Since Umbra Vulgaris began, I’ve listened to a lot of Dungeon Synth and its similar styles. Winding the clocks back about two years, I was really only familiar with Era I Mortiis, Burzum, Summoning, and a tiny bit of Fief. I would have never expected the variety of different sounds present in the genre. This list ranges from “classic” DS to adjacent styles. There’s no objective ranking or order, just ten albums and EPs that stood out for me and built on my previous understanding of what the genre could be.
ESTOC – Chapter I (Finland, 2019)
ESTOC’s Chapter I is an absolutely enchanting work of fantasy ambient complete with strings, pianos, woodwinds, lush acoustic guitars, understated percussion and as you can see, breathtaking artwork. This music is relatively light and melodic compared to a lot of Finnish DS, and it is rare that I can scroll past Chapter I without listening.
Standout tracks: “Unfolding Story,” “Potion Flask”
Old Sorcery – Sorrowcrown (Finland, 2020)
Another Finnish one for purposes of contrast. A lot of people probably know Old Sorcery’s straightforward DS, but his venture into atmospheric black metal has to be my favorite. There is still a lot of synth on Sorrowcrown, and the album serves as a great example of a DS/BM hybrid. With the cold fury of Filosofem and the unsettling anticipation of Beherit’s ambient forays, Old Sorcery combines influences here into something spectacularly dark. I would also recommend this to new black metal fans who aren’t quite ready for the heaviest the genre has to offer.
Standout track: “Phantasm”
Carnifexian – Age of Spiked Mace (Russia, 2017)
A perfect blend of epic fantasy and brooding atmospheres, Age of Spiked Mace was one of my first dungeon synth purchases in the dark early days of quarantine. A very ‘orthodox’ and medieval-tinged approach to the style generally, but it creates a spellbinding and immersive atmosphere that doesn’t waver for a moment throughout.
Standout tracks: “The Banners of Empire Will Rise Again,” “In the Cradle of Worms”
Narbaiz – Aztia (Spain, 2020)
On his first release, Narbaiz begins an epic story on which his later work continues to build. While later albums take more after the old-school giants such as Burzum and Mortiis, Aztia (Basque word for Sorcerer) is lighter with shorter songs, and some influences from folk music. One thing I admire greatly about this album is Narbaiz’ use of electronic voices, rather than low-fidelity strings or similar, to carry a very fantastic story forward. The last track feels almost like the close to a synth-led rock opera.
Standout tracks: “Haizeari Eskaera,” “Etorkizun Hobezina”
(English titles: “Prayer to the Wind,” “Prosperous Prospects”)
Cold Sanctum – Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror (United States, 2022)
I’m a huge fan of Dracula as well as shorter song lengths. (There are thirty five songs here!) Symphony of Horror is a great accompaniment to any late night horror reading. A great example of a release that arguably stands out of dungeon synth “proper” but shares enough in common tonally and culturally that it will be of interest for many in the scene, especially if they already enjoy classical or cinematic music.
Standout tracks: “Ellen’s Theme,” “The Journey to Transylvania,” “Heavy Dreams in a Desolate Castle”
Frostgard – Valaquenta II (Spain, 2022)
On her second album, Frostgard further develops her brand of Tolkien-inspired old-school DS. There is a greater range of sounds and moods here, the songs a bit more progressive and melodic. The sweet warm “comfy” tone in the synthesizers reaches new levels, making this the perfect record to put on while diving into a copy of the Silmarillion or even Unfinished Tales. I think her work leads “Tolkienism” in the genre – so many try to incorporate his work into musical narratives, but very few (if any) have done it as well as Frostgard.
Standout tracks: “The Magic Dance of Nessa,” “The Joy of Vána, the Ever-Young”
Umbría – The Entombed Wizard (Spain, 2021)
An excellent combination of DS with classical guitars, harpsichords and other synthesized symphonic instruments. Umbría introduces an unprecedented amount of experimentalism and progression with these ten tracks, while retaining a fantastic “dungeon” vibe throughout, even recalling the work of Nox Arcana at times. He is also more inclined towards percussive elements than a lot of artists in the genre, which I personally appreciate.
Standout tracks: “Vaults of the Sleeping Martyrs,” “Eternal Watch of the Fae Knight”
DIM – Compendium III (Canada, 2020)
This album was another of my very early DS tape purchases. I have long since traded it, but DIM left on impression on me with this release more than any other before or since. Like a lot of the albums on this list, III marks a turning point for the artist, with an expanded set of influences making their way into the mix. While the first two compendiums are fairly standard dungeon/medieval synth, with whimsical elements, this has electronic percussion and bass, filmic piano interludes, and abundant folk feeling. For me it definitely expanded the boundaries of the genre significantly.
Standout tracks: “Old Skald,” “Hestur”
Empyrean Woods – The Putrefying Throne (Finland, 2021)
Lo-fi and haunting,but still somehow soothing, this EP was one of my first encounters with depressive dungeon synth. The detuned keys and abundant static create a perfect backdrop for a walk through your local cemetery on an autumn night, or for if you’re just feeling introspective.
Standout tracks: “Mourning Kingdom,” “Vampyric Altar”
Piva – Fragments of Nights (Italy, 2021)
Spacey and ethereal, Fragments of Nights is a good reminder that the roots of dungeon synth lie in cosmic music. Sweet, otherworldly sounds combine with simple melodies for what is in my opinion one of the most unique DS albums of 2021. Bonus points for the inclusion of a cover song, the instantly recognizable “Crying Orc” by Burzum.
Standout tracks: “The Crying Orc,” “Sorrow Tower”
Again, this list is in no order. Each of these releases is amazing and I would highly recommend them in equal measure. It was almost painful choosing only ten, so there will be a separate installment from guest author Moonlight Betrothed with his ten favorites, mainly from 90’s projects.