Every few months for the last four years, the Milan-based label Heimat der Katastrophe has been releasing batched drops of three or four blasts of retro electronic music, the kind that have put the label at the forefront of the dungeon synth scene. Working in a genre already powered by nostalgia, Heimat der Katastrophe’s cassette-only releases feel like they’re arriving through a portal from an alternative 1982, with throwback graphic design and typography paired with the vintage soundscapes.(Unsurprisingly, the limited-edition batches consistently sell out within hours, if not minutes.)
What adds a 21st century wrinkle to the label’s aesthetic is their ability to make their albums interactive. Some are billed as lost soundtracks to unreleased (fictitious) films, some come with microfiction zines. One of their biggest formal innovations is the “album crawl”—the inclusion of table-top role-playing adventure modules, for which the tracks serve essentially as a programmatic score for anyone inclined to sit down and roll some dice with their friends.
HDK, as they call themselves, grew out of the Italian punk collective Kalashnikov in 2017. They keep a fairly low virtual profile outside of Bandcamp and the obligatory social media profiles. Consequently, tracking down the crew behind these releases was as challenging as getting to the end of a mad wizard’s maze in one of their RPG adventures. In the end, we’re not even sure which member of the core group of four responded to our emails. But they provided us with a touch of background on the label’s formation and their vision.
“One day some friends asked us to write the soundtrack for a radio drama, and we did it. An unusual thing for us. Then, we came up with this weird musical stuff that we couldn’t release under the name of our band, ’cause it was too different from the band’s style, and people wouldn’t understand,” they say. “We therefore decided to invent a label to get it out and possibly also publish other things by friends who love soundtracks, ambient, kraut-rock, dungeon-synth…In short, weird and unusual instrumental music. We used a name in German because we are big fans of German cosmic music of the ‘70s and the German sounded good for a music label of this genre!”
Below, they help walk us through a few of their key releases.
At first blush, HDK cassettes look like relics from another era. But on closer inspection, many of them contain design features that were decidedly not part of releases from the ’70s and ’80s. The albums in their KOBOLD and Basic Dungeon series come with printed mini role-playing adventures and maps.
“HDK’s first cassette sold two copies, possibly three. Then KOBOLD[‘s] The Cave of the Lost Talisman came, and things changed: that tape had a lot of fanatic interest, and we decided to continue publishing stuff. People liked them and we haven’t stopped since,” the HDK collective says.
For anyone making the connection between dungeon synth nostalgia, the games that ostensibly inspire the sound, and more mainstream appearances of the trope, the comparison isn’t lost on the HDK crew. “When [this album] was released, many friends told us: ‘Wow, RPGs, like in Stranger Things! You can take advantage of the success of that series!’ But we didn’t even know what Stranger Things was when the first KOBOLD was released,” they say. “Then we saw it and understood why people had KOBOLD and that series in common: ‘in the 80s, we were the kids in the first Stranger Things series! Children passionate about Dungeons & Dragons, video games, and adventurous exploration of reality!”
Perils in the slums scenario 3: the maze of death
If KOBOLD leans into the aesthetics playing games face to face, the eight Basic Dungeon albums burble with the sonic palette of early computer games. “We also liked the computer version of the RPGs a lot; in the ‘80s we played a lot of video games like Sword of Fargoal, Ultima, and Pool of Radiance for Commodore 64 or Phantasie III, Dungeon Master, and Bloodwych for Commodore Amiga…Some of those games were simple, primitive, full of flaws and ugly graphics…but we liked them a lot,” the HDK collective says.
With these releases, the label acts more like a game studio than a traditional record label; they concoct the album narrative first, then commission the work from a pre-written tracklist. “The music of Commodore 64 games was the first music we listened to with interest and passion. When we were children, with a tape recorder attached to the speaker of the screen, we recorded on cassettes the music of the Commodore 64’s video games to listen to them again later, with the right attention,” they say. “Those cassettes were our first beloved music albums! So cassettes, RPGs, video games, weird music…The roots of HDK are there.”
As part of a larger retro role-playing trend, HDK has also provided music for independent game releases. With six HDK releases to their name, GNOLL may be the label’s most emblematic band, a seamless merging of Basil Poledouris’s Conan the Barbarian score, John Carpenter’s film compositions, and Vangelis. Here, they provide occasional music for one of the the flagship OSR RPGs, the independent Swedish game Mörk Borg.
“We discovered Dungeons & Dragons in the mid-‘80s—we were about 8-10 years old—and we played RPGs incessantly until we were 16-17. Then, other interests took over—rock music, girls, transgressive life,” the HDK collective says. “We haven’t actually played RPGs since then, but we continued to be fascinated by the evocative aesthetics of the games of those years and grateful to RPGs for all the thrills they gave us.”
Role-playing games aren’t all mist-shrouded fantasy, and on ALTNYC88, Casiotomb provides a frenetic, claustrophobic, urban soundtrack for a game set in a Warriors-like New York City, complete with post-apocalyptic mutants, graffiti-tagged subways, and monsters living in the sewer systems.
Dungeon Synth Magazine
Not content to only build their releases around tabletop game adventures and analog video game simulations, recently HDK has begun compiling a series called Dungeon Synth Magazine—anthology albums of four tracks, each by a different artist. These volumes act as a zine as well, with each one containing a slim booklet of microfictions, to which the tracks serve as aural counterparts. It’s something akin to the pulp mags that put out the works of H.P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard—had they come with a soundtrack.
“We try to carefully take care of what is around the music of our releases, from artwork to literary content to give the listener a rich experience that does not end with simple listening. Everyone likes to read stories and let their imagination travel. Music amplifies the emotional and ‘unwritten’ elements of the stories,” the HDK collective says.
The three volumes of the magazine are a showcase for artists drawn in by the HDK aesthetic, and with tracks by acts like the Serbian Glog, Chicago-based Alkilith, and the Siberian artist Astarium, they are one of the only places where the label features artists who also put out their own releases. With each track on the releases needing to fill out half the side of a cassette, the tracks all stretch out into the 12-to-15 minute range, making for some cinematically-structured soundscapes.
La gabbia umana
HDK also plays around with other kinds of authorship—with the exception of the Dungeon Synth Magazine artists, it’s not exactly clear how many of their releases are from independent acts versus how many are contrivances of the label’s founders. Perhaps the best of these hall of mirrors metatexts is La gabbia umana, which purports to be the lost soundtrack to an unreleased giallo-esque Italian zombie movie from 1979. With slinky, abstract jazz provided by the most likely fictitious film composing maestro, Augusto Ralla (he doesn’t exist anywhere in history outside of this release), this album takes the listener for a creepy post-apocalyptic ride.
Sometimes of course, music is just music and retro sounds are just retro sounds. Dungeon synth is truly an international genre. Iranian artist VARKÂNA’s release Icebound made its way to HDK headquarters. They oversaw the first physical release of the album, which slots along quite compatibly with the rest of the label’s output.