Creating low-fi atmospheric music in 2017 is a problematic project, even if dungeon synth is your genre of choice. On the one hand, you can be mocked for being an inapt musician, in case you are truly trying your best. The massive amount of VST-plugs, apps and God knows what else that is available to even the moderately interested musician should make it impossible to create something all too minimalist and simplistic. On the other hand, if you’re doing it on purpose, you could be called a poseur, or someone vainly trying to recreate the glories of earlier times, when actual resource constraints made albums sound the way they did.
Then there’s an opposing point: some of those old recordings did actually sound great, conjured up an atmosphere because of, rather than despite, their meager means, and wouldn’t necessarily have been any better if only better equipment had been used. When it comes to movies, there is a clear case to be made for the idea that stop-motion animations or early, cheap CGI are mainly fascinating as time documents over archaic methods of creating visual effects. To the extent that movies aim to simulate reality as it is perceived by the senses, or would be perceived under certain fantastic circumstances, then “realism” in the sense of hiding the means used to create the illusion is indeed the goal of any film maker. Music is something altogether different: man made music in and of itself does not “simulate” or try to create an illusion of anything. Rather, much like language, it aims to awaken emotions or express ideas, without utilizing the imitation of other sensory impressions to do so.
With that in mind, there are several ways of looking at Neverwinter, Greek dungeon synther Sakristei’s debut release on Obscure Dungeon Records. Lo-fi doesn’t even begin to cover this stuff. The structure, production and quite a few melodies are highly influenced by Burzum’s Dauði Baldrs. Neverwinter, of course, stands without many factors that have served as support for the Burzum album. Musical qualities aside, Vikernes of Burzum was and is an established artist, whose music has inspired everything from nazi skinheads to East Coast, leftist hipsters doing metal about their feelings. Then we haven’t even touched on factors like the mystery and extreme controversy surrounding Burzum, and the fact that Dauði Baldrs was recorded in prison – things that, like it or not, will color the perception of music and add to its impact.
So, it would be possible to simply disregard these 27 minutes of dungeon synth as pretty useless – repetitive, simplistic nonsense of interest to no-one but the creator and collectors who buy this stuff just because they feel compelled to by their diagnosis. In fact, that is a perspective some prospective consumers will have, and one this reviewer would possibly entertain on one of his lousier days. However, holding onto it would mean missing out on a decent musical experience.
The Dauði Baldrs comparison holds also in other, positive ways too, you see. There is no meandering improvisations here, but rather repetitive “riffs”, recurring more or less layered, performed with a variety of synth voices. When the basic synth lines are good, as they often are, this means they work to create quite convincing songs. It is generic Fantasy stuff, interpreted in a very primitive way, but if listened to in the right frame of mind it has plenty of merit. If Drachenfeuer represents the cutting edge of dungeon synth, pushing all the way to the boundary before it would turn into soundtrack or overproduced ambient, Sakristei is a sort of reactionary core, reproducing the fundamentals of the dungeon synth genre as they currently stand.
As the quasi-essay above hinted, this reviewer also genuinely likes a lot of the old, lo-fi synth stuff for what it is and how it sounds – Dauði Baldrs included. If this album isn’t over-analyzed, but rather just experienced under the right circumstances, it has a lot of atmosphere to offer. Certainly, those who were there in the 90’s and can listen to this as a kind of retro experience will have a head start, but anyone who “gets” lo-fi atmospheric music should really give this a shot.
The first 10 copies of Neverwinter came with hand-carved runes, and are now sold out. A few copies of the regular edition are still available, and can be purchased from Obscure Dungeon Records.