Interview: Vaelastrasz

I guess my naive definition of what I think dungeon synth is is that it’s a branch of ambient music, whether it be fantasy ambient or dark ambient music, that has some sort of narrative or story behind it. You’re supposed to be immersed in whatever world that a dungeon synth album or song is trying to invoke, like an epic adventure to slay a dragon or being entrapped within a desolate cave.

Dungeon synth is a music style, bubbling under the surface of contemporary music. Born from video game soundtracks, obscure synth music and black metal introductions, it has grown into a whole different underground world. Vaelastraz is one of the mysterious creators, offering his otherworldly sounds to the faithful.

Vaelastrasz is one of the acts that have expanded the scope of dungeon synth from dusky crypts, dusty tombs and crumbling ruins, to otherworldly phantasies. His special focus is on the famed Warcraft video game branch, but his music is much darker than the often light-hearted atmosphere of the game itself and delves deep into the mythopoeia of its universe.

Vaelastrasz has been kind enough to share more about his music, vision and genre, where he is one of the rare artists who actually play live and who has in fact performed at the first (as far as I’ve been able to discover) dungeon synth festival. Join us in the dark reaches of Azeroth.

E&D: I wanted to start by asking you who Vaelastrasz is and how the project got underway? How did you get into dungeon synth?

There’s a lot to unwrap with my origins. Referring to the character it’s based on, Vaelastrasz is a notorious raid boss from the classic version of World of Warcraft. Notorious in the sense that his difficulty was able to make raiding guilds disband, garnering the nickname “The Guild Breaker”. Lore-wise he was a member of the Red Dragonflight, a faction of dragons that wish to protect life on Azeroth, before being corrupted by the Black Dragonflight.

As for the person behind the project, well, I’m just a small musician from the suburban hellscape that is the Washington DC metropolitan area. I started toying around with making fantasy ambient music around early 2016 under a different name that housed basically any idea that I threw at the wall at the time. I didn’t think much of it until I got a message from a dungeon synth artist named “Shelter Ov Shadows” who encouraged that I release this music under a different moniker to garner more attention.

I picked Vaelastrasz for a couple of reasons. The main one being that within the world of “dungeon synth”, it astounds me how little to no representation Warcraft seemed to have back in 2016 and even now. How is it that one of the most popular fantasy-inspired Video Game franchises of the 21st century gets no love while there are projects for Elder Scrolls and Dark Souls? Maybe Warcraft isn’t “dark” enough for people to write music for, but nevertheless I’m still dumbfounded by its exclusion.

How I got into dungeon synth is oddly enough through my love for drone metal. I was familiar with the genre, but never really enjoyed most of the albums I’d listened to at the time. Whether it be Mortiis or Burzum’s prison albums, I never initially had a strong standing on the bigger hits of old school dungeon synth. It wasn’t until I discovered this duo from the UK, Trollmann av Ildtoppberg, that made me fall in love with dungeon synth. Their combination of deep bassy drones and minimalist synth work made me more immersed compared to any other dungeon synth album. Listening to The Forest of Doom for the first time was quite the experience.

What I got from that music is that you can create more by doing less. Trollmann were inspired by the Fighting Fantasy books but listening to that music made me think of different worlds, universes, stories, etc. I wanted to do something like that.

E&D: I was curious if you are still a Warcraft player, having myself played these games and read their books since the beginning. On the side, do you know Aardtmann op Vuurtopberg? 

I still like to play Warcraft 3 when I have the time. I am privileged enough to still have the original games and not have to look at the horrid remaster that Blizzard put out recently. As for World of Warcraft, I never cared for it after Wrath of the Lich King as the games had gone downhill since in my opinion. I try to play a little bit of each expansion for the sake of it. I thought Mists of Pandaria and Legion were fine, but the rest I can do without. Their recent expansion, Battle for Azeroth, is a boring heap of dogshit for all I care. I tried playing Classic WoW when that became an option, but I had become so encumbered with other events that the nostalgia quickly wore off by the time I reached level 11 or so on a character. You can’t relive the past.

Haha, yeah you’re not the first person to tell me of Aardtmann Op Vuurtopberg’s existence. I’ve only ever listened to one of their albums, De Berg van Verdoemenis, and didn’t think much of it. A nice little tribute if anything.

E&D: What do you think about the connection between dungeon synth and video games? Many people talk about the connection with black metal, which is obvious, but for me, the link to video games has always been the first thing that stood out. Yet, also here it is a matter of nostalgia for old RPGs.

I’ve always thought that it was very apparent with how dungeon synth and video games, especially video game soundtracks, tend to overlap. You listen to an older release like Middles Ages by Caduceus and you’d think it was some black metal fan trying to recreate the Donkey Kong Country soundtrack. I know a lot of non-black metal fans who enjoy dungeon synth because to them it sounds like a soundtrack to an unreleased video game.

Which always brings a hilarious crossroads within dungeon synth. There’s a lot of traditional people who vow against video games have it strictly be “ambient black metal”. Then there are people who were raised by tabletop games and RPGs who would rather let the past be the past and let go of the black metal roots. It’s pretty funny. One should always find a balance between the two in my opinion.

E&D: What sort of equipment do you use to create your music?

I usually run rather cheap Casio keyboards that you can get at big retail stores and run it through a Hotone reverb pedal. Most of my albums were done with the CTK-1100, but now I have the CTK-2550 to mess around with. For live shows, I tend to have a couple more pedals with me, more notably a Ditto Looper and the Electro-Harmonix Freeze pedals to help me with loops and drones.

E&D: You are one of the few dungeon synth artists that play live. What made you decide to take it in that direction?

Initially, the first couple of live shows that I did around 2017 were at the request of my friends, but as my peers started to seriously get into performing live with their dungeon synth projects as well as the rise of the Dungeon Siege music festivals, I had a growing urge to really want to bring my music into a live setting. Dungeon synth live is completely new territory for a lot of us in the dungeon synth scene and we have our own special ways of showing what can be done.

E&D: Over here, we have not had such events. Can you describe what a dungeon siege event is like? In general and what it is like when you perform?

Dungeon Siege, specifically Northeast Dungeon Siege as well as last year’s Dungeon Siege West, are these annual dungeon synth-oriented festivals in the US. A bunch of artists and fans from around the world come to interact with other like-minded dungeon synth fans. It’s truly an amazing experience to play with and hang out with other dungeon synth acts. I feel a lot more comfortable performing in front of people who truly understand the craft.

E&D: But these events are usually more than just music, right?

Yes, there’s also pre-show tabletop gaming sessions on some nights and an array of vendors and labels.

E&D: Do you think touring with a band in a different style would work? For example, a package with a black metal band, or is dungeon synth a different audience?

It really depends on the style. If it were a dungeon synth and black metal tour, which I believe Mayhem and Mortiis are planning on doing that exact thing in the future, then those would work fine with each other. I used to be in a funeral doom band and we toured with a thrash metal band. Suffice to say that there was at least one show where they definitely did not want us because we weren’t their thing.

I guess the best way to put it is that the two styles really need to have some sort of overlap. If you were to do a dungeon synth tour with some sort of tech death metal band than people would probably eye the crowd and ask what the hell was going on.

E&D: Do you feel there are limits to what is dungeon synth and what isn’t? As an example, Fief sounds vastly different to me the traditionalists. I have seen many discussions on the ‘purity’ of the style. How do you feel about this?

In regards to experimentation or branching outside of the norm vs the pure, traditionalist, old school-inspired acts, I think there needs to be a steady balance between the two (just like what I said regarding black metal-inspired vs gaming-inspired dungeon synth). I think there are many ways to experiment with dungeon synth, but some people are way too over their heads when it comes to seeing what other genres they can mash dungeon synth with. There’s this small thing brewing with people trying to combine dungeon synth with hip hop, calling it “dungeon rap” or “crypt hop”. I don’t think it’s dungeon synth, just people trying too hard to incorporate fantasy ambient melodies with poorly made Memphis rap. I have some friends who dig it and create it though so more power to them, but it’s just not for me.

But pushing the limits is good. People want to keep at it with the old ways but by the time that you’ve heard the umpteenth Les Legions Noires ripoff or the same minimalist pad-heavy winter synth ambient tunes, then it becomes tiresome and boring. Something fresh needs to happen every once in a while. A lot of these purists have the right idea that we shouldn’t veer off from the path, but some of them have this inane unwillingness to accept even the slightest of change.

I agree that Fief is a fine example since they seem to play around more with folk influences compared to other bigger names in recent dungeon synth. It’s different enough to carve out its own little path within the genre, but not different to the point where self-indulgence takes hold on an artist. Mainly due to the fact that folk music and dungeon synth are extremely compatible with one another.

E&D: Can you define what dungeon synth is? What are its base characteristics?

What is dungeon synth? That’s the million-dollar question right there, haha. I guess my naive definition of what I think dungeon synth is is that it’s a branch of ambient music, whether it be fantasy ambient or dark ambient music, that has some sort of narrative or story behind it. You’re supposed to be immersed in whatever world that a dungeon synth album or song is trying to invoke, like an epic adventure to slay a dragon or being entrapped within a desolate cave.

Now how one goes about doing that is all up to them, whether it be artists inspired by black metal, folk, classical, darkwave, etc.

E&D: Dungeon synth has really emerged into daylight the last two years, and although events like Dungeon Siege have yet to make it overseas, how far do you think this can go?

How far will this go? We’re gonna get a dungeon synth act headlining Coachella. My money is on Diplodocus. But in all seriousness, there is a pessimist side of me that feels that the bubble will pop eventually and the general interest of this will wane down. However, the scene itself feels like a giant family. A really weird, fucked-up family mind you, but a loving and caring one too. I can’t predict the future of where dungeon synth is going to go, but if it does end up declining then I can at least say that I’ve met a lot of amazing people within it. The real dungeon synth is the friends we made along the way.

E&D: I wanted to take this back to your last album. Can you tell a bit more about The Birth of Naxxramas and the story this record shares?

The Birth of Naxxramas is kinda like a concept album where there’s a different melody representing a tier from the raid Naxxramas, as well as the last song being a call back to one of my earlier albums, The Plaguelands. On that album I had a song called ‘Naxxramas’, but I thought that something as big as Naxxramas deserved something more than a song.

The melodies were leftover recordings I had made for the album before that, Adventures of the Red Whelpling. I wanted that album to be my big album, but it didn’t garner an immediate huge reception among people. As much as I love Birth of Naxxramas I don’t like the fact that the album was only really fueled by pettiness and anger that my previous album wasn’t as well-received. At the time it was much-needed motivation, but looking back my head was in the wrong space because of certain people saying that Whelpling was underwhelming to them. At the end of the day, I still have no clue what people want or expect from me when it comes to making music.

The first track, ‘Frostwyrm Lair’, was originally a 17-minute track that was supposed to be on Whelpling, but I never liked the 2nd-half of the song. I thought the intro could lead to something better so I scoured through the remaining recordings that I had from the Whelpling sessions to see what ones I could work with. After that, it was sort of like playing a matching game. What goes next? Which melody should come after? Can I place this melody here? Once I got all the pieces connected everything else came naturally.

The ghostly crooning was provided by my dearest companion and fellow dungeon synth artist Mors Certa. I typically don’t collaborate with other dungeon synth artists mainly due to weird trust issues. Even though I mean no disrespect to them and I just said that some of them are like a family to me, there’s just a weird mental block that I have when it comes to working with other artists. Mors Certa and I, however, had grown really close at this point that I decided to ask if she’d be willing to provide her voice for a couple of parts on it. I didn’t want it to be anything big since she was busy with her personal life so I only asked her to provide a lovely little choral section for her parts and it turned out well.

E&D: Previously, there was a note with this album, stating it was possibly the last one. You’ve dropped two more since, what made you consider ending the project there?

At the time I felt like I just wasn’t good enough or on par with other artists. I’m a competitive individual that wants to strive to be better each time and when I see peers rise above and garner more love, it either lights a flame or makes me feel defeated. I’m easily influenced by what I see posted online and the less I see of me, the more I feel that people just don’t care about the project. Artistic fulfilment should be the goal, not whether you get more than 10 people supporting you on Bandcamp, but unfortunately, that was where my mindset was at the time and still goes to sometimes.

But I ended up making more music because melodies keep on springing up in my head. I don’t want to keep them in my head forever. I have the need to make music whether or not people are really listening to me. Truth be told, there’s no way I can ever announce an album to be my last album. If I ever do announce it, then my mindset that day was probably filled with the insecurities that I just vented about. If I were to ever release a final album then I would never announce it as such. I would just simply release it and quietly walk away

E&D: Well, you have announced a new record actually, so what can we expect from it?

The same meal with a little different seasoning. Keeping up with repetitive melodies and drone, but trying to experiment with a little bit more just like my previous releases. There’s a couple of songs that were mostly inspired by stuff like Om, which means I’m messing around with bass-driven melodies. My new album, The Temple of Ahn’Qiraj, is of course based off of the zone of the same name and trying to capture the atmosphere of a desert ruin with an ancient being inside of it all has been a challenging and fun task.

It’s definitely the most psychedelic album I’ve done, but it’s not like I’m making this acid trip-filled experience, haha. This project has always been an experiment of what I can do with drone and dungeon synth. This will definitely fit in well with the rest of my discography.

E&D: As the Warcraft storyline deepens and expands, do you find there is enough inspiration left for you there for more?

Absolutely. One of the reasons why I picked this project was because of my initial love for the Warcraft universe and lore. It’s deep and rich enough to make more music for. There’s a lot of areas and personalities that I haven’t touched upon yet that I would like to explore more of. I’ve made two albums concerning the Old Gods (Yogg-Saron and N’Zoth) which is about to be three upon the completion of my recent album and I’d like to make other “biographical” albums so to speak. For example, I’ve always loved Kael’Thas and would love to make an album about him. Arthas is an obvious choice as well, but I’ve already made the Plagueland albums and Naxxramas so I don’t want to go back to that well just yet. I’ve always wanted to do a piece about the history of the Defias Brotherhood, but can never get the feeling of it. There’s a lot more to explore and make with Warcraft.

E&D: So to close, what future plans do you currently have? Are you planning to tour when all of this is over?

The future is very unpredictable, especially now with the current pandemic. I am a rather spontaneous individual when it comes to what I want to do with the project, so, for now, my plan is to just focus on releasing the new album and see what happens. As for tours, I’m not entirely sure but I do hope other acts come through here sometime soon so I can have a chance to play with them.

E&D: If you had to describe Vaelastrasz as a dish, what would it be and why that?

Haha, I don’t know if I can think of any specific dish or meal to really describe what I do. You know what? I’m the stick of gum that doesn’t lose its flavour! You can keep on chewing and chewing, but I assure you I won’t turn into a soft, flavourless gob haha

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