Playing from the Keep

On the peculiar genre of electronic music that became the soundtrack for dungeoncrawls 

Playing from the Keep

Stu Horvath
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In the early nineties, bands like Mayhem and Darkthrone kicked off the second wave of black metal in Norway, flooding the senses with screeching vocals, blast-beat drums, and blazing tremolo. But there have always been moments of calm in the chaos: ambient instrumentals, often incorporating medieval compositions, acoustic guitars, woodwinds, and the occasional mournful female vocal melody. These sonic shelters let the listener catch a breath while priming them for ever more brutal riffage. 

The interludes also allowed for experimentation with electronic instruments. The first seven albums by Mortiis (1993 through 1999), who often performs wearing goblin-like prosthetics and describes his work from this period as “dark dungeon music,” are a prime example, as are the two science fiction–inflected Neptune Towers albums (1994, 1995), recorded by Fenriz of Darkthrone. By embracing synths, such bands tapped into modes explored by electronic pioneers like Tangerine Dream and Skinny Puppy. Just as important, they inspired a host of DIY enthusiasts, who distributed their recordings on limited runs of cassettes. 

The result is moody, minimalist electronic music that verges on primitive. The notes echo and convey a sense of distance, while the drone constricts. Together, these instrumental crosscurrents evoke a sense of the cavernous: a vast space full of suffocating darkness. Despite their spareness, these compositions manage to be psychologically punishing in large doses. Like a dungeon, I suppose. 

For many years, this musical movement didn’t have a name. It merely existed, truly underground, mostly sustained by the swapping of tapes and, once the aughts ushered in easy access to high-speed internet, through the downloading of obscurely named MP3s. It spread by word of mouth, like a sinister secret. In 2011, someone with the reversible handle Andrew Werdna started the Dungeon Synth blog to quantify the genre and chart its almost willfully obscure history. The name stuck. In 2012, Erang released Tome I, the first album intentionally recorded and released as “dungeonsynth.” 

Of course, every subculture has its lunatic fringe. This is particularly true of second-wave black metal, which was born out of church burnings, murder, and suicide. (In fact, while in prison in the nineties for murder and arson, white-supremacist guitarist Varg Vikernes could make music only on a synth, which means he sometimes gets credit for being a dungeonsynth pioneer, but honestly, fuck that guy.) Because of its origins in black metal, dungeonsynth shares that scene’s infestation by crypto-fascists and blood-and-soil nationalists. Vetting is further complicated by dungeonsynth’s lack of lyrics and the tendency of its artists to work under pseudonyms. To my knowledge, unless otherwise noted, the recording artists I mention here don’t seem to be Nazis, but listeners should still proceed with caution. 

Anyway, once a genre is named, there are suddenly “rules” and conventions to be embraced or defied. Permutations proliferate, the river becomes a delta, and new gimmicks arise. For instance, dungeonsynth cross-pollinates with other styles of electronic music, mutating at every contact. Traditionalists stick to the more identifiable black metal sounds, with some going so far as to disqualify projects not connected in some way to established black metal acts. Others gravitate to the clear similarities dungeonsynth has to the music of early games. I’ve witnessed heated arguments over this, but honestly, I couldn’t tell you the difference between, say, the music that came out of my Nintendo while playing Shadowgate in 1989 and most 16-bit-style albums, like Cauldron 80’s (excellent) Devourer

At some point, dungeonsynth became aurally tied to tabletop roleplaying games (RPGs). The first clear instance of crossover was probably Corvus Neblus’s album Chapter IStrahd’s Possession, which was inspired by the Ravenloft campaign setting for Dungeons & Dragons and released on cassette in 1999. There’s a natural overlap between the gothic spires and the creeping undead of the setting and the melancholy, echoing refrains of the music. The RPG connection gained critical mass around 2017, coinciding with an explosion of zine projects that has continued to reshape the RPG hobby. Mothership (2018), a space horror RPG in the mode of the film Event Horizon and the videogame Dead Space, crystallized the movement; now there are zines for every possible RPG experience, from investigating bizarre events as public access TV station personalities (WHPA-13) to hunting monsters in 1889 Japan (Yokai Hunters Society). As a homemade form of music, usually created by a single person and distributed online, dungeonsynth pairs perfectly with RPG creators, who are often lone wolves themselves. 

There are hundreds of RPG-ready dungeonsynth artists out there. You could build a whole castle out of their names: Secret Stairways, the Vampire Tower, Sequestered Keep. I’m partial to the releases from the Milan-based Heimat der Katastrophe, a tape label that has released 144 titles since 2017. Its fantasy-tinged products often provide bespoke soundtracks for established RPGs like MÖRK BORG or adventure gamebooks like Lone Wolf. Heimat’s large range of releases encourages further experimentation as well: albums veer into synthwave and kosmische, providing music suitable for space stations, shadowy alleys, and dystopic cities as well as dungeons. 

I recently discovered Out of Season, a label that puts out dungeonsynth and metal in a variety of formats, all arranged around the aesthetics of fantasy and roleplaying games. One artist, Oublieth, makes gloriously brooding songs, and has album covers illustrated by Stephen Fabian, whose somber drawings define the aforementioned Ravenloft setting. Meanwhile, Fogweaver’s titles and album art draw directly from Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea, a six-book series that interrogates many of the fantasy genre’s assumptions, particularly about gender roles. It’s a welcome crossover for Le Guin, a literary voice that’s underappreciated in the rosters of RPG inspirations. 

On a shelf in my loft are sixteen cassettes stacked in shiny plastic cases, like gleaming trinkets from some alternate past, bearing names like Kobold and Loot the Body on their spines. The J-cards are luridly illustrated, mostly in black and white, in an amateurish style that evokes the art of early tabletop roleplaying games. The cover for the first Kobold album, The Cave of the Lost Talisman (2017), riffs on an illustration by Bob Maurus from the D&D module Ghost of Lion Castle (1984)—a view not unlike that of a first-person videogame, with one hand holding a torch, the other a sword, and a snarling kobold approaching. Later albums keep the same composition, but switch out the menacing monster: skeleton, ogre, mummy. The cassette inserts list characters and their attributes, along with dungeon maps and brief descriptions of the perils found therein: a playable scenario.

The low-res music of Kobold and similar RPG-influenced projects, complete with the occasional clanking chain or dripping water effect for extra dankness, seem distinct from earlier dungeonsynth. The newer, game-inspired iterations are still crowding and claustrophobic, but also favor sharp tones that are nostalgic and surprisingly warm—I suspect that much of the music was composed on vintage Casio keyboards. The result is engrossing but oddly punishing, perhaps because the songs lack the cathartic aggro of black metal. Rather, they provide an atmospheric backdrop for play. These are soundscapes for rolling dice over, for creating those accidental, delicious moments when action in the session—a rogue opening a chest that might contain a poison needle trap, a bugbear pulling a player character into the shadows—melds with urgent crescendos. This is music with a specific job. It isn’t for casual listening. At least I can’t listen for very long, not in the same way I can to other instrumental music. It’s the history too. Because it’s tied to nihilistic wastoids in the same ways black metal can be, dungeonsynth requires careful exploration and a willingness to check every flagstone underfoot for snares. 

It’s exhausting work, and an air of fatigue lingers around even the good finds. Perhaps the slog of it all makes dungeonsynth true to its name. These are songs that are well suited for secret places underground, that are played to match your footsteps when you’re hesitantly stalking down the torchlit corridors of your imagination. There are treasures to be had, but dangers too.

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