The Quietus - A new rock music and pop culture website

Subscriber Area

Organic Intelligence XXVI: Dungeon Synth
Joel McIver , November 16th, 2023 12:42

In this month’s antidote to the algorithm, Joel McIver slaps on the corpsepaint and buys a 50p keyboard to give us a run-down of the non-more troglodytal world of dungeon synth

You know when you put on some horrendously violent metal album, and it starts with a bit of creepy ambient music before the 'proper' songs begin? If you record a whole album of those spooky intros, without any guitars or other difficult-to-master instruments, you'll have made a dungeon synth album. 

It's a great title for a genre of music, for several reasons. First, you could make the music with a real-life keyboard synthesiser if you wanted to, but you actually only need a computer and a bog-standard soft-synth program to compose and play the stuff, so that’s what most people do. Next, the vibe is definitely dungeon-y, all unnerving textures, whispers and wails: the point is to be understated rather than epic, so don't expect Middle-Earth-sized choirs. Instead, imagine yourself running around an 8-bit computer game in 1986, poking goblins with a big old sword and battling zombies in graveyards. Who doesn't love all that comforting adolescent nonsense?  

It's interesting to note that the roots of this music lie in Norwegian black metal, itself a heavily fantasy-based genre of music. The artist names and album sleeve art from both styles of music are similar, populated by crumbling castle battlements, throne rooms, evocative forest landscapes and so on and so forth. There aren't really many prominent dungeon synth artists, partly because the music isn't really suited for live performance, and partly because there's zero money in it. The genre probably won't grow much bigger, and in fact it might even vanish, but so what? Once on YouTube, always on YouTube. Here's five great examples for you to enjoy on your commute.

Mortiis – ’The Song Of A Long Forgotten Ghost Part 1’

Håvard Ellefsen played bass in the Norwegian black metal geezers Emperor before strapping on a goblin mask, renaming himself Mortiis and recording this amazing 1993 demo, an hour of him twiddling around on a $99 Roland keyboard. Some of the melodies are a bit parpy and cheap, but if tinny, crap-sounding instruments put you off, I'd suggest that dungeon synth is not for you.

Cernunnos Woods – ‘Cad Goddeu (The Battle Of The Trees)’

Although Minnesota is hardly an obvious location for creating odes to ye olde darkened landscapes of ancient lore, the scratchy tunes made by Cernunnos Woods do the macabre trick nicely. The music is generally less polished and more homemade in feel than some of the other oeuvres on this list, with creepy invocations from some old geezer accompanied by birdsong, waves, droned organs and whatnot, but it’s still enjoyably cinematic.

Vindkaldr – ‘Gleaming Multiplicities In Silver Daggers’

Well, someone's clearly sick of sunshine and surf: this Australian composer successfully conjures up mystical textures with swathes of electronic strings and choirs. They obviously possess some musicianship and arranging skills, judging by the slick sheen and dynamics of this genuinely beautiful composition. 

Fief – ‘Deep Forest Dance’

This is the stuff if your idea of a good time is jesters, mead and sorcerers rather than Vikings, murdered priests and invading hordes. Indebted to woolly-jumpered English folk music from the 60s and as whimsical as a barrel of medieval frogs, this relatively lightweight minstrel fluff is warm milk to the dungeon synth connoisseur, if indeed there is such a person. 

Morbid Angel – ‘Melting’

Just one minute and 20 seconds of creepiness, this piece from Morbid Angel's immense (and divisive) fourth album Domination was dungeon synth two decades before the term was coined. I've included it here because it's so unsettling, even though there's almost nothing to it. If you listen to it as well as the monstrous song which it introduces, 'Nothing But Fear', its understated nature is, by contrast, even more impactful. 

Thank you for supporting The Quietus. If you’ve any feedback, suggestions or ideas for our subscription service, please let us know via email ( or via the Steady platform.