As the old saying goes “Whatever is old is new again.” The saying can be applied to music in 2017 that is influenced by the dark, medieval-inspired ambient music of Norwegian black metal artists such as Burzum, and most of all Mortiis(ex-bassist of Emperor). Of all things to pop back up on the radar of 2017, this is probably the one that I am having the most fun with. Not just listening to, but writing about as well. Definitely in terms of this newly coined sub-genre, carefully and aptly called Dungeon Synth, it does not take itself oh-so-seriously(Not yet anyways!) but still sticking to the core sound and ethos of all those great pieces of music that I more or less grew-up listening to and letting my imagination run wild in total nerd-like fashion in the 90’s. Pre-Internet era had some major fucking advantages – as well as disadvantages – when it came to music, especially this kind. Much like 90’s black metal, this was all wrapped in a shroud of mystique and a veil of obscurity. Where as most of my classmates where out doing god-knows-what, your favorite blogger was in his bedroom trying to find and read as much as I could through Metal Maniacs and fanzines ordered. Totally left me day-dreaming on sunny school afternoons in the hot Florida weather about stuff like castles, dank moldy dungeons, and all sorts of cool nerdy shit. Yeah I may be eating member berries here but in all honesty, it’s the most fun I’ve had with member berries. It’s also a breath of fresh air from the now over-saturated Synthwave fad. Plus this is all one giant excuse for me to break out the jamz and NERD THE FUCK OUT!
I also need to note that not only will I discuss the importance of Norway in this series, but also delve into what led up and inspired Norway to start tapping on their Casio keyboards as well. I’ll also discuss the primary Norwegian artists who took from a previous generation and gave birth to what is happening now in 2017. Also I always give credit where credit is due and there are several other websites that have touched upon this subject and gone further into it more than I might possibly. Bandcamp.com were the first to break open the pandora’s box on this new form of music earlier this year. No Clean Singing has done a really excellent job and has their own series going for them and I highly recommend checking them out. NCS even named shit that I never even heard of back then, so while reminiscing of old times, I also got a good history lesson on a sub-genre that expanded way past the fjords of Dungeon Synth epic-center in Norway. So let us begin this discussion with some pieces from of this new explosion of sp00ky music. Starting with it’s origins and roots:
ORIGINS OF AMBIENT SYNTH MUSIC IN BLACK METAL:
Possibly the earliest example of the concept of an extreme metal band using dark ambient influences in their music. And what other artists besides the mythological and legendary Tom G. Warrior (Hellhammer/Celtic Frost/Triptykon) to fucking look decades ahead of him with his usual visions of mortality? If anything this track from the classic “Morbid Tales” EP is more Goblin-inspired. It sounds like it was taken from the “Susperia” soundtrack than anything Tangerine Dream did in the 80’s. More horror-based than fantasy if anything. For 1984, I’m sure this was truly terrifying.
Canada’s Blasphemy are another black metal artist who more or less was ahead of the curve. The intro to their 1989 “Blood From The Altar” demo was less soundtrack inspired, and way more ritual chant-ish. And the said can be said for the even better “Winds Of The Black Godz” intro to their classic 1990 “Fallen Angel of Doom” LP. It could be noted that the Nords took more influence from these rabid Canucks in terms of direction in the early days than trying to worry about how synths could be tied in with cheesy symphonic elements that would later happen and completely water the effects of synth keyboards and fucking up the entire concept of ambiance and atmosphere. Hell, even Mayhem weren’t this spooky ambient-sounding with their “Silvester Anfang” intro to their “Deathcrush” demo which itself was released in 1987 a mere two years before Blasphemy. Which now brings me to the discussion of Norway of this series.
ROOTS OF DUNGEON SYNTH:
Although not what one would think of Dungeon Synth, Mayhem‘s “Silvester Anfang” would be the earliest usages of ambient music used by a Norwegian band done in a very dark nature and made none other than Conrad Schnitzler of the ever-influential Tangerine Dream. This track was the opening song for the now legendary “Deathcrush” demo by Norway’s Mayhem. For all intents and purposes, Euronymous was definitely forward thinking even during Mayhem’s most rawest and primitive form. In fact, because of Euronymous….this was the green light for 2nd wave Norwegian Black Metal artist to pry and use ambient pieces and passages to use in their music that still happens to this very fucking day.
Burzum‘s “Han Som Reiste” is probably the next piece of dark ambient music to come into existence. Released around the same summer as the first Mortiis demo, Burzum’s take is less military-esque drum march sounding and more dreary-sounding giving is a more ominous vibe. Again for only one or two songs and not an entire album of this. Even though Mortiis would be the first to release an entire demo/album of synth music, for Varg to release such a feat that would come years down the road. It also should be noted that next to Mortiis, his ambient material was the best. The major difference between Varg of Burzum and Mortiis was that Varg’s ambient material was more historically and culturally-influence as opposed to the straight out fantasy landscape that Mortiis created.
Wongraven was a side-project of Satyricon members. By 1995 just damn near every Norweigian musician had an ambient side-project or every Norweigian band were using synths or ambient passages in their music mixing it with black metal. This album never really popped-up on my radar that much back in the day. People knew about it, but it didn’t get the amount of speak as say Burzum, Mortiis, or even Summoning.
Austria’s Summoning was probably one of the bigger names outside of Norway/Sweden that was mentioned when discussing about Dungeon Synth at the time. Over time Summoning would go more orchestral and symphonic-sounding. Think of a black metal version of Sweden’s Therion for that particular period. But for their first handful of releases, they were strictly ambient/synth. A big thing was that while Mortiis stayed more strictly to mythological Norwegian creatures and moldy castle basements, Summoning picked-up on what Varg was doing in Burzum and went full-force and saying “Yeah it’s total Lord Of The Rings/Dungeons & Dragons nerd shit going on here. Nothing dark about us, we’re just trying to roll a 7 or 8 in hopes of defeating the Swamps demons so our horses don’t get stuck in the Marshlands.” I’m sure if my fiancee’ were to read this, she would hang her head in shame and think “God he is such a fucking NERD!” Sorry Babe
Germany took a stab at the whole Norway thing with Depressive Silence. Both their “The Darkened Empires” and “Depressive Silence” demos are interesting in the fact that this was pretty obscure even to me. In fact I will note that while doing this, I had to do my detective work to find more earlier 90’s pieces of Dungeon Synth music. Depressive Silence is still medieval, but it’s a shade or so lighter that the Norwegians. Not as dark and brooding. Still very troll-y. There’s even parts that are very classical-inspired as well. I’m pretty surprised and proof positive if I had heard this as a teen in the 90’s, I would worship this next to Mortiis’ discography.
Neptune Towers was Darkthrone‘s very own Fenriz’s take on Norway obsession with dark ambient synth music. Only he took his to a more psychedelic/classic Tangerine Dream route possibly keeping it closer to the roots at what Mayhem did on their “Deathcrush” demo than Mortiis or Burzum did. I wouldn’t say that Neptune Towers is a direct influence but it should definitely be noted as well for future reference. Going back and listening to this, has it aged well? Meh. It’s still good, but this is definitely geared more towards proggy nerds and the like.
Varg had been toying with ambient music on his albums tastefully and wonderfully for years but never going into full-album delivery. He finally did with the 1997 release of music he originally wrote in prison in late 1994/1995. The first of two releases he did was titled “Dauði Baldrs” which originally was not well-received and seen a bit as a dud. Then a year or so after that release, here comes a second full-length dark ambient album titled “Hliðskjálf” which in turn is the better out LP out of the two. The second song, “Ansuzgardaraiwô” is wallet-worthy and a testament to Varg’s ability to craft better music than actual life decisions whether you agree with him or not.
That is the end of the first part of this series. I know what you are thinking……where the fuck is Mortiis? I know I’ve name-dropped him several times already and haven’t posted any pieces by him. I guess you will have to wait until the next part of the Dungeon Synth Series where I dedicate an entire section to the artist and go into all-out nerd fandom mode. Until then, keep it creepy, ooky, and all-together sp00ky.