I have nothing against Dungeons & Dragons. I do, however, have an issue with the one kid who kept me from lesson planning by ceaselessly listing off statistics of his paladin and barbarian like I was supposed to know what the fuck he was talking about.1 I have a resentment toward the game thanks to that kiddo, unfortunately, so I’m already prejudiced against the relatively new genre of “dungeon synth.” While it began very ambitiously, taking cues from Medieval and Renaissance music and fantasy literature, bearing a black metal aesthetic, its role as a challenging and world-building style of dark ambient has been demoted as mere soundtracks of D&D campaigns everywhere. Örnatorpet seeks to add to the dungeon synth genre, hoping to whisk listeners away to a “forgotten realm, an arcane age.” Will my ears feel like scrambled eggs2 or will I just be recommending it for a student’s latest LARPing campaign?
Ambient music is hit or miss as a genre in and of itself. We are familiar with Burzum‘s attempts,3 and it’s either passable or goddamn awful. As such, dungeon synth artists offer similar dichotomies within a scene already criticized as boring or praised as vivid. Artists such as the blackened Old Tower and subtle Guild of Lore offer an effectively medieval or wintry atmosphere respectively, ambitiously fleshing out their retro synth backbone with touches of folk melodies and raw orchestral flourishes, while others like Chaucerian Myth and Greythorne find their reach exceeds their grasp, their offerings doomed by excessive length and monotone sprawling. Unfortunately, Örnatorpet‘s sixth full-length Vid Himinsenda falls into the latter category, leaning too heavily on faulty repetition and forsaking quality for sprawl.
The basic sonic palette around which dungeon synth revolves is initially ear-pleasing, a sweeping plateau of rich tones that complement underlying subtle melodies and opaque tribal percussion. “Friggjarstjarna” is the most effective at this distinction in dynamic songwriting, evoking images of ancient battle horns through reverb-laden synth and lively chord progressions, while the placid “Nykr” channels the blackened symphonic feel of Vordven, feeling icy and transcendental in equal measure. These two tracks simply let their sound develop naturally over the run-time, respectfully hearkening to an old synth-driven blackened style and effectively creating an image in the listener’s mind of medieval battlefields and snow-capped mountains.
As visceral as the highlights are, the majority of Vid Himinsenda frankly feels monotone and hokey. Its biggest trespass is founded on the excessive repetition of a fragile or tacky melody that has no business being the foundation of a track that’s five minutes or longer. Songs like “Vættr” or “Hræsvelgr” are by no means offensively bad, but are simply too long, with its simple melody dragging on to the point of nausea by the end. However, cringier tracks like centerpieces “Útgarðr” and “Myrkriður” are founded on synth melodies that seem to pay homage to “Weird Al” Yankovic‘s accordion style more than any dark ambient or black metal style I’ve ever heard, jarringly derailing any medieval atmosphere they may have aspired to. Closer “Níðhöggr” is a notably cruel way to end the album, as its foundational melody feels simply off-key and brutally sloppy.
Ambient music is already divisive, and Vid Himinsenda makes no case to change listeners’ minds with their take on dungeon synth, except to abandon it altogether. In the end, whether you’re a fan of the genre or not, Örnatorpet‘s album feels way longer than its 45-minute runtime suggests, and definitely not in a good way. While it has limited highlights that shine in their decidedly only-when-the-stars-align sorta way, it feels long on repetition and monotony and short on quality. The aim is to whisk listeners away to the world where dragons and knights are abound, but I found myself thinking of high-fiving Weird Al more than conquering axe-wielding orcs with my stacked barbarian. That speaks volumes, even if it may serve as a nice soundtrack to my student’s endless D&D stat rambling.