It feels like far longer than three years since Sombre Arcane released their self-titled demo, such is how much the world has changed in that time – not only in the more obvious ways (hi, COVID!), but within dungeon synth. The genre is going through a very real resurgence in popularity and experimentation in the past few years (at least, by underground standards), and so Sombre Arcane’s full debut was quite highly anticipated. Thankfully, Realmsong does not disappoint – if anything, it is a prime example of the quality and variety of dungeon synth in 2021, and is one of the genre’s best releases this year.
On the whole, Realmsong draws strongly from the ‘fantasy ambient’ side of dungeon synth. There’s a brightness and sense of adventure throughout, as if it could be the soundtrack to a lost 90’s video game or Dungeons & Dragons session. There’s a sense of wonder and majesty to it, with opener ‘The Time-Space Conundrum’ and second track ‘Rhythm of the Saintless’ forming a thematic one-two of grand cosmic mystery and old-fashioned adventure, delving into dungeons to find lost artifacts and forbidden treasure. Whilst there’s a strong sense of mood and atmosphere throughout, thanks to the elements that underpin the individual songs (whether that be bass choirs, strings, and surprisingly deft percussion), the real highlight of Realmsong are the melodies. It’s these which give the album such a sense of momentum and drive, and contribute so strongly to the magic of the music.
That description is chosen carefully, because Realmsong does feel magical. There’s a thin line between dungeon synth which is atmospheric and that which is transportive, and Realmsong falls into the latter category more often than not. It feels like music of a different world and time, far removed from day-to-day concerns. Whilst there are nods in the song titles to established worlds, especially the Forgotten Realms Dungeons & Dragons setting – such as ‘Kelthas the Dread’ and ‘Return from Dragonspear’ – Realmsong has the feel of a home-brew campaign and story, as if Sombre Arcane have an established place and characters and putting their own spin on it. This is important, because it means that the references aren’t at all important to appreciate what Realmsong does – the songs could all be untitled, but the way they (and the album as a whole) are structured means that they’d still have the same sense of mystery, adventure, and narrative. It makes Realmsong an album to escape to, as it transports you away from your day-to-day world and worries for its duration.
It’s also quite remarkable how much Realmsong fits into its run-time of just shy of an hour. There is the fantasy ambient side of dungeon synth, with its choirs and mandolins and tavern ambience (best exemplified by ‘Moon Sphere of the Dancing Court’); harsher soundscapes of dread (‘Kelthas the Dread’); retro-synths and danceable rhythms (album highlight ‘Devilry of Inertia’); and delightful melodies that ascend to the stars (‘Jebrin’s Ride Home’). It makes Realmsong a tour-de-force of many different styles of modern dungeon synth, whilst always feeling cohesive and flowing, which is no small achievement. There’s a lot here that fans of the genre will delight in, whilst also having an accessible edge that makes it a prime entry point for those less well-versed in dungeon synth.
Realmsong is out now and can be ordered here.
Words: Stuart Wain