Photo: Aisha Golliher
With a chameleon-like ability to shift from country to blues to jazz to western swing, Melissa Carper writes simple, profound songs with a distinctly vintage sound palette. Her latest album, 'Ramblin' Soul,' was released on Nov. 18.
As a child, Melissa Carper liked to listen to vinyl records by lying on the living room floor with her head under the family record console. Above her, Patsy Cline, Hank Williams, Sr. and Loretta Lynn spun country standards and stories of love and loss. She liked the sad love songs best, fixating on the longing in Williams' "Wedding Bells" and Cline's "You're Stronger than Me." At 9 or 10 years old, Carper already knew she was attracted to other girls and doubted she'd ever be able to have a happy love song kind of love.
"I think a song like 'Wedding Bells Are Ringing In The Chapel' — I was already relating to it. I was thinking I'm not gonna ever be able to marry this person," Carper says. "I was taught it was wrong to to be gay."
The musical styling and simple, profound storytelling Carper heard in those early listening sessions still inspires, imbuing her own music with a distinctly vintage sound palette. Listening to Carper, it would be easy to imagine yourself in a smoke-filled juke joint or gathered around a crackling family radio broadcast of the Carter Family. But her lyrics are a rarity in country music — especially for a woman.
With an effortless grace that makes it easy to overlook, Carper writes songs about her life that neither sexualize nor aggrandize women, frequently wandering into realms typically reserved for male singers: the romance of the open road and vehicles she's owned. Carper wields a cheeky wit, packed into tight, sly turns of phrase, penning sweet, happy — and yes, sometimes sad — gay love songs, naturally bending a traditionally heteronormative genre to fit her own experience.
"She's just speaking her truth in a very matter of fact way; it's really clever the way that she makes no apologies for saying, 'this is my damn song,'" says Chris Scruggs, who's played steel, acoustic and electric guitars on Carper's most recent records — Ramblin' Soul and Daddy's Country Gold.
Country music is rooted in simple yet evocative storytelling, but it thrives on its ability to make you feel. With forthright, thoughtful lyrics, Carper seems to sit right down next to the listener and say, "Hey, I've been there too." In a raspy, lilting twang reminiscent of Lynn's and possessing a chameleon-like ability to shift from country to blues to jazz to western swing, Carper freely samples from, and combines genres to fit her purpose.
"I feel like it's hard to separate the styles from one another, they all really blend into each other and they were influenced from one another," Carper told GRAMMY.com.
Carper's fourth studio album, Ramblin' Soul, released on Nov. 18, contains a little bit of everything. Its title track, "Ramblin' Soul," is a bluesy, steel-guitar driven celebration of Carper's love for the open road, that then leads into a plucky, jazzy "Zen Buddha," which lends levity to the pain of an unrequited crush. Carper slows down for the mournful "Ain't a Day Goes By," a bittersweet, universally relatable reminiscence about a lost love – in this case, Carper's cherished, deceased, dog.
From there, Ramblin' Soul jaunts through tracks with elements of country shuffle, 1930s pop, and swampy blues rhythms, and includes a cover of the Odetta classic, "Hit or Miss," culminating in an offbeat country love song by Americana singer-songwriter Brennen Leigh, about the irreplaceable value of quality.
"It's just these are the stories I have to tell, this is my experience. And I happen to love really old music, so that's what it's gonna sound like," Carper says. "It's really nothing that I've planned out to do. It's just all my influences combined with my experiences."
Carper shrugs off the rarity of her ability to pull effortlessly from a variety of music traditions, but it so impressed Scruggs that he dubbed her "Hillbillie Holiday." "She could sing [Kitty Wells'] 'It wasn't God who made Honky Tonk Angels' and she could also sing [jazz standard] 'Here's That Rainy Day,' and not have to change her voice at all, and make both songs sound equally convincing," he says.
The dividing line between genres has long been only as clear as the marketing requires it to be. In the 1920s, when commercially recorded music started to be available to the general public, record companies created artificial genre lines to distinguish between hillbilly (country and Western) music intended for white audiences and "race records" (blues, R&B and gospel) marketed to Black listeners. But the genres continued to influence each other. For example, as Scruggs points out, B.B. King grew up listening to Grand Ole Opry broadcasts and Bob Wills rode for miles to hear Bessie Smith sing blues music.
Although upright bass is her stage instrument, for the album, Carper handed the bass strings over to revered Nashville musician and producer Dennis Crouch and focused on vocals. Crouch's bass and Scruggs' guitars join drums and percussion, piano, organ, fiddle, clarinet and rhythm and nylon string guitar, all recorded in the same room, lending the album an energetic, retro sound.
Scruggs, a Nashville-based session musician and the bass player for Marty Stuart's band, the Fabulous Superlatives, is the grandson of legendary three-finger banjo picker and early bluegrass masthead Earl Scruggs. But Scruggs credits his mother, Gail Davies, who was country music's first female producer, with his love of music.
Growing up in Nashville, Scruggs marveled at the music history around him and gravitated toward traditional-sounding music — including artists like Carper, in whose work he hears threads of that history. "A lot of my favorite artists today … sound like if you took my favorite parts of my record collection, and put it in a blender," he says.
Carper grew up in North Platte, Nebraska, where she and her brothers and sister sang gospel songs at local churches and rest homes. Her mother and brother taught her to play guitar, and in fourth grade she learned the upright bass (on which she eventually earned a college scholarship to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln). Starting around age 12, up until she left for college, Carper toured with the family country band, playing electric bass guitar on country classics on the Elks, Moose, and American Legion hall circuit.
After a couple years of college, Carper dropped out and moved to Eureka Springs, Arkansas, where she busked on the street and joined a local bar band. For the first time she met openly gay people and gradually it started to seem normal enough to her that she felt she could come out to the people closest to her.
When she was in her early 20s, Carper's dad gave her a complete set of Jimmie Rogers albums. Rogers, often considered the father of country music, recorded many traditional country songs for the first time, as well as his own, now-classic tunes like "Blue Yodel" (better known as "T is for Texas") and "In the Jailhouse Now." In his versions, Carper found simple concepts and chords she could grasp and a sound she wanted to emulate.
"I felt like I was attempting to go back to the very roots of country music to understand what the roots were," Carper said. "It wasn't something I was really thinking about so much as instinctively being obsessed with." In the course of her research, Carper discovered that many of Rogers' hits were co-written by his sister-in-law Elsie McWilliams. While she often didn't ask for credit, McWilliams left a mark on the genre and an impression on Carper.
The obsession deepened over the summer Carper spent in Alaska working in a fish factory. She listened most closely to Woody Guthrie, whose song, "Jackhammer Blues," inspired her second songwriting venture (her first song was called "Mamma Tortilla,"), "Fish Slimin' Blues," an ode to her assembly line station, where she scraped the blood from fish backbones for hours on end.
Over the years, Carper amassed credits in string and roots music bands; performing Americana music as a founding member of the Maybelles and as part of roots band Sad Daddy; started the Carper Family band; and is one half of string band duo the Buffalo Gals Band with her partner, fiddle player Rebecca Patek. She released her first solo studio album in 2015.
When she moved to Austin, Texas in 2009, Carper met fellow musician Brennen Leigh at the now defunct Somnio's Café, where they both waitressed. Through the city's tight-knit bluegrass and roots music scene, they got to know each others' music and now perform together and co-write regularly.
"The way that she strings words together, I've never heard anyone else do that. It's simple, natural country songwriting," Leigh said.
Avoiding the stereotypical song topics often expected of female songwriters, Carper's written a series of songs dedicated to loving vehicles — just not the ones you'd expect. Whereas countless country songs glorify big trucks, and more than a few pop songs have been written about sports cars, Carper chooses typically mundane vehicles: vans and one old, worn-out farm truck.
"I'll never have as strong of an attachment to any vehicle as I did to those two vans," Carper says. "And also, they're cool. The way they used to make cars, they were beautiful and cool-looking."
Under the sway of nostalgia, utilitarian transportation vehicles can assume mythic proportions because of the formative experiences they carried us through. Tapping into that power, Carper memorializes her first car, a "beautiful big brown" maxi van, which she inherited from her parents, who used it to cart around the family country band.
"A 1980 Dodge Van was my very first car / I drove her around just everywhere / Had 300,000 hard miles on that motor," Carper sings in "1980 Dodge Van," off Ramblin' Soul. "I'd hobo round with my home parked on the street / From town to town, buskin' and livin' free / Yeah my first ramblin' days / Were in the Dodge Van Mom and Daddy gave me / And I drove here proud up and down, all across the land."
"The way her mind works is very unique; I think she writes everything very thoughtfully. But there's no pretense in what she's writing," Leigh says. Because of that, "there's certain songs I just need her for."
Together Leigh and Carper wrote "Billy and Beau," about a boy and a girl who both have a crush on the same friend, Beau. To the first verses of the song, Carper added a delicate, subtly-wrenching moment when Billy, full of joy from a day at the zoo, puts his arm around Beau, "sayin' 'Beau, I sure had fun.'" The gesture conveys the full weight of awkward, shy teenage emotions complicated by confusing and (potentially) unrequited feelings.
Not only has Carper mastered the ability to tug at your heartstrings — equally willing to commiserate and celebrate — she deftly dispenses humor, too. Levity is an underused and underrated tool in country music, often squandered on cheap punchlines when it's used at all. Carper, however, employs its full capacity to deliver lines that might otherwise go unsaid.
Ramblin' Soul includes "Boxers on Backwards," an instantly lovable track which invites the listener to laugh and sing along with an inherently unsexy, potentially embarrassing moment, because of Carper's cheeky, self-deprecating delivery: "some girls like ya stinky and drunk with your drinky / But I ain't a drinkin' tonight / I'm stone cold sober and I dance like an ogre / I ain't gettin' lucky tonight."
Carper wrote the song not long after a breakup, after literally waking up with her boxers on backwards. She recalled being so deep in the backswing of the recent separation that even if someone had been interested in her, she wouldn't have noticed. It's not a moment many people would choose to venerate, but the straightforward honesty in the song's lyrics transform a private moment into a laughable, relatable story.
"So I woke up and I had my boxers on backwards. And I was like, 'Oh, how did this happen?" she says. "And I went from there, just started to put the song together – a lot of times my songs are quite literal. I'm a bit of a literal writer, like a linear writer."
Whether she's writing humor, chronicling heartbreak, relating personal experience or celebrating the joy of life, Carper's power as a songwriter comes from her ability to be whatever you want her to be. She manages to be mutable without compromising who she is as an artist, Scruggs believes.
"Nobody else in the world could have written that song," he says. "To me, that's the sign of a great songwriter, when they write in their own language. Nobody could have written 'Dang Me,' other than Roger Miller; nobody could have written "She's Not for You,' other than Willie Nelson; [and] nobody could have written "Boxers on Backwards' other than Melissa Carper."
Meet Riddy Arman: The Singer/Songwriter Creating A New Country & Folk Tradition
Graphic: The Recording Academy
Ahead of Music's Biggest Night on Feb. 5, 2023, celebrate with this immersive playlist of every Latin Field nominee at the 2023 GRAMMYs.
The Latin GRAMMYs may have just honored the genre's trailblazers in Las Vegas on Nov. 17, but the celebration will continue at the upcoming 65th GRAMMY Awards ceremony in February. There are five categories in the Latin Field of the 2023 GRAMMY nominations — and you can hear all of the nominees in one playlist.
In the Best Latin Pop Album category, are Christina Aguilera's Latin GRAMMY-winning AGUILERA will compete with Rubén Blades & Boca Livre's Pasieros, Camilo's De Adendro Pa Afuera, Fonseca's VIAJANTE, and Sebastián Yatra's Dharma+. Channeling their lively Latin roots while traversing pop landscapes, these albums all magnetically merge tradition and modernity.
Reggaeton, dancehall, hip hop, and funk coalesce in the nominated works for Best Música Urbana Album: Rauw Alejandro's Trap Cake, Vol. 2, Bad Bunny's Un Verano Sin Ti, Daddy Yankee's LEGENDADDY, Farruko's La 167, and Maluma's The Love & Sex Tape.
The genre-blending jubilation continues with the Best Latin Rock or Alternative Album category. This year's nominees are Cimafunk's El Alimento, Jorge Drexler's Tinta y Tiempo, Mon Laferte's 1940 Carmen, Gaby Moreno's Alegoría, Fito Paez's Los Años Salvajes, and Rosalía's MOTOMAMI.
For Best Regional Mexican Music Album (Including Tejano), 2021 winner Natalia Lafourcade's Un Canto por México – El Musical is up against Chiquis' Abeja Reina, Los Tigres Del Norte's La Reunión (Deluxe), Christian Nodal's EP #1 Forajido, and Marco Antonio Solís' Qué Ganas de Verte (Deluxe).
As for Best Tropical Latin Album, Marc Anthony — a two-time winner in the category — returns as a nominee with Pa'lla Voy, alongside pioneers Tito Nieves (nominated for Legendario), La Santa Cecilia (Quiero Verte Feliz), Víctor Manuelle (Lado A Lado B), Spanish Harlem Orchestra (Imágenes Latinas), and Carlos Vives (Cumbiana II).
Listen to all of the above albums in this comprehensive, 338-song playlist of the Latin music GRAMMY nominees at the 2023 GRAMMYs.
Check it out on Pandora, Spotify, Apple Music, and Amazon Music — and we'll see you at Music's Biggest Night on Sunday, Feb. 5!
2023 GRAMMY Nominations: See The Complete Nominees List
Photo: Christian Butler
"Dungeon synth is the music that you hear in your dreams," one artist says of the metal-adjacent subgenre that resurged during the pandemic. Do infighting, bad actors and Bandcamp oversaturation mean the dream will soon be over?
When Håvard Ellefsen surveys the world he helped create, he finds himself at a loss.
The irascible Norwegian artist, who records as Mortiis, can't explain why the grandiose, metal-adjacent subgenre he helped forge in the '90s, now known as "dungeon synth," "crawled out of the grave" after more than a decade of relative inertia.
Nor can he wrap his head around the plethora of sub-sub-subgenres — of highly variable degrees of sincerity and craft — that threaten to send it right back to the tomb.
"There's a thing called cozy synth? Dino synth? What the f—?" Ellefsen incredulously asks GRAMMY.com. "I mean, are you just taking the piss? If I want to f—ing get into dinosaurs, I'll talk to my 11-year-old son. He's into them and knows more about them than I do. I'll watch Jurassic Park!"
To him, dungeon synth means something — and the current crop of copycats and dilettantes saturating the internet threaten its integrity.
But what is it, exactly?
Mortiis. Photo: Ekaterina Gorbacheva
Think of the brief atmospheric interludes on black-metal albums, stretched to sprawling lengths. Think of chainmail and swordplay. Think of a half-remembered soundtrack to an MS-DOS version of The Lord of the Rings that may have never existed. (Although Ellefsen rejects this characterization, and clearly states that he has never pursued this in his own music, the younger guard interviewed for this article wholeheartedly embraces it.)
Above all, dungeon synth is profoundly transportive, deeply felt, shamelessly escapist, and sometimes uncomfortably earnest.
"For me, dungeon synth is the music that you hear in your dreams," says John Hartman, who runs Lightfall Records and performs under banners like Temple of the Fractured Light and Majesty of Oceans. "It's music that's so beautiful, you can't touch it."
While grunge reigned, the music now known as dungeon synth quietly sprang up in Europe and America alike. Bard Argol, who declines to use his real name for this article, also played a prominent role in forging this style; he founded the label Dark Age Productions in Minnesota all the way back in 1994.
But he, too, is perplexed as to where this subculture is headed.
"What the f— is this s—?" Bard Argol asks GRAMMY.com, citing the recent introduction of something called "hot dog synth." Wayfarer, who crafts immersive and expansive works as Fen Walker and Frost Clad, cites an album-length "dungeon synth" tribute to Guy Fieri, the goateed meme king of Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives fame.
"There's one guy who put out a pizza record," he adds. "It's really getting ridiculous."
To a degree, dungeon synth's old guard can roll with the trolls — or even troll them back. Bard Algol recently released a T-shirt emblazoned with a 17th-century illustration depicting a man with a peg-leg playing a keyboard. (The caption: "Uncomfy Synth.")
But on the main, they're concerned about where the music is headed. Because at press time, dungeon synth is in danger of becoming diluted beyond recognition — and, as a result, ruined.
If this renaissance falls apart completely, it will probably be due to Bandcamp's tagging system — where bad actors can call anything dungeon synth and get away with it. "The low barrier is starting to show," Hartman says.
To be fair, not all of the offshoots are provocative slop. For instance, the somewhat infamous 2019 eponymous debut by Grandma's Cottage has its defenders, on something of an ASMR level. Just as dungeon synth at its best can galvanize you to ride into battle, Grandma's Cottage can transport you to a shag rug by a crackling fire, munching ginger snaps.
But under dungeon synth's expanded umbrella, albums like that are the exception, not the rule.
"Grandma's Cottage and Diplodocus — I love both of those, but they spawned a slew of imitators that started saturating the Bandcamp tag," says Ross Major, who makes dungeon synth as Malfet and runs the Pacific Threnodies label. "It got tiresome for people to sift through so much of that to find needles in a haystack.
"The avalanche from 2018 to 2021," he concludes, "seems to have slowed."
If the current dungeon-synth wave recedes for good, it'll be a shame. Because beyond the quality of the music at its best, the community has a lot to be proud of.
During the pandemic, the visual-forward subculture (think atmospheric, fantasy-driven, and otherworldly) progressed from a steady climb to an explosion. Suddenly, a plethora of new followers were watching — and holding forth on — highly theatrical performances on Twitch.
With the world locked inside, these online "sieges" and "skirmishes" acted as a haven for all kinds of people not oriented toward the mainstream — neurotypical and neuroatypical; gender-conforming or non-.
"It feels amazing when we all get together, because we're all a bunch of nerds," Major says of post-vaccine, in-person gatherings like Northeast Dungeon Siege in Worcester, Massachusetts. "Most people that we encounter on the street are not going to 'get' what we're into. And it's awesome that it appears to be such a haven for that."
So, how can dungeon synth overcome its defects tinue to grow in a healthy and sustainable way? Maybe finding an answer begins with understanding where the music came from.
Which brings us back to Mortiis.
In 1992, Harvard Ellefsen was fired from Emperor — the symphonic black-metal royalty who went on to make masterpieces like 1994's In the Nightside Eclipse and 1997's Anthems to the Welkin at Dusk.
The next day, he walked to a music store, toted home a Roland keyboard, started making music, and began recording in early spring 1993 — thus laying the groundwork for Mortiis.
He'd planted the seeds for that sound a while ago. While Emperor was unquestionably dark, they achieved that darkness through conventional pop and rock instruments — guitar, bass and drums. Ellefsen wanted to get to that place through unorthodox methods.
This meant he bent his ear to outré acts outside the scope of metal — his biggest inspirations being Berlin School artists like Tangerine Dream and solo Klaus Schulze. Gloomier acts like Coil, Throbbing Gristle and Dead Can Dance were also in the mix. (Likewise, Bard Algol drew from a diverse array of inspirations early on, metal or otherwise — from Tangerine Dream's soundtrack to the Ridley Scott film Legend to first-wave black-metallers Venom, Bathory, and Beherit.)
"It [all] fit right in there next to Diamanda Galás or something, which was crazy, f—ing disturbing performance art," Ellefsen adds. "All of that stuff inspired me to do something that was different."
All these influences and more inspired Ellefsen to record the first Mortiis demo at his parents' house. Today, he looks back on an illustrious, three-decade career that has spanned many left-field subgenres, from dark ambient to industrial rock.
Mortiis' early output, as well as recent works like 2020's Spirit of Rebellion, typifies dungeon synth — even if the label was attached to his music retroactively. The closest he got to that tag was calling it "dark dungeon music"; a phrase he named his label after in the mid-'90s.
Around that time, fellow dungeon-synth architects Depressive Silence, Neptune Towers, and Wongraven emerged as well: Wayfarer calls acts like those "starter-pack dungeon synth." ("We all have that origin, it seems like," he says.)
Ellefsen may have a reputation as a curmudgeon among a few. But although he may aim his guns at poor Grandma and her cottage, he stops short of castigating the new guard outright.
Instead, he wonders about the well that younger musicians are drawing from.
Because Ellefsen drew from all over the dark-experimental map, the result was a nutritious mix of inspirations — which ultimately made his music satisfying and rangy.
However, "I'm not sure if the kids today are inspired by these things," he says. "Or if they're more into video games; I see that a lot." (Elsewhere, he calls the video-game-influenced component "corny.")
It's true that dungeon synth provides a suitably fantastical soundtrack to "Dark Souls" and its ilk. But for Major, this wasn't an end to itself; it came from an internal directive to "make personal music always."
"I love playing 'Skyrim,' and the 'Elder Scrolls' music is so beautiful to my ears," he says. "I like thinking about knights and fantasy, but also the deep forest and magic and the things I personally like. Maybe there'll be a few people who feel the same."
"Some people don't like the comparison to video game music, but I think it's at this rate, it's unavoidable," dungeon-synth musician Francis Roberts tells GRAMMY.com. "It's a big piece of how I got into the genre."
Gaming aside, Ellefsen questions the amount of effort that some contemporary acts put into their works, calling some of the cover art "deliberately sloppy."
"My feeling is that there's something a little tongue-in-cheek about it, even though some of the folks probably would not acknowledge that," Adam Matlock, who records dungeon synth as Erszébet, Dust Seeker and other monikers, tells GRAMMY.com. "But it gives it [that quality] where it doesn't feel cynical."
"I don't really care, because I don't make the rules," Ellefsen says about the frivolity he perceives in today's dungeon synth. "But when I started out, I was really f—ing serious."
Adam Matlock. Photo: Eliza Caldwell
There is one glaring reason why dungeon-synth neophytes might disregard their roots. Because one of the building blocks of the music was the infamous Burzum.
In the early '90s, under that name, Varg Vikernes made foundational works of early black metal, as well as minimal, meandering synthesizer music — much of the latter while serving 16 years in prison for the arson of three churches and murder of his bandmate.
But these days, Vikernes is persona non grata in the metal world — in large part due to Neo-Nazi sympathies. Despite Burzum's influence on dungeon synth's development, nobody's going to sing Vikernes' praises and stay in the scene's good graces while they're at it.
"I wasn't going to mention Burzum, because the guy is nuts," Ellefsen says. (In a recent podcast, he called him "the biggest f—ing a—hole on the planet.)
That's a positive break from the past; half-baked, parodic spinoffs, less so. As such, it's worth highlighting artists who retrieve value from the past while discarding its refuse — and maintain bound to tradition without being beholden to it.
Can dungeon synth's endless permutations come off as intimidating? That's natural, Wayfarer says, given the nature of its taxonomy.
"How many subgenres are there in metal? It goes on for infinity," he says. "You have all the -cores, and you have all the 'blackeneds'… it only makes sense that something born out of metal has a million subgenres."
These designations aside, what are the cornerstones of dungeon synth, past and present? Rather than fruitlessly search for the good stuff in a sea of spam, it's helpful to let the leading musicians offer some gateways.
Among Wayfarer's cornerstones of the form — from any era — are the Torchlight's supremely atmospheric The Long Quest and Guild of Lore's Storm Haven. Cernunnos Woods' Awaken the Empire of Dark Wood is "a very early release — very cool stuff." Casket of Dreams' Dragons of Autumn Twilight is "just fantastic — a big influence on me as well."
For Hartman, the quintessential dungeon-synth album is Spheres of Time by Solanum. "There is not a release that encapsulates that feeling of nostalgia, dreaminess and being in another world than Spheres of Time," he says. He also praises Fen Walker for "incorporating tribal and psychedelic elements."
"I always connect the best to the music my friends make, so it's hard for me to be very objective," Major says. That said, he's digging the Virginian artist Vaelastrasz; Vale Minstrel, who has a "more upbeat, medieval-bard-sounding style"; and Ulk, a project from the Netherlands on Gondolin Records.
"They're all themed around tortoises," Major describes of Ulk's releases. "But there's a combination. It's not terribly dark. It is lo-fi, but the playing and composition are very masterful. It's almost like if Claude Debussy had a Casio keyboard and an eight-track."
"It sounds egotistical, but I would say my own stuff was one of the more defining things of the era," Bard Algol says. To this end, he also cites releases by Valor, Equitant and the Soil Bleeds Black.
Sometimes, it can seem miraculous that dungeon synth ever came back at all — much less became a sensation in the 2020s.
"The impression I get is that it was like some kind of old vampire that got stabbed and f—ing beheaded, and it's just been laying rotting for 25 years," Ellefsen says. "Now, it's back, crawling back out of the f—ing rotten ground, foggy and s—."
To this progenitor of the form, what's the best way to keep it going in a pizza-less, Fieri-less form — one with at least some fidelity to its roots? What would he tell a young person who loves this music, has applied a harpsichord patch to their microKORG, and wants to make dungeon synth themselves?
"The first thing I would say is that they don't have to use the harpsichord." Ellefsen continues, while clarifying that he's incorporated the sound into some of his work. "There's a lot of: Let's go to the medieval fair now and get dressed up and drink mead… there are so many other ways to create atmospheric music."
To Hartman, preserving the integrity of the form doesn't mean inflexible devotion to a predetermined aesthetic; it just means holding music to a certain standard. "Dungeon synth needs to start guarding its gate a little bit tighter — not a lot tighter, but a little bit tighter," he says. "It needs to be very honest and even helpful with its criticism of things."
This also might mean expanding the boundaries of dungeon synth — in a way that doesn't lead to trollish offshoots that uncontrollably replicate like cancer cells.
He brings up his Temple of the Fractured Light album called PSYOP Theory, about UFOs, the pyramid's eye, and other conspiratorial topics. "Then, someone was like, 'Oh man, conspiracy synth!' I'm interested!'" Hartman says. "No, this is not a new thing. This is not a new genre. Not everything needs 'synth' strapped to it like a rocket."
Nonetheless, he believes these adjustments alone won't staunch the bleeding: "I think the cat's out of the bag," Hartman says.
As several artists concede, attitudes within this very online community could also use some work — not only in tamping down the infighting inherent to every subculture, but being honest with oneself and others regarding the quality of the output.
"You don't really get any sort of honest criticism about your music. It's kind of passive-aggressive, in a way," Wayfarer says. Too often, he said he sends his works to others, and is met with "It's perfect."
"No, I'm asking you because I want you to tell me, 'Yo, that's off-time. That doesn't sound good. That lead's garbage.'" he continues. "I want to crystallize my work, and I need fresh ears to make that happen." He extends this frustration to dungeon-synth blogs, which too often simply ignore records they don't like rather than offering constructive criticism.
The elephant in the room comes up once again — albeit abstractly.
"It's the endless clash over ideology, national-socialist junk. And you think it's a no-brainer." Wayfarer says. "But it's more nuanced than that: OK, this album isn't about Nazis. It's about forests and it's about castles and vampires and mystery and whatever," he adds. "But the dudes making this music are total racist a—holes."
"We don't want your Nazi stuff in our music scene," Wayfarer adds, with a spirited "F— off."
Francis Roberts. Photo: Jaz Diaz
All this dissonance aside, there are encouraging signs that dungeon synth can continue to grow in a positive manner. For instance, Thorsten Quaeschning — Edgar Froese's appointed successor at the helm of German electronic pioneers Tangerine Dream — headlined the last Dungeon Siege streaming event.
"He does these improvisational sets, and apparently, he went on a deep dive and listened to a bunch of dungeon synth beforehand," Major notes. "And you could tell, because it was like Tangerine Dream with martial overdones. There were moments that sounded like timpani strikes, and little folkish melodies. It was so awesome."
Roberts wonders if this sort of crossover could extend all the way into the mainstream. Of all artists, Lil Nas X comes to mind.
"You hear all kinds of incredible songs built from samples you wouldn't expect. 'Old Town Road' is a great example of that — some obscure Nine Inch Nails B-side turned into the pop anthem of the decade," he says. "I could see something like that happening, where someone is making dungeon synth, and one of their friends is making beats for pop artists, and then one of those people blows up."
Although, he concedes, "that would probably be infuriating for the people that make this stuff."
It's worth noting that the Recording Academy recently expanded the GRAMMYs' Best New Age Album category into Best New Age, Ambient Or Chant Album, which could provide a platform for dungeon synth, or adjacent genres, to flourish on the world stage.
But whether or not that mainstream leap transpires, the fate of dungeon synth will rest on the shoulders of artists who bring creativity, flair, and emotional vulnerability to their craft.
Ellefsen, for one, is still evolving his craft and performing live, and supporting emerging dungeon-synth talent along the way.
This has led to wonderfully surreal moments, like Mortiis and Malfet packing out the Graduate, a now-defunct college bar in San Luis Obispo, a tiny college town off the 101 on the Central Coast of California.
And after lockdowns receded, Malfet performed in an even wilder venue for dungeon synth: the Raconteur Room, a tiny craft-beer-and-music joint in adjacent, rural Atascadero, where you'd usually hear the pluck of a capoed Ovation acoustic guitar.
Among the 50 or 60 attendees were Major's oldest friends — ones who had zero interest in, or awareness of, this niche, fantasy world. But after his performance, the folks who wouldn't know Old Tower from Erang were sold.
"It's a folk-rock bar. It's Atascadero," Major recalls in awe. "But when I finished, they were chanting: 'Dungeon synth! Dungeon synth! Dungeon synth! Encore!'"
"And I played an encore," he says.
Like Turnstile And Code Orange? 10 More Bands Expanding The Boundaries Of Hardcore
Photo: Annabel Mehren
"I'm trying to open myself up enough to see what's inside me," Jeff Tweedy says about Wilco’s 'Cruel Country.' "I'm just full of country songs and folk songs."
With their 1994 debut album, A.M., Wilco accrued the "country" genre tag; for their latest album, they teased a full-chested embrace of it. "Wilco goes Country!" they announced; after famously swerving around the genre for almost 30 years with drone sculptures, Dadaist poeticism and motorik meltdowns, it was time to drink straight from the bottle, as it were.
But if you think about this multifarious band for a few moments, it was obvious that Cruel Country wouldn't — couldn't — have been as one-note as Wilco implied it would be.
The tongue-in-cheek lead single, "Falling Apart (Right Now)," offered zero foreshadowing of the aerodynamic suite "Bird Without a Tail / Base of my Skull." Or the heart-in-throat ballad "The Universe," which unfurls into the celestial "Many Worlds." Or the poppy "Hearts Hard to Find" — which is practically destined to remain in setlists as a swoony sing-along, on par with classics like "California Stars."
No, Cruel Country, which was released May 27, isn't strictly a country album — it adheres to the form more as a North Star than as a hard-and-fast requisite. What binds these songs more profoundly than their stylistic conceit is Jeff Tweedy's songwriting — which frequently explores how seemingly opposed human emotions commingle and inform each other.
"My experience of my own emotions is that they all interact," Tweedy tells GRAMMY.com over the phone. "They aren't individual, isolated things that you experience one at a time, and I think that's a really beautiful thing about being alive."
Hence, a song like "Tonight's the Day.""Between good and bad/ And what is true/ Between happy and sad/ I choose you," Tweedy sings: "Between hard and easy/ Surrender and escape/I heard you say/ There is no way/ It's the only way." Meanwhile, drummer Glenn Kotche plays pensively — like he's chewing on a heavy thought, weighing two equal and opposing truths.
Because of how Tweedy's brain works, he can tread a seemingly limitless breadth of philosophical territory — like the vast American horizons evoked in Cruel Country.
As a lifelong student of folk and country music dating back to pre-Wilco band Uncle Tupelo (and before), Tweedy's songs seem to fill the air, ground and water; every leaf he turns over might reveal a new tune, however strange and oblong.
"I do look at the act of writing songs as discovery as much as composition," Tweedy reflects. "It's like finding stones on the beach or something. They all have a certain value, if you're into looking at them… I get into a certain state of mind, and think to myself: I wonder what song I'm going to sing today."
Whatever might follow Cruel Country is bound to be interesting, at the very least. Comparing Wilco’s upcoming material to the new album, he says it's like "somebody dropped a weird shape into the desert." (The monolith from 2001 comes to mind — an unexpected, futuristic structure in what was thought to be a vast, unbroken plain.)
Until then, this double album, which is loosely conceptualized around the subject of America, is worth repeated communion — every spin of its commentary on messy democracy, westward expansion and philosophical contradiction will reveal something new. Especially when Cruel Country deals with human emotions — which, like the United States, can't be easily compartmentalized.
GRAMMY.com caught up with Tweedy about the process behind writing and recording Cruel Country and why he saw a rare form of communal love in lockdown-era society.
He also discussed Wilco's recent triage of surprise sets at Carol's Pub in Chicago, the band's hometown, where they played cuts from the album as well as Americana classics.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
How was the Carol's Pub show? Did it engender a different sort of satisfaction than a typical Wilco show?
[Chuckles] It was really awesome. A fun, fun night.
We love playing, and we love getting to play in these beautiful theaters and festival stages and all the different places we get to play. But we very, very rarely get to play the way I think music was intended to be heard, you know?
The shows that mean the most to me in my life have been the shows I've seen in small clubs — just having that visceral connection, and being able to hear the instruments coming off the stage, and not just through the PA. There's just nothing like that kind of connection.
You can make a communal experience in any room, and you can make a big spectacle — arena shows, everything has their place, and music is an incredible force for good. But, in my opinion, nothing ever sounds quite as good as the way it sounds in a small room.
The sheer capacity of a giant venue might lend itself to a sort of passivity between the artist and crowd. I'm sure you get to touch more of an active force in a smaller room.
Yeah. I mean, the stage is low. You're almost eye-to-eye with the audience. I feel like you can hear people listening in a different way. The movement in the audience becomes more a part of how the band's playing. It's just a much more immediate give-and-take, I think.
Can you touch on some of the covers you performed, starting with Bob Dylan's "Tonight I'll Be Staying Here With You"? What does that tune mean to you guys?
I've done that song a couple of times; I opened up a couple of acoustic shows with it one time. The Tweedy band — when I do shows with [sons] Spencer and Sammy, and our friends — we've done it maybe once or twice.
I just love the way it opens up a set. This message of "Tonight I'll Be Staying Here With You" is, obviously, not what the song's about, but it's a nice thing to say to an audience. I think it's a nice introduction to a set.
How about the Tom T. Hall song "That's How I Got to Memphis"?
[Chuckles] That's just a great song. Something we just started playing in our dressing-room jam room, so we just threw it in the set.
One more: the Grateful Dead's "U.S. Blues," which I'm actually not that familiar with.
Deadheads are sure familiar with it. Boy, it really highlights and underlines the people in the audience who have that vocabulary [laughs]. When we play that song, it's amazing. There's a fair amount of crossover with our fans, it seems like.
When we kicked into that song the first time we did it, in an encore, I don't know if I've ever seen a reaction like that from such a sizable portion from the audience.
[Wilco guitarist] Nels [Cline] and I played a show with Phil Lesh and Friends; we were invited to do this festival set with them in Chicago. They wanted me to sing some Dead songs, and I picked a few that I felt like I could do well. That was one of them.
And then, when we got back to the Wilco tour, Nels and I were playing it in the dressing room again. It just sounded like something that fit in with the lyrics of Cruel Country; it has a similar commentary on the brokenness of the community.
And musically, it felt right in our wheelhouse, so we just kept playing it. It's fun.
To get into Cruel Country, I love that you waited months to play this show and open up to the press a little bit. Was this in an effort to let fans sit with the album for a while, to give it some space?
I think it's more just the reality of how Wilco operates. We're not super-concerned with album cycles. We [didn't] have the physical record to sell, or anything like that. We wanted to put the record out at our festival [Solid Sound], so we did it digitally.
It's probably not the best business decision, but it's the best artistic decision to just have these new songs and new material to play, and have people know what it is, because we like playing it.
We have another release this year; that's an archival release. We've done some stuff with that, but mostly, we're just out playing the songs that fit in with what we feel like playing right now.
When I watched you do an interview on camera at the Loft a few years ago, you were talking about how human emotions can't be neatly compartmentalized — you can be sad-hopeful, or pensive-hopeful, or happy-concerned.
It seems like Cruel Country's songs mutually gnaw at these nuanced psychological concepts. Was that something you were thinking about during the writing process? Is that partly why they swim in the same tank?
Well, I certainly think it's part of a broader philosophy of making music that feels honest to me. It generally involves blurring the lines a little bit in that regard; a song that's entirely joyous generally feels even more joyous to me if there's a little bit of darkness allowed into it — just as a reminder, or something.
I think that's the way life works. My experience of my own emotions is that they all interact. They aren't individual, isolated things that you experience one at a time, and I think that's a really beautiful thing about being alive. You can have a thought of mortality at the same time you're having a hot dog at a baseball game. [Laughs]
Can you talk about the song "Ambulance" a little bit? It's presented as this harrowing, autobiographical story, but I'm reluctant to take that at face value. I'd rather ask you about it.
Well, it's nothing autobiographical. Certainly, not literally. I was just trying to intuit a different scenario where there's some redemption for all of us. As a person that's an addict and in recovery, I think a lot about all the different paths that people take to getting healthier, and in some cases, I'm really relieved and grateful that I didn't experience more suffering.
At the same time, I'm pretty sure I suffered enough, [laughs] you know?
I'm not sure if this is intentional, but to me, "All Across the World" so succinctly captures the post-pandemic, post-Trump presidency milieu. So many people I deal with are trying to be functional and happy and return to normalcy, but there's a shell-shocked look in their eyes. Is that in the ballpark of what you were going for?
I mean, the way I feel is that one of the things everyone is really struggling with is being immediately presented with the world's suffering upon requesting it. At any given moment during any day, we have more access to the lives and struggles of the globe, and the fears and concerns of everybody, everywhere.
Modern social media has provided us with what conceivably could be a really good thing — that we're more tuned in to each other in a way that you hope would present an opportunity to unite in some common understanding that we're all doing our best, and we're all pointing toward the future with the hope that it's better — or good.
So far, we haven't really evolved to that. The thing I think we have evolved to is that it's emotionally overwhelming, and most people have a difficult time processing all of that. Instead of talking about solutions and ways to problem-solve all of this suffering and awareness of global concerns, it's much easier to find people to blame.
That seems to be where we're stuck. So, in my mind, that song is kind of about, at the same time, being aware of all the things that I'm glad that I'm not experiencing. For example: just say a hurricane — whatever it is. Being aware of it, and finding some negativity to add to it doesn't help anyone.
It's like "putting your oxygen mask on, first thing" — that's a pretty succinct analogy to the way I think you kind of have to live right now.
I think it's important to converge your ability to be inspired, your ability to be joyous, and your ability to give a beautiful thing to the world, and hope for the best — and do everything you can to alleviate the suffering that you can have an immediate impact on.
I'm really moved by "The Universe." The impression I get is that it would seem it would take your whole life to write that song. What led you to write that one?
Not to give you a super-long answer, again, for a song that's, like, three minutes long. I don't know if all of what I just said is contained in "All Across the World," but that's what the thought process is that leads to a song like that. Same thing for "The Universe" and "Many Worlds."
At the beginning of the pandemic, one of the things that made me a little hopeful was the idea that, in a really fractured society that doesn't tend to share a lot of experiences across the board, we were all going through something similar. At least there was a similar fear being expressed around the world.
I think the opportunity was mostly squandered by leaders around the world not acknowledging it. Some places did better than others. But I felt moved by the idea that movie stars and presidents and dishwashers and trash collectors — everyone across the board — was basically navigating this one topic.
Whereas, for most of my life, I don't remember there being a single topic that you could guarantee everyone was at least somewhat aware of. It just underlined and highlighted a belief that we've maybe all expressed at some point — that we're all kind of in this together.
That was just made completely visible in that moment — in these moments that are still continuing, I guess, but it's definitely not the way it was at the beginning.
Probably, the thing that probably most inspired it was: early in the pandemic, when things were really shut down, I took a drive with my kids, and the highways were completely empty around Chicago. It seemed like a really powerful moment of love. There was enough concern for each other that people were actually adhering to these public health guidelines.
It wasn't like, "Oh my god; everyone's being controlled by the government." It was more like, "OK, everybody gets it — at least enough to know this is what needs to be done right now." I found that really beautiful.
"Story to Tell" seems to exist hand-in-hand with "Darkness is Cheap," in the sense that it deals with notions of sticky narratives, of gripping tales, of plundering or killing yourself to be legendary. Which is obviously so pervasive in rock 'n' roll lore. What were you trying to impart with that first one?
I think we hear about it a lot in the art and music worlds, because of the pervasiveness around tortured artists and creators and the connection between that type of suffering and creativity.
But I don't think that there's any market being cornered by [laughs] a musician on that particular topic, because I know a lot of people who don't make songs or art in my life that have caused themselves needless suffering — almost as a way to create what they feel like is a real life. To not feel numb or alienated.
I think at one point, when I was younger, it did feel like I wouldn't have anything to write about of value to anybody if I wasn't in pain. And that's nonsense, and everybody should know it's nonsense.
The last one I want to touch on is "Country Song Upside-down." The melody just seems to fall out of your guitar and voice, and it comports with what I imagine the Cruel Country sessions were like — just grabbing country songs out of the air.
We have a place in Michigan that's a little bit more secluded in the woods. We call it "the cabin." That's what that song makes me think of.
I do look at the act of writing songs as discovery as much as composition. In fact, I'm much more comfortable with the idea — not that I'm opening myself up as a conduit to the universe or something like that; I don't necessarily believe in that.
I just think that I'm trying to open myself up enough to see what's inside me, clearly. To discover something I didn't know I wanted to say. And that's just what I'm full of. [Laughs] I'm just full of country songs and folk songs.
It's what I've listened to the most in my life, or something. I'm not tired of them, either. It's like finding stones on the beach or something. They all have a certain value, if you're into looking at them, you know? That's how I feel.
It's a much less judging state of mind — just pretty thrilled at the idea that, to keep with the analogy, that maybe I'm going to find a really good, flat stone to toss out on the lake.
Wilco. Photo: Anton Coene
Stepping away from your songwriting a little bit, can you talk about your bandmates' MVP moments on Cruel Country? I think of Glenn on "Tonight's the Day"; I can't imagine any other drum part on the song than the one he played.
Oh, yeah. That, and I think Pat really has a lot of breakout moments on this record, where he gets to play more guitar than I think he's ever played on a Wilco record. It just colors the whole record in a really beautiful way.
It's like a tapestry, or something — the way he and Nels started figuring out how to interact with each other. It's like an audible commune, you know? [Chuckles]
The band as a whole is really visible on this record, or really audible — partially, or mostly, because of the nature of recording it all in the same room, at the same time. We've made a lot of records in a lot of different ways, but it's been a while since we've done that.
We've played a lot of music together since the last time we did it, and that's what I hear when I hear this record.
People think of musicians and bands as being these static things — they got to a certain point where they were good enough to be heard and put out records. The way I look at it, almost all the bands and musicians I'm interested in and care about feel like they never quite got there — and they continue to grow, and continue to aspire to find out more of what it is they're capable of.
It's along the same lines as the songwriting concepts I was discussing. It's really, really gratifying to feel like you got a little bit better at something. And as a band, it's really gratifying to feel like we made something that we very, very profoundly, deeply know we couldn't have made five years ago, without all the miles that we've traveled together in between.
What can you reveal about the eventual follow-up to Cruel Country?
I don't know if the style of recording is going to change that much, but the types of songs — it's a collection of songs that really wouldn't fit into the Cruel Country landscape.
Maybe they would! They'll definitely fit in live. But it's going to be more like somebody dropped a weird shape into the desert, or something.
It's the furthest-out, striving kind of material for the band — striving for a new shape, striving for something that's exciting to us, that we don't feel like we've heard before. Definitely, something we don't think we heard ourselves play before.
28 Essential Songs By Wilco Ahead Of Their New Album Cruel Country
Graphic: The Recording Academy
Celebrate Americana's best and brightest ahead of Music's Big Night on Feb. 5, 2023 with this bountiful playlist of every American Roots Music nominee at the 2023 GRAMMYs.
With the 2023 GRAMMY nominations list comes a cross-section of the most luminous, moving and artistically profound musical works of the year — and a major portion of them come from the Americana community.
For an example of how this sphere contributed to the musical fabric of the year, look no further than the tracks nominated for a GRAMMY for Best Americana Performance — a brand new GRAMMY category being introduced in 2023.
Eric Alexandrakis' "Silver Moon (A Tribute to Michael Nesmith)" is a sumptuous tribute to the undersung talents of the late Monkee. Asleep at the Wheel's pretentiousness-lampooning "There You Go Again" — featuring Lyle Lovett — is loping, rickety fun. Blind Boys of Alabama's "The Message," featuring classical-meets-hip-hop duo Black Violin, is a reminder that God remains in control.
Rounding out the list are "You And Me on The Block," by acclaimed singer/songwriter Brandi Carlile and indie-pop band Lucius, which seems to ripple in the breeze like a wheatfield; and blues-rock great Bonnie Raitt's "Made Up Mind," which deftly traces the dissolution of a relationship.
Beyond that, there are eight American Roots Music categories at the 2023 GRAMMYs: Best American Roots Performance, Best American Roots Song, Best Americana Album, Best Bluegrass Album, Best Traditional Blues Album, Best Contemporary Blues Album, Best Folk Album, and Best Regional Roots Music Album.
Plus, "You And Me on The Block" has been nominated for a GRAMMY for Record Of The Year, Carlile's In These Silent Days is represented in the Album Of The Year category, Raitt's Just Like That is up for a GRAMMY for Song of The Year, and Molly Tuttle is nominated for a GRAMMY for Best New Artist — and that's just the General Field.
Hear all those artists and more in this expansive playlist documenting the American Roots Music GRAMMY nominees at the 2023 GRAMMYs.
Check it out on Pandora, Spotify, Apple Music, and Amazon Music — and we'll see you at Music's Biggest Night on Sunday, Feb. 5!
2023 GRAMMY Nominations: See The Complete Nominees List
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