Exploring Synths: A Primer with Neill Jameson

To admit you’re out of touch with what the “kids” are into seems to be the first slippage into an existential crisis (or at least a midlife one) when you’ve spent your whole life engrossed in music. I’ve already established that I’m rarely in a good mood and disregard most new metal styles as (to put it nicely) “not for me.” But one rising genre that seems to have been pushed everywhere the last few years is synths and its several hundred subgenres.

When I look at something as diverse as these subgenres and remember that they were just lumped under “dark ambient” when I was coming up, it does make a case for journalists falling all over each other to throw shit into a filing cabinet. I fell out of interest with the genre once everything seemed to be going the way of, well, everything in the early ’00s. Overly digital and needlessly orchestral, like a Napalm Records cover/goth soft porn come to life. I backed away clutching my And Even Wolves Hid Their Teeth and early Mortiis records and buried my head in the sand. And like most genres, there was a decent underground I’d missed and a resurgence of new talent to wash away the crushed velvet and Pro-Tools from my palate. I was ready to dig into a few with as much of an open mind as I could muster. Here’s what I found.

I guess this is the most general term for everything that doesn’t require a 20 sided die to listen to. I also think it’s the one I have the biggest prejudice against going in. Why? Because I don’t have nearly the fondness for the 80’s that a majority of metal listeners do, mostly because I lived through them and wasn’t born in the 90’s. Also, I once got forced to listen to it for half of the drive to Chicago from Philadelphia and that’s enough to make anyone hate something. Finally, there’s also the leftover elitist nonsense years in the underground has instilled in me to hate anything that’s popular and also to hate fun.

My first impression of synth-wave (or retro wave, I guess) is that it reminded me of a mixture of cut away scenes in old straight-to-VHS ’80s action/sci-fi flicks or the first level of Mega Man X. On paper, this sounds pretty great but in practice, it sounds like a lot of the bullshit goth nights at clubs I went to in the ’90s to not dance or talk to people because I was too cool for school. Does anyone like being reminded they’re an asshole? Synth-wave needs a trigger warning for me.

Getting past that, I’m finding that when it slows down and doesn’t try to be the night level in Rad Racer some of it is pretty dreary, which is always a plus for me. Droid Bishop, when they’re not using the fucking bongo sample from every mid-’80s Whitney Houston song have some good moments, but out of anything I’ve forced myself to listen to, Dynatron is the first project I could actually see wanting to listen to again.

And yes, the Stranger Things soundtrack was neat in context with the show but I don’t ever have a craving to listen to it outside of said context. I know I’m supposed to mention Perturbator here but everyone interested already knows the name as the benchmark of the genre. There’s a new one coming soon on Blood Music and really besides him and Dynatron I can’t see much else to need out of this genre.

Space Synth
Let me save you the trouble of ever typing this into Youtube: it’s dozens, if not hundreds, of dudes holding one key with a lot of beeps for hours on end. I mean you might as well look now; I know you’re curious. See how many three-hour fucking loops of this shit there is? Holy fuck, that’s a lot of lonely people. Just like space! It’s a fucking metaphor.

My personal taste for this kind of thing is what you’d hear if you were taken on a field trip to the planetarium in the 1980s. This is probably the only subgenre where everything I enjoyed was done before I was born or before I had reached manhood.

Laurie Spiegel’s The Expanding Universe is everything I want when I think of minimalistic space jams. Now this is just me, but I don’t envision space as somewhere that needs 32 tracks of tubular bells to describe it. It’s not the lost continent of Atlantis, it’s a vast and lonely place. Spiegel’s minimalism on all of her recordings are perfectly hypnotizing but The Expanding Universe is probably my favorite. I used to put it on at work a lot because it seemed to stop anyone from having unnecessary conversations with me, and that’s…that’s just bliss. I was introduced to Popol Vuh around the same time and while it’s not all spacey, and the vastness of their output is a bit daunting, they craft a lot of minimalist themes that can be lined up with Spiegel as good places to start.

My last contribution to this subgenre should be the most obvious for metal fans: the two Neptune Towers records were when space ambient or whatever you want to call it really began and ended for me. Both are perfect trips off the planet though I favor Transmissions from Empire Algol for being both soothing and horrifying. Because of this and the records I mentioned I really have no personal need for modern space synth. Much like NASA, it was more interesting and less fucked with in the past.

Caveman Synth
Again, it’s mostly just Youtube superstars crafting hours of drones that are supposed to bring up an image of rocks and woolly mammoth pecks. I don’t need three hours for that, I’ve got shit to do.

If you are looking for something that’s primordial and genuinely gives the feeling of a time before mankind, then Iceland’s Afsprengi Satans, a project connected to Wormlust & nearly every other band that makes Iceland’s black metal scene interesting, is absolutely perfect. A prerequisite of any kind of instrumental music for me is that it has to give me visuals when I listen to it and Afsprengi Satans delivers visions of darkness, horror and fire.

Have you ever seen an anime? If yes, then you’ve heard this entire genre. If no, I just watched a video that is nothing but a loop of someone from Robotech (I guess) flicking a cigarette over and over for forty fucking minutes. That should be enough to satiate your curiosity, I hope.

Dungeon Synth
The two Mortiis records on Cold Meat Industry were really important to me as a young man and have remained so into middle age. These two, Mortiis’ various other projects at the time, and the Wongraven LP were pretty much the only ventures into the genre now coined “dungeon synth” I had for a very long time. I’d check out “dark ambient” demos here and there, but they were either too cheesy or too involved- the whole “goth softcore porn” thing I mentioned earlier. As this is the ambient/wave subgenre closest to black metal, it was also the first that really grabbed my attention while I was “researching” this piece.  Unlike the other subgenres which I, unfairly if we’re being honest, didn’t give too deep a dive into, I’ve spent the last few weeks really captivated by a few of these projects and been using the incredible resource of The Dungeon Synth Archives channel on Youtube nearly all day, much to the dismay of my girlfriend who calls it “Legend of Zelda music.” And if we’re still being honest, a lot of it does fall into that category.

The DSA is exhaustive and goes back to the very early ’90s, and that low-fi aesthetic really appeals to me so I spent a lot of time skipping around in there until I kept running into roadblocks like over the top screams or, even worse, warbling that, I suppose, is attempting to be operatic. Or spoken word parts, filled with the kind of poetry you’d be kicked out of a Hot Topic Open Mic Night for speaking.  Occasionally you’d find sketchy ambient, which didn’t reveal itself musically but certainly was ready for the “it’s a Sunwheel” argument when you looked at their packaging.

Like I said, there’s an unfathomable amount of this shit from the ’90s on, so in the spirit of you being tired of reading I’m going to focus on a few recordings that don’t make me relive the New Years I spent dragged into a Dungeons and Dragons themed “party” and more on what makes me relieve the nights I spent alone playing SNES RPGS, which I guess isn’t much better.

The first thing I need to note is some of the labels include the most fucking outlandish shit with these releases, which are mostly on cassette. These run the gamut from leaves to “cryptic space marbles” to a fucking pinecone. While I appreciate the attention to detail, I think the ones who put incense with their releases are doing more to enhance the experience that some twigs my cats are going to fuck with before I even get them out of the box.

The second thing is that some of the song titles and project names are absolutely asinine, much like a lot of black metal. Subtlety is a virtue and it’s a rare thing in many cases.

I’ve already said I appreciate minimalism. This is a personal preference and your mileage may vary but the dungeon synth I’ve found that stuck with me the most keeps things simple, subtle and allowed room for your imagination to fill in the spaces. Old Tower’s The Rise of the Specter personifies this, from its slow-building opening to its emphasis on creating something memorable to its excellent artwork. I’m reminded of a stripped down Mortiis in places, but really the whole record is its own beast and it weaves the kind of spell all good music, regardless of genre, does: the spell that keeps it repeating in your head hours after you listened to it. A vinyl reissue would be spectacular since it’s rare and overly expensive on the secondary market for the first press. This captures the same kind of cold darkness second wave black metal did and is one of the first new(er) projects I’ve been excited about in a minute.

Hedge Wizard is another project which is somehow low-fi  enough for my taste through the use of analog sounds yet has that special something that makes it more than just a piece of ambient suitable for background music while reading. It’s active without ever being overly dramatic like some dungeon synth. I don’t picture a guy in corpse paint photoshopped on a horse when I listen to it. Foreign Sounds just announced they’re handling a reissue of More True Than Time Thought which will, for a moment, make this easier to get a hold of.

Utah’s Fief will be the last project I single out here as a favorite. It’s less droning than the previous two but captures the spirit of the music you hear when you enter a town in an old NES/SNES game. Maybe it’s my stunted adolescence, as I’m aware there are real recordings of orchestras doing this kind of music, but I prefer it in this lo-fi form. It’s just… satisfying.

The moral of this long-winded tale is that there’s a lot of ground to cover outside of traditional metal and a lot of it is coming up alongside metal as a companion genre for those who’re ready for another kind of sonic experience. Sure, I may not have enjoyed synth-wave or vaporwave but you might. You might think I’m a fucking nerd for how I spent my teen years and how I’m reliving it with dungeon synth nearing my forties. That’s what’s refreshingly cool about these myriads of genres: there has to be something for everyone in them. Unless you’re an idiot like I can be and hate fun.