A cold wind blows the last of the dried leaves from the branches above. The fading light of the setting sun reveals a fissure in the sheer rock wall ahead. Entering the cavern, the dancing light of your torch reveals a staircase hewn from stone, descending into darkness. As you begin your descent, you hear faint melodies echoing from some unseen chamber. Unwilling to turn back, you continue into the depths, the darkness surrounding you. You walk along a seemingly endless corridor, searching for the source of the music. You couldn’t find your way out now, even if you wanted to. The dungeon has claimed you as its own.
Drawing its musical themes from Medieval and Renaissance compositions and its aesthetic sensibilities from black metal and fantasy literature, Dungeon Synth is the perfect soundtrack for this kind of escapist fantasy. Think of the “intro” track to your favorite metal album, but stretched out to album length.
Dungeon Synth is a rapidly expanding genre that includes artists working in a variety of styles, ranging from sparse solo performances on electronic keyboards to fully-orchestrated symphonic compositions. The following artists represent a crude map to the world of Dungeon Synth. As with all worthwhile dungeon explorations, some paths aren’t marked below. You can fill those in as you explore.
‘The Specter,’ a mysterious entity from The Netherlands, has been releasing music under the name Old Tower since 2015. Their most recent release, The Rise of the Specter, is a symphonic tour of haunted ruins and moonlit woodlands. Melodies emerge and disappear from Old Tower’s arrangements like ghosts from an ancient tomb. Old Tower’s works tell the story of The Specter itself, a being who went in search of a dark power and was ultimately trapped and consumed by the object of his desire.
Although unquestionably a Dungeon Synth artist, Rabor’s discography boasts quite a bit of variety. Each release has its own unique theme, whether it’s the heroic battle marches of Боги и Герои, the folk-influenced За Тридевять Земель, the nature-inspired Источник or any of the other entries in the ever-expanding catalog. (There’s even a Christmas record in there.) Regardless of the atmosphere of each individual album, you’ll always find carefully-crafted songs within.
Spectral Kingdom’s self-titled demo makes for a promising debut. Mournful string melodies bring to mind vast windswept landscapes, and the overall mood is simultaneously menacing and wistful. There are echoes of mid-period Dead Can Dance, especially in the wordless vocals of “Pierced at the Eve of Knives.” The demo ends with the powerful “Dungeon’s End,” a departure from the rest of the release, but a fitting end to an imaginative (and impressive) work.
Sequestered Keep’s discography stands, at the time of this writing, at an impressive 15 releases. That’s quite a bit of work to explore, but the journey is worthwhile. “Magic Amidst the Falling Leaves” sports Baroque-style arrangements and melodies that recall Bach, if he wrote his sonatas in a cobblestone cell, underground, guarded by goblins. This is the sound of the court of the castle before it fell into ruin.
It takes more than a little hubris to release a debut album that’s a three-hour-plus musical exploration of Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. But the risk paid off for North Carolina’s Chaucerian Myth. This is a varied, ambitious album that could be the soundtrack to the best first-generation Playstation RPG you’ve never played. A year later, Chaucerian Myth released Troilus and Criseyde, a more compact work (though still almost an hour in length) that offers proof that, even when dealing with centuries-old subject matter, there’s still plenty of territory to explore.
If the other artists presented here are the sounds of menace, emptiness, and despair, Fief is the sound of emerging from the dungeon into a sunlit clearing. It may take a moment for your senses to adjust. Feif’s light, idyllic melodies, featuring the sounds of pipes and lutes, comfort like the grass beneath your feet after walking on cold stones. Fief’s music conjures strange creatures, dancing at the edge of vision, only half-seen. There’s light and hope in these recordings, and he prospect of unknown adventures waiting beyond the edge of the wood.
Dungeon Synth works best when it creates an otherworldly atmosphere. The music of Ranseur succeeds at doing this, but unlike other albums on this list, it doesn’t exist in a universe of goblins and cave trolls. Instead, Ranseur’s abstract take on the genre transports the listener to an alien setting, offering sounds that are identifiable as Dungeoun Synth, but still manage to stand well apart from it. If the aliens from the art of Wayne Douglas Barlowe played synthesizers, Ranseur’s recordings would be the result. The atmospheric noise that shrouds these tracks add to that effect, making it seem as if we’re hearing this music beamed to us on a fading satellite signal from the other side of a black hole.
It’s safe to say that fantasy literature and role-playing games (the tabletop and the video variety) loom large in the world of Dungeon Synth, and Elric expertly combines both of them. Inspired by the chiptune soundtracks of games like Chrono Trigger and Secret of Mana as well as (obviously) the fantasy novels of Michael Moorcock, Elric’s music is the perfect soundtrack to crawling through (16-bit) alcoves, searching for abandoned potions and treasure while trying to avoid the hungry ghouls hidden in the shadows.
The album cover for SFDD is a crude sketch of a spiked club leaning against a rough stone wall. The brutal simplicity of the artwork mirrors the music waiting within. Using only a synthesizer and rudimentary beats from a drum machine—all of them covered in a thick layer of tape hiss—“SFDD” draws the listener in, creating an air of mystery befitting a recording that, according to the liner notes, was found on an unlabeled microcassette in Texas.
The works of Tolkien contain one world, but within that world there are countless stories. The music of France’s Balrog was made with Middle Earth’s variety in mind. Sweeping and expansive, Balrog’s discography contains accompaniment for exploring the mines of Moria, battling alongside the horsemen of Rohan, or solemnly walking the path to Rivendell. Scattered throughout Balrog’s releases are his own interpretation of selections from Howard Shore’s now-iconic Lord of the Rings film score.
— Robert Newsome