There are perhaps few genres more niche than dungeon synth. This strange love-child of black metal and dark ambient music was birthed in the early 90s, often tracing its roots back to albums by Burzum, Mortiis and Summoning. On an aesthetic level, dungeon synth is deeply indebted to the black metal scene of which its early pioneering artists were members, and frequently draws on many of the same themes and concepts: high fantasy literature, melancholy and sombre moods, nature, and — of course — dark, mouldy dungeons. But the means by which it creates these sometimes ominous, other times triumphant, atmospheres could not be more different. Even today, artists still more often than not rely on ancient analogue synthesizers and little else. There’s an enormous sense of respect for the old ways of doing things — an ethos one can of course trace back to the genre’s roots in black metal.
The deep love of many black metal musicians for the fictional work created by J. R. R. Tolkien is well-established at this point, and it goes back almost to the birth of the genre itself. Thangorodrim is in fact named after the three enormous volcanoes within the Iron Mountains which Morgoth raised during the First Age, while his third album’s title means ‘Star of High Hope’ in Sindarin. Since his last album, Taur Nu Fuin, Thangorodrim has been spoken of in tones of reverence among the dungeon synth community, and as such the anticipation for Gil-Estel has been high.
And what a glorious album this is. The lush, vibrant synthesizers reverberate with a richness that could breathe life into ancient, crumbling castles. From the very first listen, Gil-Estel is at once an album whose creativity captures the imagination and elevates the human spirit beyond this mortal plane. The cinematic quality of Thangorodrim’s music cannot be overemphasised. The grandiose, triumphant melodies of ‘Into the Great Battle’ set the heart racing, charging the fields of war in all their violence and splendour. The melodies themselves are straightforward enough, but instantly memorable and irresistably catchy. But the music is far more intricately arranged than merely ‘happy’ or ‘sad’; in fact the music is frequently tinged with a sense of melancholy, a bittersweet longing for something long lost, or which perhaps never existed beyond the imagination.
The rich orchestral arrangements are in fact created with the simplest of tools, but the music speaks to the heart in the most direct of ways and is assisted all the more by these simple tools. The righteous melodies of Ancalagon, with their martial drum-beat and crashing cymbals, are a soundtrack fit for the grandest of battles and the bravest of heroes. But this is a dynamic album capable of highs and lows: The emotional crescendos on display are counter-balanced by subdued, moody lulls which tug at the heart strings. The album’s central highlight ‘By the Light of the Silmaril’ opens with moody, brooding synths before dawn breaks and the song begins its upwards ascent. Again, the cinematic quality of the album reasserts itself: these emotional lows serve to accentuate the highs, and the dynamic interplay between the two results in a powerful, moving piece of music. The closing track ‘Thangorodrin’s Ruin’ is one of the album’s highlights. The light, airy synths are a joy to behold, their dancing, frosty melodies bringing to mind Depessive Silence‘s legendary second demo.
It’s an interesting question to consider the extent to which Thangorodrim really is ‘dungeon synth’. The richness of the lush, cinematic orchestrations on Gil-Estel goes far beyond what any of the early artists in this genre had envisioned; much like his contemporary Murgrind, Thangorodrim seems to be pushing and evolving the genre in subtle but fundamentally important ways. And yet the ethos and the subject matter remains the same: using a very simple, even archaic set of tools, Thangorodrim has succeeded in crafting a stunningly evocative fantasy soundtrack that firmly secures his spot at the highest echelons of this budding genre of music.