Secret Stairways’ Enchantment of the Ring Elevates Dungeon Synth To a New Level (Review)

Originally released in 1997, these eight ambient pieces put much of modern dungeon synth music to shame.
Enchantment of the Ring - Secret Stairways

The “dungeon synth” genre often seems at odds with itself. On the one hand, it’s typified by music that’s inspired by fantasy stories and ancient legends — or it’s even the soundtrack for the musicians’ own fantasy worlds — and as such, aims for an appropriately epic, dreamy, mythic sound. On the other hand, dungeon synth artists often use the chintziest equipment and recording techniques to achieve that sound, resulting in thin, tinny music that sounds approximately two steps below an NES soundtrack.

This isn’t too surprising given the overlap between dungeon synth and black metal — the latter being a genre well-known for using unpolished lo-fi recording techniques to give the music an extremely harsh, discomfiting, and confrontational quality. But that aesthetic can blunt the music’s epic-ness. In other words, it’s clear that dungeon synth artists have epic aspirations for their music, but how many of them produce said music can often leave something to be desired.

And then there’s Secret Stairways, a solo project by Matthew Davis that was active in the late ’90s, long before dungeon synth was even recognized as such. Put simply, these lush ambient pieces put much of the modern dungeon synth music that I’ve heard to shame. While Davis was obviously working with a limited musical palette and recording set-up, he made the most of what he had — with stirring results.

“What Lies Beyond the Door” opens Enchantment of the Ring with wintry synths and sparse beats, both of which eventually give way to a soaring guitar that evokes Lycia’s beautifully desolate darkwave. (On the strength of this track alone, I’m a little saddened that Secret Stairways never released anything on Projekt Records.)

“Reflections on the Lake” and “Finvarra’s Chessboard” wouldn’t sound out of place on an early Dead Can Dance album, and indeed, one half-expects to hear Lisa Gerrard’s heavenly glossolalia ring out at any moment. Finally, the choral synth arrangements on “Lammas Tide” are simple and stripped down, but that does nothing to diminish their angelic beauty.

Enchantment of the Ring was originally released in 1997 on cassette, and was digitized and released digitally via Bandcamp in 2017. As a result, you can hear tape hiss and other imperfections in these eight songs, but they only add to the effect. You get the sense of listening to a relic, a long-lost recording from another age because, in a sense, you are. A true remastering that cleaned up these songs would just break the spell that Davis casts.

Sadly, Matthew Davis committed suicide in 2011, years before dungeon synth began to emerge into the spotlight (thanks, in part, to Bandcamp features like this one). But Enchantment of the Ring, along with its follow-up, 1999’s Turning Point, are stunning works of art that elevate the dungeon synth genre to a new level, leaving behind a wonderful legacy of epic synth music.

Read more reviews of Secret Stairways.