In the last few months of listening to dungeon synth, I’ve begun to notice patterns in the music and in the scene itself. There are a few schools of sound when it comes to the music and the narratives that each album is able to put forward. There is the classic dungeon synth, minimalistic and primitive yet thick with atmosphere and musicality. Then you have the more orchestral dungeon synth, inspired by and large by Summoning’s atmospheric, grandiose, sound. Third we have dungeon noise, or at least that’s really the only way I can describe it; it’s full of black ambient sounds with dungeon synth style instrumentation. All three have some absolutely fantastic examples of how that style can be great, and of course all three have examples, especially recently, of how an artist can butcher what makes each style great.
Recently, as you might have noticed, there haven’t been as many dungeon synth reviews (apart from our bi-weekly compendium and the latest Rævjäger album). That’s because there has been an influx of truly bad dungeon synth and it’s taken a while for some really good albums to float to the surface. In the same way you have to melt gold in extreme heat to remove the impurities, so it has been for us here at Resounding Footsteps to really sift through the dungeon synth offerings to find the real gems. I personally had begun to despair that it was going to be awhile before I found something really good. A few new albums popped up here and there, but for the most part there was nothing that really grabbed me and said “Listen!” Then Chaucerian Myth’s new album “The Book of Margery Kempe” finally dropped.
Chaucerian Myth has become a master at what I’m going to start calling long form dungeon synth. Simply put, long form dungeon synth are the really long albums (often taking more than one disc or cassette to tell the story) that tell a single story from beginning to end. Thus far I’ve only seen two projects that really do the long form dungeon synth and do it well: Chaucerian Myth and recently Argonath. That hasn’t stopped a lot of projects from trying though. Far too often I’ve seen albums with ten tracks that are each ten minutes long and all sound the same or are so garbled and nonsensical that I can’t make it past the first track. It’s frustrating that it’s happening more and more often but there are bright spots that help to erase the frustration. Case in point, The Book of Margery Kempe.
Based on the autobiography of the Middle English Christian mystic, The Book of Margery Kempe is a two hour long, two-disc narrative that does its best to encompass all three of the major dungeon synth styles. Previous Chaucerian Myth albums have focused on, well just that, Chaucer, but with this album the repertoire of the artist is logically expanded into more Middle English storytelling. The album encompasses the mystic’s life from the birth of her first child, the mental and spiritual issues that followed, and the profound journey she took in order to understand the divine nature of her god. Chaucerian Myth, as I said before, does its best to use each of the three major styles in the story telling because such a tale as Margery Kempe is one that doesn’t fit neatly into one style. While Chaucerian Myth has excelled at the minimalistic style in the past, he ventures boldly into the dungeon noise arena. With some middling success he is able to accentuate the story and the narrative by adding strange and often unnerving sounds to jar the listener. This is no ordinary story and thusly cannot be told in ordinary music alone. Thankfully the dungeon noise is kept to a minimum, only used where the sound can have the most impact on the listener and therefore on the narrative. Chaucerian Myth is a damn good minimalist project and he knows this. He uses that to his advantage. He uses otherworldly melodies to tell the story of Margery Kempe and her conversations with God. They are both fanciful yet grounded, they seem somehow real despite the unlikeliness of the events that they tell.
One of the video games I grew up with was called Arcana, a (relatively) primitive turn based RPG on the SNES. I wasted a lot of time on the game, and I enjoyed it immensely. While the story was never that engaging, looking back it was pretty formulaic, the music made it incredible. It was lo fi music, raw and primitive but it was engaging and carried the story when the story was pretty weak. The actual sound of Chaucerian Myth on this album makes me feel as though I’m listening to a sequel to the soundtrack. There are dark moments in the dungeons that wander somewhat aimlessly through the dark with no real endpoint in sight and light moments in the towns where the music was meant to relax and put you at ease as the story came in waves and waves of exposition. At times I forgot I was listening to an album about the darkness and madness experienced by a woman in the Middle Ages altogether. I don’t know if that’s a good thing or not (but I choose to think it is). As with all very good minimalistic dungeon synth, the album’s two hours are heavily infused with nostalgia. Dungeon synth would starve, I think, if we did not get the old fantasy nostalgia in waves, even if the album has nothing to do with fantasy.
Chaucerian Myth is often, inexplicably in my opinion, a polarizing project. It has the heart and soul that we expect from dungeon synth but it has more than just that. It often feels like a history paper that analyzes the text as well as perform it. After listening to the album a dozen times or so (time very well spent mind you) I felt as though I was being told more about the philosophical and metaphysical ramifications of Margery Kempe’s “adventures” and pilgrimages than about those adventures and pilgrimages themselves. That is in no way a bad thing, though. Back when I did analysis and dissection of texts I would look at them the same way that Chaucerian Myth clearly looked at The Book of Margery Kempe. It’s a goldmine of points, themes, motifs, and devices. And yet, even with all the analysis that’s done in the album, it’s still very entertaining. Every now and then the buzz and drone get too loud to hear the music but instead of dismissing these as mistakes in the production process, I chose to look at them in the scope of the story. How did they affect the narrative? What did they add? How do they make the story better? What would the album have sounded like without them?
I took a while deciphering exactly what the drone did for the album. It was actually the part of the album that I took the most notes because it was the most complex and multifaceted. I didn’t want to get this wrong. There are, of course, dozens of ways to interpret the noise but I wanted to make sure I found the interpretation that the musician had found. That’s not as easy as it would seem, despite the fact that I’m good at finding that interpretation. I finally came to the deceptively simple explanation that the noise was meant to correspond with Margery Kempe’s mental status and how close, or far, she was treading the line with madness. The closer she became, the more drone and noise there was intermixed with the actual music. The saner she became, the more lyrical the music became, the more coherent the narrative was.
Long form dungeon synth requires patience. From the artist as well as the listener. If either of them rush or ignore something, the entire house come crashing down. The major theme of The Book of Margery Kempe is madness and spirituality and how close they often come to coinciding. Two hours was the perfect amount time to tell the story. Each facet of the tale has been covered here, every nook and cranny explored but not so much that the album drags on or becomes tedious and boring. The album feels complete. The album feels precise. I had only a vague notion of Margery Kempe before I listened to this album and did my research on her and her story. While I still feel as though there is a lot I can learn, The Book of Margery Kempe and Chaucerian Myth has done a marvelous job laying the foundations of the story and the myth. Chaucerian Myth, again, has hit it out the park.
Highlights: Julian of Norwich, Pilgrimage, Leicester
If you enjoyed this try: Ekthelion, Argonath, Nahadoth
Support the artist!
- Deep Sickness
- Demonic Visions
- The Holy Showing: Salvation
- Birth of the Virgin
- Julian of Norwich
- Rome: A Martyr for the Poor
- Meditations: The Visions of Margery Kempe