Dungeon synth is still very underground despite its recent growth in popularity. It can be done on a DIY basis by anyone and is able to transport spirit and atmospheres that no other music can.
The music, generally called dungeon synth, is on the rise. One artist who has been endeavoring to create these otherworldly sounds for a long time is Grimrik. The artist released his first project in this style more than 20 years ago, in the wake of the second wave of black metal.
The connection between black metal and dungeon synth might seem fickle, but a while ago I started looking into this and wrote the ‘Bedroom Dreaming’ article, which was overall met with a nice reception. Dungeon synth finds its roots in atmospheric tracks and side-projects from artists like Burzum, Satyr’s Wongraven and Neptune Towers by Fenriz, but one can easily look further back and see many similar musical releases (often considered oddities). Considered the father of the genre is Mortiis, who used to play in Emperor. In the mid-nineties, he started shaping the sound. At that point, Grimrik already started to release music within the confines of this movement and has busily been exploring this magical realm.
Grimrik has various projects and due to the general anonimity of artists within dungeon synth, it’s tricky to find them all. One thing I found particularly interesting is the use of the word ‘sidegenre’. It makes a lot of sense, as dungeon synth is an aspect of black metal. Since the genre has been rapidly growing and even made it to Roadburn with a performance of Old Tower, let’s illuminate these dark dungeons with one who has dwelled there for years. It’s an exciting time for dungeon synth, but also for Grimrik, who has re-releases and exciting new projects coming out soon!
E&D: For those who are unfamiliar with you or your work, could you briefly introduce yourself?
Grimrik: I started making my own music back in the early/mid 90s. My first release worth mentioning was a (solo) side project called Nazgûl (1996), which was musically quite exactly what is now called‚ ‘dungeon synth’ (re-released 2016 by Deivlforst Records). After 1997, I quit releasing music for a while and made only some (more electronic) stuff for myself and drafts for songs that later became and will become alive. In 2013 – after meeting Murgrind – I started being active in publishing again, the project Arath released its first album (classic dungeon synth as well). This debut album was elected the best DS album of 2013 by the world’s largest DS scene which was quite a motivation!
Nevertheless, I soon felt the need for a new solo project which turned out to become Grimrik (Albums so far: Eisreich , Die Mauern der Nacht ). Different than in the 90s, I now have lots of interest in the production side of music and this definitely influences the music I make. For an example, while making synth music I find it very useful to know exactly what each knob and fader on a synth does and how compression and EQ-ing work for example. Besides producing my own music, I did a lot of complete audio masterings for Deivlforst Records in the last years (examples: Thangorodrim, Wolcensmen, Murgrind, Medhelan). In the beginning of Deivlforst Records, I also did some layout works for them.
E&D: What is your musical background and how did you end up making music?
Grimrik: The music that influenced me most is probably black metal and its sidegenres. I can’t deny that I also always liked electronic music also very much. Making music came naturally back then in the 90s, if you were into metal, everybody also wanted to make their own. So I started drumming, ‘singing’ and playing keyboards in metal bands first.
After that era, I first didn’t find enough sense in releasing stuff anymore and experimented with other types of music. Those didn’t turn out good enough for me though. The initial breakthrough for more activity came with meeting Murgrind, whose music inspired me to make DS again – which led to all following developments. I can’t thank him enough for lighting up the flame in me again!
E&D: What inspired you to go in the dungeon synth direction? Which musicians inspired you?
Grimrik: Back then definitely the ‘classic’ artists like Mortiis, Pazuzu, Summoning, Die Verbannten Kinder Evas, black metal intros, outros and interludes and Wongraven – no surprises here.
E&D: What is dungeon synth for you? What makes the genre so particularly attractive?
Grimrik: This is a very difficult question to answer! For me it will always be a sidegenre to black metal, because I got into it this way, but much more on the fantasy side, less ‘evil’ and less bound to certain ‘beliefs’.
The genre is very attractive to me as it is still very underground despite its recent growth in popularity. It can be done on a DIY basis by anyone and is able to transport spirit and atmospheres that no other music can. It is really hard to describe, it is more a ‘feeling’ than it could be rationally categorized.
E&D: Outside of music, what are things that inspire your love for the genre?
Grimrik: Fantasy literature, mythology, nature, ancient history, philosophy, own insights, weird theories, visual components. I wouldn’t name particular books, I prefer to keep that a secret.
E&D: We got in touch through my attempt at introducing dungeon synth to a broader reader population. What would be the artists you would name for a listener new to the genre and why?
Grimrik: Let me start this answer with a short introduction. The genre and scene grew a lot in the recent years and already can be divided into some subgenres. I personally prefer the more sophisticated, more ‘composed’ music that is also written and produced with lots of effort (still DIY at home) – and is also more linked to the origins of the genre, but taking them to a more nowadays level.
That said I’d recommend the following contemporary albums:
Murgrind – Inheritor of the Forest Throne
Thangorodrim – Taur-nu-Fuin
Medhelan – Fall of the Horned Serpent
Barak Tor – March of the Triumphator
Splendorius – Norfaragell-Thul
Skarpseian – Fragmenter av Trolldom
Old Sorcery – Realms of Magickal Sorrow
I could recommend some more, but these are probably the best of the genre for me. Another (double) album I would recommend to get quick access to some facets of the genre is Arath – Treasures from the Dungeon Vol. 1 & 2, which is a collection of songs Murgrind and me made over some years, showing a variety of different atmospheres, sound choices and production levels, while all songs are DS.
If I should choose ONE classic 90s DS recording to recommend and which stands for the genre it would be Mortiis – Ånden som gjorde Opprør.
E&D: What sort of instruments or programs do you use to make your music? What would anyone starting out need?
Grimrik: Main DAW: Propellerhead Reason with some extra ‘rack extensions’ (special VST-Format for Reason), Hardware controllers & sequencers Current Synths: Yamaha CS1X, Kawai GMega, Roland JD-XA, Kawai K4, Elektron Analog Rytm, a modular (Eurorack) synth, Waldorf Streichfett. Next buy: Arturia Matrixbrute. All you need to start is a DAW that has some good sounds installed or free VSTs plus a MIDI-Keyboard plus, on the production side, the will to learn how to record and mix and master.
E&D: How do you go about making music, where do you start from?
Grimrik: It depends. Sometimes I do some improvisation and just try around playing some sounds, sometimes from this whole new songs evolve. Sometimes I have a certain mood, melody or something else in mind and I try to transform this into a song. Usually, I make drafts that I work on further again and again at a later point. This includes (re-)arranging, changing sounds, enhancing the mix etc.
E&D: Do you start with a concept or with music and how do you shape the eventual work?
Grimrik: Sometimes I start with the music from which the inspiration for a topic comes, sometimes the other way round (see also question above).
E&D: Dungeon synth seems to be even more in love with the cassette format than any other genre, how did that happen?
Grimrik: I think there are several reasons for that. Nostalgia, handling and playing a cassette evokes feelings of a now long gone past for the older of us. For the younger it is possibly some kind of ‘weird relic’ of their parent’s centuries, totally unnecessary when it comes to pure reason – but reason often doesn’t transport feelings, but using ‘ancient’ technology does. Also playing a cassette means limitation, but in a world where you can get nearly every music track just by a simple click on the Internet and can make your own tracklist, you often do want to be limited to the artist’s choice of tracks, their order etc. This goes along with the get-all-you-want, but virtually, options of the internet-age, people like to go back in time by intention and feel a real item in their hands, which was – in the best case – designed with passion and effort. Also, you can actually own a collection of ‘hardware’ items that can be looked at and browsed through, designs are connected with memories of the music etc.
Same goes for vinyl, that also has a huge renaissance, but is much more expensive both to produce and to purchase so more rare in extreme underground scenes. A cassette limits the sound – but this is often wanted and even seen as an enhancement. What is really important for both tapes and vinyl is that they are analog. In a world becoming more and more digital, many people do like the ‘limitations’ of analog media. I am totally happy with this as I grew up with all music media types and love them all. They all have their pros and cons – but only physical is real!
E&D: What future plans do you have right now as an artist and label owner?
Grimrik: Anything good coming up? Concerning Grimrik, my album Die Mauern der Nacht was just released on red/black vinyl by Neuropa Records (Belgium) and on tape by Out of Season with Foreign Sounds/Children of the Night (US). I am extremely happy with the physical results, all editions look incredibly cool. Responsible for this are the labels involved which put a strong focus on quality work, Dan Capp, who’s layouts he did for this album are truly great. I also did some conceptual work for every physical release. What makes me kind of proud is that these labels released some much bigger artists before – like Carpenter Brut, Ulver, and Mortiis for example. Eisreich will be released on vinyl by Deivlforst Records soon (probably March, three different vinyl colors…)! The third Grimrik album will be hopefully (and finally) finished soon. Additionally, I have some more Berlin-School, hardware-only music almost finished that should be out in 2018 as well. Plus another secret project and possibly some new songs by Nazgûl… So, if all plans will work, there’s a lot to come!
E&D: Anything you’d like to say, that I didn’t ask?
Grimrik: A thing that been on my mind for long: The Grimrik project is not political at all, it neither carries nor supports any political ideologies.
E&D: Final question, if you had to compare your music to a type of food, what would it be and why?
Grimrik: Let me answer this only for my last album Die Mauern der Nacht only and based on feedback many people gave me. Seems it is best compared to a (possibly French) 5-course menu, the opposite of fast food. It demands attention to detail and quite a lot of patience. It grows on you while listening to it and makes the best sense when consumed completely, then it can feed your brain. You get the whole concept from start to beginning, taste all spices that were carefully thrown into each course. If consumed in a hurry or incompletely, it will definitely leave you unsatisfied and you won’t like it. This makes it less accessible to many, but I was often told it rewards those willing to go through it as intended with a great experience.