Upon first doing this short series, I won’t lie and admit I was a bit hesitant. Why? Various reasons. None negative, but for the most part I sadly felt that this was a new fad that would shortly start going the usual route of so many before. But then having a few of my close friends basically elbowing me and saying “Dude, check this shit out!” I more or less let go of all pretenses and started listening to this new form of synth music while at work with an open mind. I don’t know what happened in my warped dank mind still reeling from my surgery and dealing with the aftermath Hurricane Irma. May be it had to do that I finally didn’t have to listen to terrible Top 40 Pop/RnB/whatever type of music blaring thru the overhead speakers at work. But I almost felt a certain wave of nostalgia hit me that I haven’t felt in a good while. Not bad nostalgia, but the good kind when one remembers discovering something for the first time and it leaves such a huge impression on you that it sadly guarantees you to never get laid for the remainder of your life. At least for me at that particular pre-Internet time frame. I got to re-discover something that I had locked in the dusty old attic that is my mind. In a way it helped me use my imagination in a way that I haven’t used it in quite some time. So may be there is something healthy to doing such.
First part of this series I started to go into the roots of Dungeon Synth discussing about several pieces that would go on to influence the now what seems like over-night explosion of Dungeon Synth. But I didn’t really talk or discuss about one massively important artist to the sub-genre. Upon first writing this, I found myself wanting to talk more about his music than just 3 or 4 sentences. I felt that this was a good time to really delve into the gentleman’s discography and give you a good representation of what it was like growing up as a black metal-obssessed teen in the 90’s pre-Internet times. I don’t have keep you in suspense or myself so ladies and gentleman, the moment that both you and I had been waiting for; the man with the pointy ears, hook nose, batwings, and chainmail, and Norway’s most famous troll and Blix’s brother: MORTIIS!
Let’s start at the very beginning with his 1993 demo “The Song Of A Long Forgotten Ghost.” Released on cassette form in June of that year, Mortiis did something completely fucking different. He released an entire demo of dark ambient synth music with zero vocals. That had never been done before by a (former) black metal musician. Be it Norwegian or otherwise. I had noted in the previous part that his fellow Norwegians in Mayhem and Burzum did 1 or 2 songs, but never a full demo. Another big thing was that of the direction he took: minimalist, cheaply-made, and Medieval-sounding. This gentleman was living in 2017 while everyone else was stuck in 1992. By dropping the bass guitar in Emperor and doing a solo project with a Casio keyboard, he would go on to record entire albums of dark ambient music that even in 2017, the influence of his early visions can still be felt.
Mortiis’s 1994 debut album “Født til å herske” is ground zero for Dungeon Synth Music. Released on Malicious Records, and then re-released under his own label Dark Dungeon Records. Hell even the genre name itself is a respectable wordplay on Mortiis’s very own label. Mortiis went straight for the abstract. Not only furthering the medieval sounds but also adopting the imagery of a mythological Norwegian troll/goblin placing him way beyond your typical panda corpsepaint. It should be noted that even his Norwegian troll/goblin costume would also change from album to album but still managing to keep a complete mystique about him that was just scream “Fuckin’ sweet!” It’s an LP with one long song divided into two tracks and the first time we hear vocals in Mortiis music. It’s Dungeon-y and medieval sounding but when Mortiis’ vocals finally make themselves known it turns into this weird hypnotic ritual-esque chanting. For a debut, I absolutely personally love this one.
Mortiis released his second full length LP, titled “Ånden som gjorde opprør” on the now legendary and defunct Cold Meat Industries in 1994. It’s right about here where Mortiis is in full control. The maestro to his very own opera creating landscapes with the flick of a wrist. The artwork shows actual Norwegian landscape and gives Mortiis vision a physical location. It’s also noted that this is what a lot of Mortiis fans consider their favorite album from his classic Era 1 period.
“Keiser av en dimension ukjent” is the next album by Mortiis released in 1995. If anything this is a sister album expansion of “Ånden som gjorde opprør.” It also the transitional album to the next compilation album that most people still consider a full-length. By now Mortiis had done not only Emperor, and his main solo project, but two other side projects that included Vond and Fata Morgana. Both of which are more extensions of his particular form of dark synth music even going in a more Darkwave direction.
“Crypt Of The Wizard” is what many consider to be Mortiis’ grand opus. This album is not so much a full-length, but a compilation of ten songs gathered from no less than five EPs all put out through Mortiis very own Dark Dungeon record label. These five EPs which all contained two songs each combined with the adorning artwork by well-known Swedish artist John Bauer. Put together and you have a compilation that at the end of the day might as well be considered a full-length. Regardless of what you consider this LP to be, “Crypt of The Wizard” is the album that got many people here in the states to take notice and was the first ever bit of exposure of Mortiis to 90’s teens such as myself. This is what started many of us on our own personal quest to find out more about this mysterious artist who looked like Blix from the 80’s Tom Cruise film “Legend.”
Taking a break from his music, let’s look a bit at the brilliant and original imagery Mortiis displayed in the 90’s while the majority of his countrymen were looking like sad pandas:
I first saw this same image in Metal Maniacs in ’97/’98. Suffice to say it was the coolest fucking thing I had seen up until that point in my entire life. Mind you black metal imagery was one thing….Mortiis was on a completely different level and made just basically everyone else seemed not-so sincere to their choice of musical craft. On top of a compilation LP, he also made a limited-edition home video (2000 copies total) of him walking around in a Swedish castle outside of Gothenburg in full Mortiis goblin attire and costume. For a peak into the past and pre-Internet era, check this video clip out:
Very spooky stuff
After the release of the “Crypt Of The Wizard” compilation LP, Mortiis made the big jump from both Cold Meat Industry/Dark Dungeon Music to Earache Music. At this time, black metal was as huge as it had gotten. Certain big name record labels were all cashing in, and Earache wanted a piece of the pie, so they picked up Mortiis. The album “The Stargate” was released and more and more people picked up on what he was doing, particularly in the UK. It should be noted that the music contained on “The Stargate” is the last full length album he did that contained full on dark ambient synth music. But here, there’s other sounds added to the pallet such as female vocals, and possibly the most “full” medieval soundtrack you’ll find outside of “Lord Of The Rings” soundtrack. “The Stargate” is basically the end of of what Mortiis himself referred to as Era 1. What he did next after completely doing away with the troll-y nature of the character and music he created was not just the most shocking thing he had done up until this point, but possibly his most criminally underrated album ever:
He decided to go straight Industrial/Electronic.
“The Smell Of The Witch“, while not only signifying the second Era of his music but a completely overhaul of not just the image and look of Mortiis, but the sound. Gone are the dark ambient synths, and in place is loud, noisey Industrial/Goth dance music with guitars. And in all honesty, at the time, it was much needed. Had Mortiis keep going on with his Era 1 type music, he would have ended in self-parody like KISS or something corny of the sort. Mortiis stepped out from the darkness of the dungeon and onto the dance floor and shocked everyone that for one he has a good voice. So if you’re open-minded enough, you will appreciate “The Smell Of The Witch.” I know I have for years. As far as the rest of discography past this point? Meh. I don’t exactly register myself as a fan of those albums. Nothing negative to say about those other than it’s his music and he can do whatever he wants to with it but for me…..I’m staying in the dark dank dungeons of Norway somewhere in ’97. And I know I’m not the only one who feels that way.
But the story doesn’t stop there. Or so you would believe that it would. This year Foreign Sounds/Children of The Night released a BEAUTIFULLY made limited edition wooden cassette boxset that contained the first Mortiis demo and the first three Era 1 albums on cassette tape. Complete for nerdy fanbois such as myself. Did I get one? You bet your sweet ass I did. Take a look for yourself:
These box sets sold-out within an hour of being posted online. I barely lucked-out but thankfully I did. Out of all the things I own in my personal music collection, it’s probably one of my most valued.
Wrapping all this discussion and talk about Mortiis up, to say that I’m a fan is a bit of an understatement. For all intents and purposes, Mortiis made a huge impression on me as a teen and his music still lives on in 2017. These days his Era 1 music is still fascinating. Even for a time period that I wasn’t listening to his music, I wouldn’t deny the impact he had on my ever-growing tastes from that particular time period of my youth. He provided more of a classic sense of escapism and at what better time in pre-Internet social-media based clusterfuck dumpster fire of the current year? In the 90’s that was the goal. And I’m sure that now more than ever escapism is still a much-needed thing but the depressing part is that I’m at an age where I don’t experience it as much as when I did when I was younger. Yeah I can totally isolate myself in my house and listen to music, and read books, or do whatever….but is it the same effect? Not really. Time then stood still forever, and now nearing 35, time is going by faster. But it is nice to come back to certain things that you remember completely shattering your world and concept of what an actual ARTIST should or should not be. If anything, Mortiis defined art in the most absurd way possible through synths, noses, batwings, daggers, dungeons and all. I would hate to sound cliche and say something to effect of “If you weren’t there, you wouldn’t understand.” But it’s true. Believe it, Comrades. If you need further proof, Decibel writer/Krieg frontman and online grouch Neill Jameson did an amazing fucking interview with Mortiis himself that goes further into the mythology that he created himself and his views on the music he’s created during his lifetime.
Next part of the Dungeon Synth series, I’m going to talk a bit about what made a lot of people start walking away from the synths and completely rebel against something that was rebellious in the first place. This part of the history of Dungeon Synth gets really fucking cringe-worthy.