I first became aware of the fascinating genre of Dungeon Synth about a year ago, and since then I’ve been selectively picking up a release here and there. When I recently stumbled across Mortuary Chapter’s Three Levels of Torment, I immediately knew that it would be something fresh and divergent, yet it would still carry a level of familiarity.
After I spent some time researching, I now feel comfortable in reporting that the cover appears to depict Germany’s Neuschwanstein Castle; a nineteenth century palace in the Romanesque Revival style that is built upon a hilltop above the village of Hohenschwangau in southwest Bavaria. Curiously, I did not find a single image in my search that shows the palace from this vantage point, which leads me to believe that it’s possible that the artist took the photo themselves, and then manipulated the final image. The cover is striking; fitting of the music contained therein; it’s reminiscent of the covers of classic black metal albums such as Dimmu Borgir’s 1994 album For All Tid, or perhaps it functions as a spiritual precursor to the image on Burzum’s 1993 EP Aske.
Although this is a digital version, the cover is presented in a three-panel J-card format, which leads me to believe that Mortuary Chapter has a clear idea of what this release should be. I have an immense appreciation for an artist that knows precisely what they want even before the final product comes to fruition. This is all to say that I was pulled in: monochromatic art, simplicity; a link to albums from a different time and place. Traditional Old English font; pre-planning. Some may find a cliché here; I find an homage. After all, there’s a reason that the cover for the first album in my trilogy is heavily inspired by the album covers of Genocide Organ.
Three Levels of Torment contains just three short tracks. This seems to be Mortuary Chapter’s first release, so this may be a demo of sorts, or a compact EP. The first track, entitled The Entrance, roars to life with a descending crescendo of classic synthesizer sound design. Slightly overdriven, and awash in a chorus or vibrato effect, I have no trouble believing that these tones may be emanating from a Moog or Sequential Circuits machine. There’s also a cycling distortion throughout the track that serves both as a background and a lead; adding depth and interest. If the straightforward chord progression was the brain, then the murky, mysterious lead line would be the internal monologue. I feel at home here; I imagine walking through the trees surrounding Neuschwanstein Castle at dusk, gazing up at its peaks and towers, biding my time before returning to the keep for the night. I wonder if the title refers to the gatehouse proper, or if there is a more sinister or metaphorical story here, as the next track is called…
The Morgue, which begins with an ominous, four-note progression that could easily be the soundtrack to a nightmare. Mortuary Chapter is telling a story here, and as listeners, we’re now deeply engrossed in it. This track is the longest on the release, clocking in at just shy of three minutes, and at about the halfway point there is a pause and hold, and then the octave shifts higher while remaining in a minor key, and the two synth tracks can be heard more clearly. There is the deeper, overdriven bass, coupled with the shimmer of the lead, which has a dark ambient texture to it. As with The Entrance, there is a vibrato effect here as well, which is none more apparent than when the track shifts into its final leg. This is the abysmal counterpart to the tracks opening; same note progression, lowest pitch. My ears also detect just the slightest slowing of the tempo as well, and now we’re being led into…
Hell, the final track, and the first thing to strike into my mind is Dante’s Inferno, and the Latin inscription at the gates of Hell which reads “Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch’intrate,” or “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.” This is again a four-note progression, descending a minor scale with each short measure; it is the passage of a dark carnival before the listener’s ears. The tempo has quickened, and the watery ambience in the background is the real workhouse of the track, as the rapid tonal shifts feel frantic and displeasing, but in a good way. I’m not sure if I’m in a pitch-black dungeon, or if I’m being ferried by Charon across the river Styx. One may only hope that they’ve remembered to pack an obol or two to pay this ancient ferryman, less one be cursed to wander these evil shores for a lifetime.
Tonally speaking, there isn’t a lot of variation on Three Levels of Torment, and I’m not sure that there needs to be. I appreciate the simplicity; using one tone to coax out multiple sounds and rhythms; telling this wayward story through short bursts of scintillating ambience and classic, overdriven synthesizer timbre. If anything, I wish this release was longer; it’s just as I become comfortable that my stride is rapidly cut off due to the short track lengths; though to be certain, this does leave me wanting more. I took a journey to Hell with Mortuary Chapter, much like Dante followed Virgil, and I came out unscathed, but not unchanged.
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