Underground atmospheric music has a long history of existing as a complement to metal, and black metal in particular. The 90s were full of “side projects” performed with varying degrees of competence, usually with an ambition to convey occult, spiritual or Fantasy inspired themes. Sometimes this musical sub-subculture took on a life somewhat separate from the metal milieu that spawned it, as was the case when Bard Algol founded Dark Age Productions and published a long line of both metal side projects and other atmospheric works. Well over twenty years later, the memory of these bands, as well as the early works of Mortiis, the synth albums of Burzum and a host of other classics, gave birth to the notion of “dungeon synth”. This subgenre now thrives, with new projects launching monthly, and releases – mainly online, but also in physical format – dropping weekly.
The re-establishment of Dark Age Productions is yet another step in this momentous development (I’m not a native English speaker, and do not know the meaning of the word hyperbole). After a fantastic reissue of the early works of Bard Algol’s own project Cernunnos Woods, the time has come for the first original release. Drachenfeuer and Realm of Light marks Dark Age Productions’ reemergence as a proper label, in a sense. It is an utterly ambitious project from the minds and fingers of Jim Kirkwood and Alexander Wieser. Kirkwood has released more than 80 albums since the 80s, and the two men have spent quite a lot of time working together in bands such as URUK HAI, Solid Grey and numerous others. Realm of Light was recorded back in 2009, and now finally sees the light of day.
Being one of the harbingers of the new age of dungeon synth carries certain responsibilities, even while the actual band could never have seen this peculiar context coming. Things could go awry in two specific ways: the recording could be too lo-fi, good for what it was and duly awakening feelings of nostalgia and old school tape trading. There is nothing inherently wrong with that, but it is not the sort of release most of us would expect from Dark Age Productions at this point (in particular since there will plenty of time for nostalgia when the various re-issues of old D.A.P. classics are released). On the other hand, it could also have made too much use of the musical technology available these days, creating a perfect emulation of a philharmonic orchestra and ending up sounding like the soundtrack of some blockbuster Fantasy movie. That would not be right either; such music can be found in most any modern video game or indeed movie. We are happy to report that Drachenfeuer have navigated perfectly through and beyond this Scylla and Charybdis of dungeon synth’s Strait of Messina.
The two hour epos is based on various aspects of Tolkien’s Middle Earth, ranging from the creation myth of the Silmarillion to the Black Gate of Mordor in the Third Age. This is of course nothing original, but it works very well together with the music, which consists of long – often very long – tracks of evocative, High Fantasy instrumentation.
At times the album borders on ambient, but almost always the songs include lucid and expressive melodies, as well as choice percussion and dramatic sound effects that serve to move this outside the realm of, say, dark ambient. It is often dream-like, transcendent and indeed suggestive of a realm of light, rather than something more black and brooding (though there are exceptions – “The Black Gate”, for one). To reconnect to the initial ramblings above, the quality of the synthesizers are top notch, the music is well written and executed, and in a technical sense it goes far beyond anything which could reasonably have been accomplished by black metal-affiliated underground musicians back in the 90s. At the same time, it is unashamedly synth based, even while retaining the right to utilize several acoustic instruments, choirs and sound effects, as well as the odd articulate vocal part.
The tracks are almost all utterly epic, though some are calmer and some more bombastic. It isn’t all mighty strings and rumbling timpani, though. In “Father of Dragons” Drachenfeuer offer up some synth pop with industrial notes, while the preceding “So Far Like Never Before” is a slab of 80s synthesizer dreaminess. The effect achieved through insertion of old school synth voices we recognize from way back when in many tracks may or may not be intentional, but it is to create a great dynamic with the more professional sounding modern synthesizer melodies and chords.
To say that the full two hours of music featured on this double CD convey constant bliss would of course be an exaggeration – there are parts which feel somewhat directionless, and while they didn’t cause any track skipping, the thought was there at times. Still, these meandering passages also contribute to reducing the aforementioned problem with an overly slick and “commercial” product – this is raw creativity, even if it is rather professional sounding.
Attempting to list influences would be perilous, given Jim Kirkwood’s long history with atmospheric music, but several comparisons can still be made. Summoning’s non-metal tracks, the more epic works of early Mortiis (though this has a far more ambitious production) and certain movie sound tracks could surely be mentioned without stepping on any toes. The massiveness of the album is fairly unique, though. The only dungeon synth release with a longer playtime would be Chaucerian Myth’s debut.
Realm of Light is epic both in the literal and the internet teenage slang sense of the word (kids do still say “epic”, or was that ten years ago?). It is a worthy second release for the new Dark Age Productions, and a great addition to the growing body of dungeon synth extant today. Archaic Triad sincerely hopes it finds a market, so that the inexcusable vulgarity of the mob doesn’t condemn it to a glorious but tragic fate of splendid, forgotten marginalization.
The album is out pretty much right now, and can already be ordered from Dark Age Productions. You’d better do so.