Spend any time delving into the depths of the dungeon synth genre, and you’ll soon notice a disparity between the artists’ epic vision and scope (some dungeon synth artists have developed full mythologies for their music) and their limited sonic palette.
Dungeon synth artists often bring their epic visions to life through synthesizer compositions that evoke the MIDI soundtracks of your favorite ’80s computer RPGs. The resulting music can be thin-sounding and undeniably cheesy, as if one began composing music for elves and goblins using a cheap Casio keyboard from Kmart. But in spite of that, dungeon synth music can still prove fascinating.
Call it charm, nostalgia, a lack of pretense, or even nerdy affinity, but with an album like Thangorodrim’s Gil-Estel, I find it pretty easy to go along with the epic fantasy vision, airy synth noodling notwithstanding.
If you’re up on your Tolkien, then you’ll realize the names and titles here. “Thangorodrim” refers to the trio of volcanoes that hid Morgoth’s fortress Angband; “Gil-Estel” is a nickname for Eärendil, one of the most famous heroes in Tolkien’s Silmarillion; “Vingilótë” is the name of Eärendil’s flying ship; and so on. Essentially, Gil-Estel is a score for one of the greatest battles in Tolkien’s legendarium, that of Eärendil fighting and defeating the dragon Ancalagon.
But if none of that makes sense, and you don’t know Eärendil from Elwing, then consider this: at its best, Gil-Estel is reminiscent of early Dead Can Dance, when Lisa Gerrard and Brendan Perry were more influenced by medieval and Renaissance music. There aren’t any angelic vocals and Thangorodrim’s sonic palette is more limited, but there are moments sprinkled throughout Gil-Estel that don’t sound too far from Spleen and Ideal or Within the Realm of the Dying Sun.
Still, there are times when the songs meander and the dynamics prove wanting. By the time you reach “By the Light of the Silmaril,” you can’t help feeling like you’ve heard everything Thangorodrim can or will do with his synthesizer several times already. As a result, it’s easy for the songs to run together, making each one’s themes harder to differentiate.
It’s tempting to describe Gil-Estel as the perfect soundtrack for your next Dungeons & Dragons campaign or Renaissance Fair outing and leave it at that. (Though to be sure, it would be a fine campaign soundtrack.) But despite any flaws in execution, I still find Gil-Estel’s epic synth-work winsome.
In interviews, Thangorodrim talks about drawing out a sense of wonder and “the magic of lost secrets,” which I can certainly get on board with. And speaking as a Tolkien fan, Eärendil’s feats do deserve a tribute, so I appreciate what Thangorodrim has set out to accomplish here.