I’m sitting on my couch, the Twitch stream opened on my computer which is in turn plugged into my TV and sound system for optimal quality; I have cat on my lap, and two more trading places on the couch; a beer and some snacks spread across the end table well within reach of where I sit. This, my friends, has become the utterly surreal state of live music in this “new normal”. I had intended on attending the Northeast Dungeon Siege in person, writing a review of a festival for a particular niche genre of music that seems better suited for non-live listening. I had intended on excitedly talking about all the cool new merch and cassette tapes that I had picked up over the weekend that the festival took place, or even about what it was like to drag my wife to an event that is meant to be enjoyed in darkness instead of doing literally anything else outside.
Instead, like many of us who love live shows, I’m doing my best to take comfort in the knowledge that live shows are continuing to exist for now, albeit without most of the elements that make a live show worth enjoying. This wasn’t the first live-streamed music festival I had watched since the lockdown took place, having enjoyed the first folk punk live-stream Coping with Dystopia (still occurring weekly with really rad artists!). But where Coping with Dystopia was intentionally live-streamed as a way of raising money and promoting artists who can’t tour during the pandemic, Northeast Dungeon Siege was forced online. And the strangeness of the whole situation really began to hit home while watching the performances each night. I was, along with many others, live-streaming music, that bases the majority of its musical composition of recreating medieval song structures on modern technology, during a pandemic that is actually threatening to push our world order into the same chaos that spawned what we call the Middle Ages.
What is Dungeon Synth?
Dungeon synth is one of the most appropriately-specific named musical genres out there. Taking stylistic cues from early fantasy RPGs and video game soundtracks, progenitors of the genre attempt to create an immersive atmosphere set, generally, in the realm of medieval fantasy and lore. Compositional structure revolves on the recreation of medieval sounds and song structures with a modern synthesizer, adding in deep and fuzzy drones and an air of melancholy. It’s kind of like spa music, but if the spa were located in an abandoned castle and run but a wizard.
Dungeon synth claims ancestral roots with black metal and early darkwave artists Dead Can Dance and Tangerine Dream, which becomes abundantly obvious to even a casual listener (if one could ever truly exist) of either genre. Although the term ‘dungeon synth’ was included as a descriptor of the genre retroactively, the genre can really be seen as having three seminal artists/periods/works that it really spawned from: Mortiis’ early “just got kicked out of Emperor” records, Varg’s “I’m in jail for murder and all they gave me was this crappy keyboard” records Daudi Baldurs and Hildskjalf, and Depressive Silence. The genre has grown and expanded quite a bit since, and especially within the last few years. As if it couldn’t get any more niche and exclusive, physical copies of the music is generally only available on limited run cassette tapes from a handful of distributors with few second pressings, making it as much a genre for collectors as it is for fans of the music. With the advent of online platforms like Bandcamp and Soundcloud making the music more available, however, artists continue to pop up, expanding the bounds of the genre to exploring space, nature, and the comforts of tea with your sweet grandparents.
Northeast Dungeon Siege
Northeast Dungeon Siege was set to celebrate its second year in early April as an exclusively dungeon synth music festival, taking place in Worcester, MA. The festival promised 3-days of live acts, merch tables, and RPG game tables for folks who wanted to show up early. Having just moved out to the East Coast from the Midwest last summer at the same time that I was beginning to grow in my appreciation of the genre, I was excitedly curious to see how such a festival could exist. Mainly, could someone feel truly immersed in the atmosphere being attempted while standing in a dark room watching one person stand behind a series of synthesisers?
As it turned out, I wouldn’t be able to arrive at this answer directly, as the world began to settle into full lockdown just before the festival was to begin. Not to be deterred, the folks behind NEDS decided to put the show online, spanning over the course of three nights, with only a few changes in the lineup. New promos for the festival highlighting COVID-19 as a “plague” that was spreading across the land practically wrote themselves. The siege was to continue on, albeit from the comfort of all of our homes. My wife, who had no interest in attending the festival to begin with, mentally braced herself for three whole nights of non-stop dungeon synth. All was right with the world.
Although I had only intended to watch the first two nights, I ended up watching all three, staying up into the night not wanting to miss an artist. Throughout the weekend, a total of 21 artists performed from their homes. Although I will only be highlighting a handful, in an effort to promote both the festival and the artists each of the artists who took the time to perform, the full lineup is listed below.
In general, I was pretty unfamiliar with the majority of these artists, save for Fogweaver and Pumpkin Witch, the latter who I heartbreakingly missed due to connection issues on my end. But I instantly became a fan of most of the artists after each of their sets. Friday night’s set started the festival off strong with some really great performances that set the tone for what to expect of the weekend. For me, the biggest surprises were Orbs of the Moon, who played droney and ethereal soundscapes that were much more extraterrestrial than medieval, and Malfet, who really nailed the look and feel of the medieval-strain of the genre, creating really beautiful soundscapes and playing to a projection of different nature-scapes. I was most looking forward to Fogweaver, one of the many projects of Dylan Rupe and playing atmospheric melodies centering on Ursala K. LeGuin’s Earthsea Cycle. Playing in a darkroom lit only by candles and wearing a dark hooded robe, Fogweaver lived up to my expectations.
Saturday’s performances tended on the darker and dronier, with performances by Seregost and Alder Deep that nodded towards elements of horror. Mystal Tree, on the lighter end, provided what was maybe the best overall performance, reading and singing the narrative story that their music was conveying. The highlights of Saturday, however, were the final two acts: Sombre Arcane, who broaden the definition of dungeon synth by including many acoustic instruments into their set, and Arcana Liturgia, who are somewhat of a powerhouse in the current state of the genre. Sunday closed out strong with performances by Redhorn Gate, who’s old school dungeon synth sound represents the epitome of the genre, and Erytherite Throne, who bring a darker and richer feel to the old school sound. Vandalorum’s performance brought an end to the night, and therefore the festival, with a truly rich and beautiful sound that helped encapsulate the entire weekend.
It is without condescension and ill-will that I say this, but dungeon synth is a pretty nerdy genre of music. There’s no real way around it. And although some of the artists could fit in quite well on an ambient playlist that has more universal appeal, this seems to me more the exception that proves the rule. But that is also in large part what makes the genre so appealing to me and many others. It is in the spaces that genres such as these occupy where a real and honest sense of community is found.
Now, I want to be careful here not to paint with too broad of a brush. Of course a sense of community can be found in musical genres with a more universal appeal. But I feel comfortable saying that this is fairly rare, and is typically reserved for diehard fandom of a particular artist or more niche subgenres. Having been to both a Lana Del Rey concert and a respectable amount of local punk and metal shows, I can tell you the feeling isn’t the same. And anyone reading this knows exactly the feeling I’m talking about.
Dungeon synth, through a shared appreciation for a music that bases itself almost exclusively in the realm of fantasy, carries with it the same sense of comradery. This was quite obvious throughout watching three days of the Northeast Dungeon Siege and the stream of comments constantly running throughout. When a dangerous pathogen forces us to shut ourselves in our homes, away from the outside world, dissuading ourselves of the tension towards internal loneliness becomes critically important. And being able to share in an experience with others, albeit virtually and only over a weekend, becomes a moment of community engagement. Northeast Dungeon Siege, and the artists to put together sets from their homes without much guarantee of being paid, allowed that. And although I deeply enjoyed myself, I’m looking forward to next year where I might be able to meet them all in person.