The First Flame of Lordran by Bellkeeper

Release date: February 6, 2019
Label: Dungeons Deep Records

With no press release and almost no online information available, I can give you precious little background information on this, the first release by Bellkeeper. Identified as the work of Rolant the Recluse, The First Flame of Lordran is approximately half-an-hour of traditional dungeon synth, inspired by the notoriously-difficult, action role-playing game Dark Souls (which incidentally I have not played) – a welcome change from the genre’s endless Tolkien devotees.

Once a truly-obscure sub-genre, known only to select individuals with the right tape-trading contacts, dungeon synth is now rapidly increasing in popularity – at least, in terms of underground music. When it’s good, it’s fresh and exciting, but when it’s not it’s embarrassingly amateurish. As a genre virtually defined by its status as outsider art (dungeon synth innovator Mortiis is entirely self-taught, as are many others), this is not surprising.

Before I keep you in suspense any longer, let me state that The First Flame of Lordran is a superb album. I’ve never been much of a believer in first impressions (wankers can act), but I am with dungeon synth. Given the sheer amount of material out there, especially on Bandcamp and on YouTube channels like The Dungeon Synth Archives, you pretty much have to be. I find you can usually tell within the first few seconds whether a release is worth persevering with. I don’t just skip it altogether after a few seconds you understand, and I often return to it nevertheless just to be sure, but I do judge pretty quickly.

Bellkeeper passed this initial test admirably, sounding deep and full-bodied. I find it’s usually the timing that puts me off with dungeon synth. Often the best thing about the genre is the wonderfully rich and unique atmospheres created by these artists, whose individuality is not restrained by formal expectations. But all it takes is some of the tracks to fall out of time – especially the drums! – and I find it really hard to persevere.  Fortunately, the quality of the production and sequencing on The First Flame of Lordran is superb; not polished, chart-music quality you understand, but the right mix of lo-fi, cassette-tape wobbliness and a punchy, striking affect.

As with a lot of dungeon synth, album opener ‘Rekindled’ relies upon a strong keyboard melody as its foundation, gradually mimicked with layers using different instrumentation, and developed with different harmony. What strikes me is the sense of strong compositional skills here, with less reliance upon minutes and minutes of repetition than many albums: the chord patterns twist and turn, the melodic style develops, little is predictable or monotonous. The melodies and rhythms are often memorable, catchy even, but never trite or annoying.

Bellkeeper uses few samples to guide our perception of his music beyond field recordings of rain, with none of the spoken-word narration of Erang or the film samples of Balrog to provide concrete imagery. This is never quite the Mordorian evil of Thanogrondrim, on the one hand, or the slightly-twee, quasi-medievalism of Fief. It’s never as truly ambient and abstract as Old Tower, nor as clearly emulative of acoustic instruments as Fief. It’s not as ultra-minimal as Talog, nor quite as multi-layered and complex in instrumentation as Mortiis’s era 1 albums. Everything on The First Flame of Lordran, therefore, is carefully considered and as complicated as it needs to be to achieve its desired plethora of effects.

The album conveys various moods and places: wide expansive forests teeming with ancient evil (‘Rekindled’); triumph and militarism (‘From Peak to Festering Deep’); rowdy banquets around which jesters prance (‘Sungazer’); and, yes, dark, dank dungeons filled with sorrow and loneliness (‘A Sanctum of Ash and Amber’). It’s by turns melodramatic, bombastic, calm, meditative, playful and deadly serious.

Orson Wells could have been referring to dungeon synth when he once said that “The absence of limitations is the enemy of art”. The genre is defined by one person, using one basic keyboard, to evoke the sensation of an entire, richly-populated secondary world. And ultimately Bellkeeper has used the limitations of the dungeon synth genre to build a sonic world that you’ll return to again and again, each time returning with more and more riches. 

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