Wanderers and hermits

WAELTAJA: Heremite

Release year: 2023
Label: Misantropia Records

Dungeon synth. Now there’s a genre so easy to hate it’s almost ridiculous. It’s kind of like the goofy, nerdy cousin of black metal, taking all the silliest and nerdiest elements from it and doing away with anything tough or cool or – well – likeable. And, dagnabit, the people into it seem to be conscious of this and even like that about it. Now I never!

And it’s not only that. It’s a genre sprung from what those of us into black metal in the late 90’s and early noughties tended to look upon as a blight: the cheesy, cheap synth side-projects of black metal artists. Sure, Burzum’s Hlidskjalf is a half-decent synth album and maybe (just maybe) Mortiis didn’t entirely suck, but usually, when you spotted “synth side project of X from Y” on a distro list, you knew to steer the fuck away and buy something – basically, anything! – else. So it’s a genre basically born under bad stars.

Which is why Finnish Waeltaja’s umpteenth album is a delight. It’s a dungeon synth album which not only does not suck, but makes a strong case for there actually being a good genre buried somewhere beneath the bad name of dungeon synth. I mean, all of the above considered, I know a lot of dungeon synth is miles away from the crude one-finger “atmospherics” of old, but I still haven’t come across much I can honestly say I liked. Eremite – I do.

Basically, Eremite is stereotypical dungeon synth. If you absolutely break out in hives over the mere thought of dungeon synth, this is not the album for you. This means the album is dominated by a form of minimalism, dragging out it’s in themselves pretty simplistic compositions to almost ludicrous lengths. Not a single track on the album is under 13 minutes long. There’s not a whole lot in terms of dramatic arches or evolution in the tracks. And of course, the whole thing sounds incredibly synthesized: going for an absolutely classic sound for the genre, Waeltaja don’t even try to make the instruments sound real, or natural, or anything but something that comes out of a synthesizer.

The kicker is that Waeltaja takes this basic blueprint, and crafts something out of it with actual skill. The soundscapes are lush, warm, harmonious and soothing. Sampled wind sounds and birdsong only serve to heighten this sense of peace and serenity. Whilst the compositions are standard fare in the genre, with slowly evolving layers of synths more than actual melodies, and with a definite penchant for the understated and the minimalist, Waeltaja makes things interesting with skilled use of small details. Here and there, from time to time, Heremite throws in some engaging nuance or detail to keep the listener from getting bored. Overall, in a genre that’s less about complex compositions or technical proficiency with instruments, and more about taking essentially simple things and keeping them interesting, Waeltaja does an outstanding job.

Atmospherically (as alluded above), Heremite focuses on calm, serene and peaceful soundscapes. This is the music of majestic, still forests, mighty mountains, gurgling forest streams and vast, windswept plains. Thoughts of dungeons, monsters and epic castles belong somewhere else. Back in the days mentioned above, there was no “dungeon synth”, it was just called “dark ambient” – but there’s nothing particularly dark on Heremite.

In a nutshell, in a genre burdened by rather despised foundations, and oversaturated by people taking the cheap and easy route, Heremite is a definite point of light. It sounds good, it has beautiful atmospheres, and it bears listening to. Despite taking the shape of an even stereotypical dungeon synth album, it rises head and shoulders above much of the competition.

This kind of makes me want to start binging on dungeon synth. Sadly, putting on almost any random dungeon synth album instantly makes any such desires vanish. So here’s an open call to any and all fans of the genre: if you consider some album to be the equal of, or even superior to this one – let me know.

Visit Waeltaja on their official webshop, or Facebook

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