Original date of publication: May 2020.
Music out of joint
Dungeon synth as a musical genre (the term came along retroactively in 2011) emerged in the still unrated, and unknown era of (mainly European) 1990s. The decade in which the evil empire has fallen, and the world was left without any enemies and with one victor - the liberal democracy. Of course, now this line of thought sounds like a total joke, as it has been proven false so quickly, that we have slowly forgotten that it was a line of thought. In such world of beautiful liberal democratic hegemony dungeon synth has arisen. Mainly inspired by early video game soundtracks, fantasy books, and in general so called black metal aesthetic. The black metal aesthetic, the term that repeats in most of the texts on the genre, taken as a singular body of work, and implying that the best interpretation is the one of proximity. Let's not give the creator any crativity, just attempt to see it as continuation of his work, as every person thinks logically and simply continues his methodology in his little world.
Of course, I am against this reading of dungeon synth as simply result of black metals need to do something else. Majority of Black Metal bands did not make dungeon synth, and some people dislike the 'dungeon synth' tracks on, for example, Burzum records. They are much slower, played on simple synth, sometimes with small vocals, and using completely different aureal arrangement than black metal tracks. If we look at the leap from Black Metal to Dungeon Synth, we can make a line, which crosses Black Metal, goes straight through the lighter and harder forms of noise music, goes to ambient and then takes elements from Medieval and soundtrack music and asserts itself.
Already this assertion as 'dungeon synth' is debatable, as even the 'godfather' of dungeon synth, and probably only dungeon synth artist with that level of popularity - the aforementioned Burzum does not even consider his music to be dungeon synth. In the interview Varg does not offer a satisfying answer, and gives an answer which can be only reminding for Platonist critique of poetry in the legendary Republic, to which I will refer more in the latter part of this post. The answer being - Ah, I don't think about that. What comes comes. There is no need to plan anything or even think about it. We go where the music takes us... - there hardly can be more empty answer. Researching early dungeon synth hardly gives us answers, and there has been no serious scholarly work done on the genre. I have to interpret positions from various interviews, my own survey on the community, etc. I might even update this article depending on feedback I get.
The political reading and the critique of naive attempts
To being with, I have to say that it is mainly my interpretation and I will attempt to show opinions of the community, but if someone wants exact opinion - there should be no political reading of any music and even opinions of artist do not matter. Now, having this out of way I can allow for a more peaceful discussion.
General metal genre has always been dealing with conservative sentiments. The removed discussions on Metal-archives, opinions of some artists, the general masculine focus of music. Dungeon synth as a genre that descends from metal has the same baggage and the judgement from liberals can go similar way. Is that judgement deserved? Absolutely not, but still it must have its own point of entry and we must understand the weight of aesthetics and what role can dungeon synth play in the crtique of those sentiments.
Eco-fascism as an ideology focuses on relation of individual and people to nature and how one should strive towards the participation in land and the nation of that land. The nationalist problematics coalesce normally, and as any politics - it ought to have its set for aesthetic notions to represent. Those ecofascist sentiments utilised the rhetoric of 'blood and soil' as the method of controlling certain themes in art. It became the nature and european landscapes as the show of power and existence in the Western/Aryan world. Therefore the control of those themes allowed it to become connected with the political topics and slow abandoning those themes in the popular western art post-2nd World War.
To go back on dungeon synth, the majority of albums is set in the similar aesthetic space. That does not of course give it meaning, but for people that are focused on aesthetics they might find that those political visions are connecting with them on an aesthetic level and they can identify with them. That is, in my opinion, the most basic reason for those assumptions and those cases. But, the aesthetic itself is empty - it is a spot for which meaning can be given and a work of art can be interpreted. There are popular musical acts which already control this aesthethic - namely Laibach and Rammstein. Both, when asked about their politics given either openly anti-conservative answers or ambiguous answers showing how empty are their aesthetics. Of course, liberal critique of the aesthetic continues, but the main point of it is lost. It is just the similarity on which it is based, so in my opinion, it would be beneficial for dungeon synth artists, to be open about their apoliticality and distance themselves from those sentiments. The apolitical position of the artists and the silence of apolitical leads to assumptions, and those assumptions will be taken from the more radical elements, and that might lead to wrong prejudices. Of course if your real political sentiments are those you are completely free to have them as you are a free individual of the modern free society.
Freedom of the unfreedom
The enemy of art is the absence of limitations.
- Orson Welles
Now, having the elephant in the room out of the way, we can discuss aesthetics as they are, without biases or being limited by false prejudices. At this point, I want to look at how dungeon synth is defined around its limitations and how those limitations allow artists for better expression of individual artistic styles, and at the same time how it is the better representation of experiences that lead to creation of dungeon synth.
The lo-fi aesthetic, as some members of the community have said - is the cornerstone of the genre. It stands on it and from it the main themes come are expressed and allow for unique 'dungeon synth' vision. It is a vision and methodology which hardly was used in such context as electronic music usually stood for high technological development and not for returning to the past or the imagination of fantasy worlds. Of course, fantasy is also a way of return. This return will be worked upon on in the latter section as it is of larger interest.
The limitations of dungeon synth are not only limitation of lo-fi electronic music, but also limitations of ambient music. Most of dungeon synth albums avoid time scales and stay in the limitation as strictly as possible. This also allows for degree of anonymity for the artist, but in this anonymity the individual aspects are more visible as they exist in minor usages and the choice of images to represent art. To transfer it to more readable aspects, for example the great stained glass art was made by one person, but in most of the cases you cannot say exactly the name of that person. Of course, in dungeon synth artists still use names, but the aesthetic is often nameless as it stays within the limitations and expresses itself towards the values around which it is centered. And for that paradoxically, as in Chesterton's Orthodoxy dungeon synth becomes the most revolutionary as it has a single goal and can show how single aesthetic can be multifaceted and show wide range of emotions in it.
This is (not) a video game soundtrack
The connection that is often made is the point of simillarity to the 1990s and a bit later video game soundtracks. The MOD soundtracks were focused on the same limitations, and the games themselves focused on the simillar aesthetic (the political implications of that already are worthy of another article!) and therefore dungeon synth is recalled on being that. The community seems to be at peace with this fact as it is a fair comparison and often video game soundtracks may lead one to dungeon synth.
In my opinion, this relation is not as clean and not as simple as it is often suggested be as soundtracks often use extreme sampling, to the point of similarity to the original (i.e. Mark Morgan's Fallout soundtrack to work of Brian Eno and Aphex Twin). Now, the ethical judgement is down to the lawyers, in my opinion putting the same/similar piece of music over more visible aesthetical outset can allow for new interpretation and in my opinion the saddest part is the legal impossiblity of clear crediting and sourcing of those sounds. In this dungeon synth as it is focused on being a musical genre, it transmits is aesthetic themes in music and therefore the environments are existent through an interpretation of the works.
I am of course not saying all soundtrack artists participate in this practice, and that there are no dungeon synth albums without such inspirations. The point is a different aesthetical position as the task of dungeon synth music is enclosed, even if it is related to the themes used in video games, it still must transmit its message using the medium of music. Therefore, the soundtrack comparison in my opinion limits the value of dungeon synth, but is allowed as the aesthetic connection is concrete and comes from larger aesthetic roots. Therefore, it is the co-existence of both in these themes that allows for that vision, and not the soundtrack-like nature of dungeon synth. Dungeon synth is based on its own creative processes and shows the exact vision of (usually individual) artist.
For whom, from whom?
The definition of dungeon synth is based on self-definition of the artist and the reception of the community as they can not the participation in the known themes and demarcate whether a work can be posited in it. This returns to the limitations and shows interesting point about them - they do not need the self-definiton of the artist to be fulfilled. This shows how dungeon synth owns enough aesthetic terms to be clearly defined by its own set of rules, and it (may) happen that artist transgresses those rules and keeps the self-definition. The self-definition in its transgression allows for reaplicattion of those rules and getting to more clear values of what is the genre.
I am sorry for the deep jargon in the last paragraph, the main point of it is that dungeon synth can benefit from transgressions and reinterpretations of the genre as any application of them will allow other artists to identify with the movement and create new reinterpretations of themes, or even the basic tenants of dungeon synth. Both sides are free to reinterpret the definiton, and in my opinion it ought to be reinterpreted to allow to get to the true core of dungeon synth and its limits.
The 'rejected' pretences
(Certain individuals in) the dungeon synth community, when asked has said that dungeon synth should stay undeground as it is the part of it. They do not look for possibility of it going to the mainstream, or being part of the cultural canon of the civilisation. It is already a fascinating will, which again bears similarity to medieval artists whose art was not created for the sake of the canon, but for the sake of their relation with God, so the work was created towards the aesthetic and not how it would be received.
These lack of pretences and the will towards the underground, in my opinion, show how the nature of success as an artist is different for dungeon synth community. They focus on themselves, as it is the respect for their aestethic rooting that allows for truthful and valuable impressions that might stay with another members of the community. The community which has exceptionally high rate of artists per receiver is very productive compared to its own size. The lack of pretenses causes it to be more courageous and might even cause it to actually come to the mainstream, but for that future with tell (and if that happens I am going to edit this article).
The eternal return
I want to return to the aforementioned topic of the return in dungeon synth. It is in my opinion the thematic goal of the genre as it searches for the experience of nature and community that has been lost due to the political and culture developments. It is partially an escapist goal, and it is partially responsible for its relation to reactionary politics, but as I have said - aesthetics are empty and they do have (political) meanings that sometimes are given to them. The dungeon synth as a genre is an exceptional movement, as it subverts the nature of black metal themes and show how it can transfer them in a completely different way.
The return is of course related to fantasy, and modern fantasy has its roots in works of J.R.R. Tolkien and his own reintepretation of world mythologies and externalising them away from the contexts and therefore freeing them of theologico-political baggage. They become a free canvas on which our paints can be directed, and complex contemprorary themes might be abstracted, reinterpreted and put into perspective. And that change of perspective in this eternal aesthetic return (as it cannot be finished, as the goal is imagined) allows for important insights into our reality, which in my opinion is one of the noblest goals art can fulfil.
I am thankful to the /r/DungeonSynth community for giving me answers to my questions, and dungeon synth artists for creating their dashing works. You are free to critique, give me comments and suggestions to this article by sending me an email.