become inherently distorted. What may sound like a tape being chewed up by the tape deck is not an accident, but rather an actuality of sleep, wherein points of reference are altered with time and in relation to one's own approach. Distinct melodies flow into new forms entirely through a series of several small shifts, until the original piece seems forgotten while facing the new, distorted version. It's a challenge to both memory and perfectionism, but chasing such fixed points is no more realistic than chasing the very nature of sleep itself. The blurred edges become the highlight rather than a detraction from the original composition, creating a world that is neither soothing nor turbulent.

Iamí- Cavernas do Inconsciente
We're slightly departing from the theme of less orchestrated music here because this is such a trip that it warrants inclusion. Iamí, whose name translates to "night" in the indigenous Brazilian Tupi language, explores self in a psychedelic sense through visual art and synthesizer sounds. Like Roman Master above, Iamí works in both black metal and dungeon synth, yet focuses exclusively on the latter on this most recent release. Plodding low-end notes feel like actual footsteps on a heavy internal journey, while more ethereal synthesizer voices float above, almost separate from the lower frequencies entirely. This separation, perhaps unintentionally, creates a sense of the consistent narrator and the circumstances unfolding around the listener. With this distinct, direct approach to the form, it allows even simple twists of the script to take on a larger significance.

Celastael- My Path
The sparseness of Celastael's two demos is hard to notice at first, as heavy reverb and delay carry single notes across broad expanses. What is most striking about these barebones recordings is not their lack of unnecessary trappings, but rather their brevity. While only one track on this demo passes the three minute mark, every song offered feels like a complete statement, offered up from the haze of a moonlit winter night. The dungeon synth genre seems to give great space to artists who blow a collection of three or four related phrases into twenty-minute epics, with unnecessary bombast in the name of "atmosphere." This is direct evidence that, while such lengthy run-times can be used to great effect (as evidenced in great measure below), a talented artist can fit the whole feeling into a fraction of the time.

Erdstall- Caverns of Endless
In contrast with Celastael, Erdstall makes a strong case for the hypnotic powers of repetition and space. With two massive tracks, Caverns of Endless flows into the doomy spirit of earlier visionaries like Trollmann av Ildtoppberg, but in a way entirely of Erdstall's own creation. Horns swell stretch into infinity, seemingly echoing off countless chambers of some vast abyss. Unlike many of the above releases, rhythm is prominent in this offering, yet not to the point of detracting from the dread-inducing drone that lies at the core of the sound. This project seems to be inactive now, after five years of silence and no other online presence. The absence is truly a shame. Now that these sounds are reaching a wider audience, it would be fascinating to see how Erdstall could progress in such a climate. One can't help but imagine it would feel like the most glorious, unending crawl to death.

Friday, May 11, 2018

Roadburn 2018: A Postmortem

There are so many different ways one can frame an experience like Roadburn. With four days of music on six different stages (most of the time), it's a nonlinear story even for those who only catch a few bands a day. My personal experience at Roadburn is often spent just outside the eye of the storm, so to speak. A festival spent rushing from band to band in order to capture enough segments of interest is a thrilling and exhausting time. This was my third year in attendance, and possibly the first year where I didn't have an intense emotional attachment to any band playing, which provided a strange sort of relief. My phrasing shouldn't be misread though: I had the best year yet.

In 2017, artists like Ulver and Hypnopazuzu provided a context that felt larger than life. In 2018, there were many bands I loved, but none so deeply that I felt anxious at the thought of accidentally bumping into the musicians. Without the high stakes, I was better able to have a fluid and free time, coasting more comfortably from set to set. This was, to my mind, the ideal experience. I was able to grab a beer here and there without running a mental stopwatch. I was able to say to myself, "I really enjoy this band, but I think I'm going to check out something I've never heard before," without the extreme fear of missing out that would've gripped me a couple years ago. Perhaps this is also a shift in my own personality as I grow to like myself more, but that's a lot harder to qualify in a post on a blog.

Another major factor in the great joy I derived this year was, undeniably, the presence of my girlfriend. While we're not the type to be attached at the hip, I can't say that spending approximately a week apart is my idea of a great time. It was thrilling to share firsthand what I do with the festival while I'm helping run its social media, and it was great to share in the joy of truly brilliant music and be away from our usual reality of jobs and routines.

All that said, it's likely you're here for a rundown of my favorite sets and other things. Rather than providing a chronological listing of moments that impacted me the most, I'm going to offer things up in terms of relevance. It's very easy, post-festival, for the most recent parts to feel like the heaviest hitters, which is why I've given this a week to sit and sort itself out. There are always brilliant sets that get forgotten in the immediate aftermath and "good but not revolutionary" things that are so fresh in the memory that they're elevated to a disproportionate status. Here are the ones that really stick to my mind after a couple weeks. Hopefully they'll still carry such weight in my memory this time next year.

Please note that, save for the bottom, there are no photographs of Roadburn in this article. I do not have the funds to pay a professional photographer and my cell phone shots may as well have been taken at a gig here in NYC--they're that indecipherable. Instead I'm leaving bandcamp links for you to support the artists in question. Check them out if you're not yet familiar!

Old Tower
While possibly one of the mellowest sets I witnessed at the whole festival, it was an absolute thrill to catch my first dungeon synth performance. I've long been a fan of the genre (since well before I'd heard the term "dungeon synth") and it was incredible to see one of the most skillful acts in the genre deliver the goods. Old Tower evokes the majesty and otherworldly decrepitude of early Mortiis while putting their own cosmic spin on things. Live drumming paired with the eeriest sounding synth tones made for an atmosphere I could've stayed lost in for far longer than a single set.

Kikagaku Moyo
There were two psychedelic "takeovers" at Roadburn occurring in tandem. A group of Japanese artists (with the GuruGuru Brain label being their point of relation) and a collection of San Diego-based bands. The Japanese were the huge winners for my personal taste, with Kikagaku Moyo serving as the highlight of these twin takeovers. Their ability to sway between soothing and smashing is uncanny, and their singing voices are just wonderful. What started as a curiosity turned into one of the coolest things I saw during the entire festival. I was also quite pleased to see this translates wonderfully on record, which seems to be a challenge for some bands of this nature.

Waste of Space Orchestra
As the first full set of Roadburn that I witnessed, it's hard for me to fully put into words what I experienced when Oranssi Pazuzu and Dark Buddha Rising joined forces as the Waste of Space Orchestra. What I can safely say is that it made its mark on me. It was subtly psychedelic, as doom and black metal collided with plenty of bizarre influences bleeding in. With accompanying visuals that ranged from pastoral to eerily apocalyptic, the Waste of Space Orchestra set managed to be all over the place without feeling disorganized. Usually things this ambitious collapse under their own weight. Waste of Space was anything but a waste, and was likely the strongest set of day one.

Hieros Gamos
While the musicians of Hieros Gamos (a collaborative effort between NYIÞ and Wormlust) performed a ferocious black metal set the following day for the Vanagandr: Sol an Varma, this was the set of theirs that left me awestruck. The material shared veered far more deeply into NYIÞ's sonic trademarks, with mostly acoustic instrumentation utilized to create ritualistic drone, yet there was an edge that almost reminded me of the earlier works of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, with sinister piano lurching out from time to time. The whole thing was slinky and haunting, with an emphasis on ritualistic performance art. It's more of a "you had to be there" thing than something that could be captured as a recorded piece, but I seriously hope there's more from this collaborative project.

Zuriaake was the final band I saw during Roadburn. Usually this is a period during which I'd be too exhausted to fully enjoy the art before me, but with the beauty of their atmospheric black metal, I was reinvigorated and carried away. It's odd to describe something like this as euphoric, yet that's exactly how it felt. The costumed musicians didn't offer much in the way of performance, letting their presence and sound convey the weight and poetry of their art. It was more captivating than I expected and reminded me of how many different shapes black metal can take.

Godspeed You! Black Emperor
There were two separate performances by Godspeed You! Black Emperor, and I saw a large chunk of each, although it was the Saturday set that I saw in full. After enjoying their recorded output for approximately thirteen years, it was still somehow more stunning to witness live than I would've ever imagined. It wasn't just the proficient musicianship and exhilarating compositions, or even mere nostalgia that made their set so great, however. During the performance, the band's own projectionist was running back and forth behind the sound booth, stringing up film on classic projectors to accompany the performance in real time. From where I sat, I could glance over my shoulder to watch this while the band played onstage. The sheer artistry of both sound and vision were humbling. While I initially felt this band would be something of an outlier for Roadburn's lineup, this was a perfect set for the festival.

Zonal ft. Moor Mother
I am not the right person to try to describe this set. It was unlike anything I'd ever witnessed. While seeing Godflesh the day prior was really exhilarating and fun, this was a chance for me to experience another side of Justin Broadrick's art with which I hadn't yet engaged. While not as metallic as his most famous project, Zonal (a collaboration with The Bug) kicked out even more noise with its low-frequency pulsing. Vocal accompaniment from Moor Mother elevated this sickeningly loud sound to an outright confrontational point. It was phenomenal and new to me. I hope events like this move from being a one-off to becoming folded into the greater proceedings in future years. There are so many fascinating artists making hip-hop and electronic music that push the boundaries of sound and message. I can only imagine they'll go over just as wonderfully.

The Black Metal & Brews Panel with HammerHeart Brewing/Panopticon
I can't toot my own horn here when all I did was facilitate, but I need to put into words how important and special it was to host a talk with such talented people. Austin Lunn, as co-owner of HammerHeart Brewing and the founding member of Panopticon, was kind enough to share his wisdom and humor while live bandmates Andy Klokow (bass) and Jake Quittschreiber (guitars) joined to discuss their own work with HammerHeart Brewing and as members of the band. I don't believe anybody filmed or recorded any of our talk, but if for some reason you were in the audience and documented this, please reach out. I'm sure that there are five of us who would love to see or hear it. Below is a series of images taken by my talented friend, Kris, whose work as 17 Seconds Photography is worth your time (and a nod to my favorite band, The Cure).