Mists of Darkness – The Lightless Lands

Mists of Darkness – The Lightless Lands MC Trapdoor Tapes 2019

Well this is certainly a blast from the past. Originally self-released in 1995, Mists of Darkness were a one-man ‘dungeon synth’ project from Australia, and contextually speaking, The Lightless Lands was produced in an era well before ‘dungeon synth’ even existed as a descriptive genre tag. Yet at the time of its original release, material of this type was very much an offshoot of the underground black metal scene and the growing crossover into underground post-industrial music (via artists and labels such as Mortiis and Cold Meat Industry).

Noting that this tape can today be described as ‘dungeon synth’, some comments need to be made regarding the current micro-trend of this style. With the endless raft of new acts seemingly cropping up, of all the new material I have heard, the greater majority sounds over produced with a ‘jolly’ or ‘twee’ slant (i.e. in a ridiculous medieval way), where the end result sounds akin to poor man’s role-playing game/ computer game music. Equally the production of much of the current era ‘dungeon synth’ is often too clean and lacks a lofi charm that a murky production can bring. In short there seems to be a real lack of understanding of the obscure and atmospheric elements which should ideally underpin the sound. But enough of that rant. Obviously Mists of Darkness are one of the few projects of ‘dungeon synth’ that I can still appreciate.

The Lightless Lands features four tracks (or ‘acts’) with a run time around 33 minutes. The track titles themselves allude to creation and description of a world unique to Mists of Darkness (i.e.: Act 1 Journey To The Lightless Lands & Act 3 The First Vision Of The Lightless Lands), which places the concept in a dark fantasy type realm (also of note, the cover images gives a nod to Ralph Bakshi’s 1978 animated film version of The Lord of the Rings). From a listeners’ perspective, the first thing of note is the sound, which is crude and lofi to the point of making early Era 1 Mortiis recordings look decidedly high fidelity. Yet it is the crude sound which actually embellishes its dark and obscure atmosphere. Compositionally the tracks are generally composed with low bit-rate computer generated droning loops, which are further layered with singular toned melodies, programmed ritual percussive patterns and other sporadic computer-based sounds which emulate lightning, thunder, windstorms, waves lapping at shore and shrieks of unidentified beasts. The overall crude sound clearly shows the sonic limitations of the equipment this was composed and recorded on, but again the muffled sound of the recording on tape format functions to provide a grey hued atmosphere which adds rather than detracts. Thus, despite its clear limitations, there is still an ingrained level of darkly atmospheric charm.

If ‘crude’, ‘obscure’ and ‘lofi’ are descriptors for dungeon synth which spark interest, further investigation of The Lightless Lands is pretty much mandated. Although personally having owned the original tape since its original release way back in 1995, it is great to see Trapdoor Tapes have reissued this to give this underground obscurity greater prominence.

Æva ‎– ∞

AEVA1  AEVA

Æva ‎– ∞ LP Daudings Gjenklang ‎2013

In many ways the early ‘Era 1’ synthesiser works of Mortiis are a bit of a guilty pleasure for me, given I came across his self-described ‘dark dungeon music’ at a pivotal time during my burgeoning interest in underground music.   So with Mortiis being an effective ‘gateway’ project at the time, this then quickly led my interest to Cold Meat Industry/ Malignant Records/ Loki Foundation/ Tesco Organisation/ Cold Spring etc. thus resulting in my total emersion in underground dark ambient, industrial and power electronic music.  But I digress….

Noting that Mortiis is considered by many as a bit of a joke project, nevertheless Mortiis effectively spawned his own dark ambient sub-genre of synthesiser derived ‘dungeon synth’ music, which has included numerous imitators over the years.  Likewise with clear similarities to Mortiis, many of these ‘dungeon synth’ projects also have their roots and origins in the underground black metal scene rather than the industrial (and related) underground.  Æva follow this same template by virtue of being an obscure side project of the excellent Norwegian black metal solo project Skuggeheim.  If you are then familiar with any of Skuggeheim’s releases, clearly having atmosphere derived from a distant, muffled and lo-fi sound takes precedence over ‘clean’ or ‘professional’ sounding recordings.  With its inherent lo-fi atmosphere this is one of the key reasons why Skuggeheim hits the mark so flawlessly for me, and with the same sonic approach filtering through to Æva it perfectly fits the ‘dungeon synth’ genre parameters  – i.e. the evocation of gloomy synth soundscapes.

Although Mortiis has been used as a contextual comparison, musically the sound of Æva is not typically medieval and even overtly orchestral in delivery.  Here the music is more subdued and understated and has much more in common with the depressive sound of another of Mortiis’ keyboard projects Vond, and the ‘Selvmord’ album in particular – however Æva is even more abstract and lo-fi than this particular comparison. Thus of the three lengthy album tracks, each are centred around sparse synth textures, catatonic melodies (which occasionally resembles a synthesised piano or organ tone) and some deeper abstract droning elements, which each ebb and flow across intertwining musical segments. Given the sound is staunchly analogue and lo-fi in quality it could be said to be ‘poorly’ recorded, however the muffled and distant tone actually provides additional aura and atmosphere.  Likewise rather than feeling like typical ‘songs’ the compositions are presented more as ‘soundscapes’ or ‘movements’.

Whilst ‘dungeon synth’ music is certainly not a refined style of music, a typical trademark is that in the most part is it not expertly played or executed. Yet of much greater importance is the existence of certain ‘attitude’ and ‘atmosphere’, which incidentally Æva effortlessly achieves this special aura and elevates this album above being merely abstract synthesizer dirges.

Regarding its presentation the LP, it displays a number of interesting quirks, where the music has been pressed on a black label vinyl so as to play from the inside to outside edge, whilst Side B contains 2 separate pieces tracked in parallel/ side by side, which finishes with a locked groove.  Lastly the packaging provides a feeling that this release is a special obscurity, and whilst there is no actual cover a couple of fire singed insets are included within a plastic sleeve sealed with special sticker.  Limited to 200 hand numbered copies, from the review you will clearly know if this particular ‘dungeon synth’ obscurity is for you.