Style: Dark Ambient/Dungeon Synth
Release Date: 24 Jan 2020
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The man behind Mortiis, Håvard Ellefsen, may have started out his career as the original bassist in black metal legends Emperor, but his musical vision was something very different. When he started his solo career with The Song of a Long Forgotten Ghost in 1993, it wasn't black metal at all but what he called dark dungeon music and has grown into a genre known as dungeon synth. He didn't stay there, as his seventh album, The Smell of Rain, moved into a synthpop sound, while the next few were industrial. Now he's back with that original dungeon synth sound for a new album that grew out of reimagination of the 1994 release, Ånden som Gjorde Opprør.
Like an author who works in different genres but doesn't change the name on the cover, this leads to confusion. I knew Mortiis had played with Emperor when I picked up The Smell of Rain, thoroughly enjoying it but being rather surprised to find it sounded a lot more like Shriekback. Looking back at his earlier albums was even more surprising and I never quite got into the whole dungeon synth genre. I don't dislike it, but it sounds more like soundtrack material to me, maybe more for games than movies.
And this fits very much into that category. Like Ånden som Gjorde Opprør, it features only two tracks, this time A Dark Horizon and Visions of an Ancient Future, reasonably evenly split over fifty minutes or so. I went back to the Ånden som Gjorde Opprør album and heard a lot of similarities but this isn't the same album, not least because there's no vocal work on it at all and the instrumentation is wider.
As dungeon synth aims to conjure up dark ambient soundcapes using primarily a mediaeval soundbase, it's not surprising that much of it sounds like what might sit behind a battle scene in a fantasy videogame. That's more obvious on A Dark Horizon here, with the opening part slow, martial and regimented but with a lightness behind it that suggests that this army is on the march in good weather with whichever god they worship on their side.
Visions of an Ancient Future is a lot more playful but also darker, with its opening part both a celebration and a dirge. It feels as if the army from A Dark Horizon has won the day but not everyone made it back and their losses were substantial. Now, around a huge fire, they celebrate their victory and honour their dead. There are vocals here, though not words, and they add a ritual element to proceedings too.
Each piece of music (I can't really call them songs) grows as they progress, of course, and we're invited to find a narrative in there. The point is for us to be moved enough by the music to imagine what it's accompanying. While not all instrumental music does that, some going for mood rather than story, I find that Dungeon synth is emphatically story over mood, with mood just an underpinning to that story. The question is always what that story might be and I'm not sure there's a right or wrong way to go there. You might hear a different story to me and what we each conjure up might not be what Mortiis has in mind and that's fine.
I'm not well versed enough in the genre to be able to compare this to peers but I have heard enough to say that this is a decent album. It stands well with what I've heard of Mortiis's earlier work though it doesn't stand out from them as a new undying classic of the genre. The pace seems relatively unvaried and when enticing themes arrive, like in the fourth and fifth parts of Visions of an Ancient Future, we realise how absent they've been up until then. Fans of the genre will dig this though and will be happy that Mortiis is hard at work returning to it.