Mortiis at The Dome

Support: Chevalier| Mountain Fog
March 10, 2018 at The Dome
Promoter: COG Promotions

Dungeon Synth (DS) – a variety of dark ambient music often with a neoclassical, medieval feel – is generally best enjoyed alone, on cassette through headphones on your old Sony Walkman in the dead of night. Or at least that’s what I thought until I saw Mortiis, the man who instigated the genre back in the 1990s, performing alongside more recent artists in the same style. Turns out it’s pretty awesome live on a massive sound-system, too.

Mortiis’ debut solo album Født til å Herske, which translates from Norweigan as “Born to Rule” (1994), single-handedly spawned the genre with one epic 53-minute piece split across two tracks. It was a fantastically raw and straightforward-sounding recording compared with some of the lavish, multilayered albums that Mortiis would go on to release over the following twenty-odd years. With a career that has spanned four different “eras”, Mortiis went on to release work in the (sub)genres of industrial metal, electropop, and neoclassical darkwave, while other artists picked up the thread he laid in Era 1 and followed it deeper into the dungeon. Tonight’s show is special because Mortiis returns to his second album, Ånden Som Gjorde Opprør (“Spirit Who Rebelled”), which he’ll perform in its entirety, in a specially revamped version. Exactly what that entails, well, we’ll find out after the support.

Mountain Fog – about the most quintessentially DS moniker going – is a Glasgow-based musician who doubles up in the band Venomwolf. Tonight is his debut performance and I’m instantly impressed, partly because – as I said – this is the first time I’ve seen DS live, and it’s amazing to hear those retro, orchestral synth strings filling the room. But Mountain Fog combines an excellent ear for atmosphere and melody with solid musicianship; it’s a full-bodied sound, with a high, chiming refrain, low bass-note moans and crashing piano chords in the mid-range that’s full of nuance and demands repeat listening. Occasionally the strings fade to make way for field recordings, providing some concrete imagery: the caw and rattle of a crow; the washing of sea waves on the shore; and wind rushing and swirling. DS – created generally by blokes in bedrooms – doesn’t naturally lend itself to a spectacular stage set-up, it has to be said, but that scarcely matters: some moody slime-green lights, a dramatic hood and some, well, fog and the underground, ritual lair effect is complete. By the end of the set, when the music strikes a dramatic timbre of triumph and sadness, our hooded figure seems to have become a warrior returning from battle, bloodied axe slung over his shoulder; the battle has been won, but at what cost? As the last strings fade, the crows return to pick clean the bones of the dead. Mountain Fog plays DS that is as traditional as it is intelligent, and is certainly one to watch out for.

Next up is Chevalier, another solo artist, working more in dark-ambient drone styles. A blue light swathes the four matching Darkthrone backpatches before me, as a different hooded figure takes the stage and instigates a pulse like an inverted heartbeat, followed by an intense, swirling noise – an undercurrent that seldom relents throughout the set. Chevalier’s sound tonight seems less epic fantasy and quasi-medieval than Mountain Fog or Mortiis, focusing on tension and huge, deafening climaxes. Sitting with my back to the wall, my whole body judders as sub-bass drone torrents across the room like the noise-spiritualism of Dark Buddha Rising or the pure powerdrone of Bong. Yet this feels like the music of unearthing, of katabatic descent a layer at a time, rather something rising and transcendental. Eventually the mid-synths of DS arrive, feeling like they’re panned hard with different sounds to each speaker, with deeper layers off to the right, and the whirling noise beneath everything is now the bassline. There’s an odd juxtaposition of what sounds like a chiming steel drum, upbeat and with a broken, syncopated rhythm, mixed with obnoxious, tremolo bass-like helicopter blades, and now we’re climbing out of the hole, lifting off and travelling at light-speed, beyond the infinite, into the outer reaches of space. . .

. . .And, having returned to a version of Earth, somewhere in Western Europe circa. the 12th Century AD, it’s now time for Mortiis himself. As he posted on the Facebook event page, discussing Ånden Som Gjorde Opprør: “I don’t just want to do the record as it was back in 1994, but rather excavate it from 1994 and drag it into the new light of the current world, while retaining the atmosphere of the original sound.” As with Chevalier, excavation is a suitable metaphor for a musical style saturated in imagery of the underground. Located a flight of stairs up from street level The Dome is hardly a dungeon (perhaps The Underworld was all booked out), but the stage is set, looking great with a screen set up for projections. I had wondered what DS artists would do to spice up the solitary live show a little, and some concrete visual imagery is the perfect complement to instrumental, atmospheric music. So the familiar Wagnerian introduction begins: a triumphant and arresting start. Which visuals best accompany DS? Sega’s Golden Axe II projected at the back in all its 16-bit glory? Perhaps not. Instead, we get a succession of monochrome, fantastical, dream-like scenes from the mythology that Mortiis has developed around his music since the outset. Commissioned for Mortiis’ re-released book Secrets of my Kingdom (which he launched at the local Crypt of the Wizard record shop earlier in the day), this is a secondary world inhabited by heroes, monsters and magic: symbolic pictures depicting a lone wanderer – the titular rebellious spirit perhaps – passing through a beautiful and dangerous landscape and facing various trials and possibly epiphanies.

Returning to the sonic complement to our hero’s journey, there’s a definite choral sound to many of the patches used on the album, more so than on the original recording, which build up a sensation of sombre beauty, something like Brahms’ German Requiem. Mortiis admits that, back when writing and recording the album, he had received no musical training, composing by ear. In 2018, the whole production and performance of Ånden Som Gjorde Opprør is clearly that of a mature artist and performer, with clever sequencing and a nuanced sense of arrangement. Especially noteworthy are the sounds of a natural piano cue – bold, dramatic chords underneath flute-like melodies and mournful organ for a solemn funeral procession. While Mortiis in 2018 has clearly upped his game since the early keyboard recordings, this is still very much one man playing and mixing his pieces live, as opposed to an orchestra. And therein lies the beauty of DS: hearing grand, ornate music that often conveys the grandeur of classical music, but which you know has been created using more humble equipment.

The album’s occasional lyrics are straightforward yet poignant: “And I feel drawn – to the unknown/ I see a sad world/ I see a dark horizon.” The impressionistic manner in which the album’s fantastical world is conveyed through these lyrics chimes perfectly with the projected imagery – they’re suggestive and symbolic but leaving room for individual interpretation. As with Født til å Herske, many parts on Ånden Som Gjorde Opprør have a looped feel, something like the droning repetition of black-metal riffs but feeling more like a dream rather than a nightmare. DS is a genre made for daydream and introspective contemplation – and that seems to be the order of the night, judging by the expressions and closed eyes of those stood around me.

Mortiis’ approach to excavating Ånden Som Gjorde Opprør seems to be fundamentally sticking to the core feeling and atmosphere of the original, but with a rejuvenated, crisper, bolder production as befitting Era 0 and the live environment. Everything feels sharper, with each element’s fundamental properties emphasized and enhanced: rolling drums beat against the chest with vigour; warm strings carry more emotional weight; natural piano chords sustain more naturally and with a visceral impact. I must admit I’d need to hear the excavated and enhanced version again in order to identify specific changes, but there are definitely new melodies in the mix, subtly developing the original themes. Speaking with Mortiis recently he told me that he hopes to release this revamped version at some point, and it would be fascinating to hear the different versions side-by-side. Perhaps it’s even time for a DS live album. . .

All in all, Ånden Som Gjorde Opprør is a truly magisterial album, whichever rendering you’re listening to; but, for me, tonight’s performance feels like the quintessential version.

The atmosphere and fury of good black metal will always be exciting, and the industrial stomp of Mortiis’ more recent work makes for a successful club night; but sometimes you need to get lost in the glorious anachronism and introspection of dungeon synth. So, to all those underground keyboard composers: venture forth from the catacombs and onto the stage. Or go see Mortiis and catch the master at work.

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