Interview: Lunar Cult

When I started the Twitter account for this site, I followed other metal media, writers, bands, labels and PR agencies so that I had more of an ear to the ground and could see what everyone else was doing. One of the outlets I found early on was Astral Noize, who, with a focus on giving a voice to underground bands and being vocally antifascist, attracted my attention. Through fantastic writing they kept it.

One of the writers from AN I followed was Stuart Wain, or SW as they are known on Twitter. Their musical outlet, Lunar Cult fuses dungeon synth with chiptune – two genres I am admittedly clueless about. However, the atmosphere created on 2021’s Death Cannot Contain You intrigued me. With the imminent release of the follow-up Into Unknown Darkness, I spoke with SW to dig into his writing process and influences.

ACT: What was your entry to dungeon synth? Feel free to expand on early chiptune that you enjoyed too.

SW: Like a lot of people, I was introduced to dungeon synth via black metal, due largely to the dungeon synth albums Mortiis released after leaving Emperor. But it never really clicked with me for a long time – I’m still not sure exactly why.

A few releases helped me get into the genre though, such as The Way to Avalon by Malfet (which was sent to me for review at my old blog) and Should We Have Tried? by Puddleglum. They had a cleaner, less bombastic sound than most dungeon synth I’d heard until that point, making it easier for me to sink into their atmospheres, which to me are somewhere between forest ambience and video game soundtracks.

Plight by Jenn Taiga was a big one, too, as it led to me exploring the long history of dungeon synth and its roots in prog and kraut rock, rather than the more controversial side of 90’s black metal.

The misconception that dungeon synth is rooted in the albums a certain murderous neo-fascist dickhead released while in prison is one that a certain type of black metal and dungeon synth fan likes to push, as it makes dungeon synth seem like “their” genre and helps push other people who don’t share their ideologies out of the scene, and it’s one that is completely false.

ACT: We talked before about how you primarily use browser-based tools to compose. Can you expand on this and talk about your writing and production process? 

SW: It’s all a happy accident, really. I’d got home late one night from a gig, but still felt energised and wanted to do something productive. I went looking online for free music-making programmes, and stumbled upon Beepbox, a simple browser-based chiptune programme. I played about with it, made some melodies through trial and error, and over time built them up to the first two Lunar Cult releases (Nocturnal Offerings and Upon What Came Before).

I late came across Jummbox, which is an expanded version of Beepbox with more instrument and channel settings etc., which is what I started using from Ageless Defiance onward. It’s an incredibly intuitive programme to use, but also with enough depth that you can do some more advanced things if you want to – but, importantly, not too advanced.

I’ve tried using a few other programmes to make music, including with live instruments, but found myself overwhelmed or suffering from option paralysis. Playing about with Jummbox’s expanded instrument settings is what led to me having a go at making dungeon synth rather than just chiptune.

It’s normally a case of coming up with a melody or ambient line that forms the starting point of the song – often through just trial and error – and building on it from there in a way that feels intuitive to me, based on what mood I want to go for. There’s no great secret or trick to what I’m doing, and no formula I can discern – just sitting down and playing about until I find something I like.

ACT: One thing I’ve noticed from listening to both. Into Unknown Darkness and Death Cannot Contain You is that your music progresses not so much with shifts between sections but with overlapping layers which gradually build up before letting a newer layer take the lead. In terms of this layering, how do you then decide a song is finished?

SW: In almost all instances, I initially take a song too far – I add too many different melodies, instruments, or movements to it, and it starts to lose its focus and structure. That’s when I know it should be done.

It’s then a case of going back and editing the song down until it retains its form and structure once more, keeping hold of its mood and focus. That feeling of one lead or melody building up and then letting another take the lead is something that’s important to my music, and I feel helps give it a sense of movement and direction.

ACT: How would you describe dungeon synth to an open-minded music fan?

SW: As a short description, I’d go for “fantasy ambient”. I feel that gives a good idea of the mood and sound dungeon synth can express. That does contain a vast array of different sounds, though.

There’s the more traditional bombastic stuff; or something slightly subdued like Malfet; the prog/sci-fi wonders of Jenn Taiga; the more sparse soundscapes of Fogweaver; or even the retro D&D and video-game soundtrack inspired stuff put out by labels like Heimat Der Katastrophe. And that’s without going into all the different sub-genres, like comfy synth or winter synth.

ACT: You take a different approach to other dungeon synth artists in that your music is much heavier on chiptune. Can you talk about what influenced this aspect of your work?

SW: In large part, it was a total accident, from discovering that Jummbox had pre-sets for instruments like cello and flute. I tried using those with chiptune lines, and liked the results a lot. They also helped break me out of a creative rut I can feel myself getting into.

After Ageless Defiance I was starting to worry about how I could keep making music without just repeating myself, due to the inherent limitations of chiptune. I initially tried to get out of this by making songs at much higher BPMs than normal – like, 180 or 200 BPM – but listening to the results just stressed me out due to their intensity, haha.

So I tried to use those other instruments to make something more relaxing, and then eventually tried making music without any chiptune elements at all. It was around this time that I first heard the dungeon synth artist Kobold, who uses a lot of retro video game sounds in their music – whether they’re chiptune or not feels a little academic, but they were close enough that it gave me the confidence to carry on experimenting with combining the two instrument styles.

Hearing A Compendium of Curiosities also motivated me to get Into Unknown Darkness finished – it’s one of the many musical projects of Ayloss from Spectral Lore, and uses dungeon synth and chiptune/synthwave sounds in combination, and is absolutely fantastic.

I would say though, that not all my music feels heavier on chiptune – it’s certainly true of Into Unknown Darkness, but Death Cannot Contain You and the new music I’m working on are (to me, at least) absent of overt chiptune sounds, and have more in common with what’s traditionally considered dungeon synth.

ACT: In terms of visibility, dungeon synth is seen by many as metal-adjacent because of the adopted aesthetic and the inherent metalness of dungeons. The proximity to black metal plays a factor too. But it’s still a small, niche genre. For those who are brand new, can you talk a bit about who the bigger or most popular artists in the scene are?

SW: I’m honestly not sure I can! I feel quite separate from the main dungeon synth “scene”, due to the issue I mentioned earlier on – like black metal (and, to be fair, chiptune, and video games, and sports, and so many other areas in our society), dungeon synth has a problem with fascism and fascism-sympathisers, and it gets tiring trying to work through all the dog whistles if not out-right Nazism.

This isn’t helped by dungeon synth being so strongly linked with fantasy, in a similar way black metal is – are those images and titles about fighting barbarians and orcs just lifted from Tolkien or Dungeons and Dragons or Warhammer, or are they acting as a metaphor for something far more problematic?

Are those explorations of history intended as just that, or are they a yearning for a “simpler” time that never actually existed (because multiculturalism is far from a recent invention, despite what some would have you believe)? How should those Norse runes be read? It gets wearying.

As such, the dungeon synth that I mostly listen to is from labels or artists where I feel confident they’re not problematic, many of whom have made explicitly anti-fascist statements or actions.

The aforementioned Fogweaver are a huge influence on my music, especially their Snowspire project, and I would heavily recommend them to newcomers. Likewise, Heimat Der Katastrophe’s releases are all excellent, and though they’re not all really dungeon synth, the Kobold records they put out are ones I’d use to help introduce dungeon synth to new fans.

Jenn Taiga’s most recent albums are fine examples of the roots of dungeon synth, bridging the gap between the genre and its roots in krautrock/prog bands like Tangerine Dream, whose Phaedra album is one I’ve gone back to since getting more into dungeon synth and found new depths to. The main exception to this is Secret Stairways, who are probably the only “big” dungeon synth artist I regularly listen to

I’d also like to use this chance to give shout-outs to Poppet, Vaelastrasz, Cherry Cordial, and the labels Vicious Mockery and Realm & Ritual, both of whom are explicitly opposed to fascism. All very different takes on dungeon synth, and you can’t go wrong with any of them.

I’m probably forgetting loads others, but hopefully this helps show just how vibrant the dungeon synth scene is. Also, the Dungeon Synth Sundays on the Order Ov The Black Arts Youtube channel are a great source of inspiration.

ACT: With Into Unknown Darkness, you have made a shift in style, but note that the material was mostly written at the same time as the predecessor. Were there competing influences on your style or approach that caused you to create stylistically different music at the same time? 

SW: I’m almost always working on multiple records at once, often very different ones, simply because I find it motivating to keep moving between different styles. If I start to feel stuck or like I’m burning out on one style, I can move into another – or if an idea doesn’t work how I intended it to for one record, rather than get frustrated I can go work on something completely different.

The two records were done with different approaches though. Into Unknown Darkness, aside from making greater use of chiptune sounds, is much more aggressive, up-tempo, and complex – there’s a lot of weaving melodies and more intricate movements than on Death Cannot Contain You, even if they’re not necessarily obvious to anyone else but me.

In contrast, Death Cannot Contain You was about striking the right mix between melody and atmosphere, in a manner similar to ambient music – you can happily leave it on in the background, or engage with it. That wasn’t the intention with Into Unknown Darkness, which I wanted to be much more motivating and immediate, and had a different set of influences.

Whilst Death Cannot Contain You was more influenced by Fogweaver and ambient dungeon synth, Into Unknown Darkness has some very un-dungeon synth set of influences. There’s stuff from Nine Inch Nails, Darkthrone, and even Hot Water Music that acted as explicit influences and references on what I was trying to do on these songs.

The mix of melody and aggression came from NIN; the way I wrote a lot of the melodic lines is drawn from Darkthrone’s early black metal records; and the way I wanted to have different parts playing off of and weaving within one another was highly influenced by the way Hot Water Music used two vocal lines on albums like Fuel For The Hate Game

ACT: You’ve talked about both dungeon synth and 80s/90s RPG soundtracks being an influence, can you talk a bit about the project in particular that influenced your sound the most? From both dungeon synth and video games.

SW: For Into Unknown Darkness, as well as those non-dungeon synth bands listed above, Kobold is the dungeon synth project that influenced it most, mainly in the sense of giving me confidence to build upon what I had started and that there might be an audience for it beyond just myself.

For soundtracks, the big one is Clash on the Big Bridge from the Final Fantasy V soundtrack. There’s no way I was going to make anything quite that complicated or intricate, but the way it utilises different melodies on different instruments that come to the fore or drift back was a huge influence on what I was trying to do. It’s a genius piece of music, and though there’s lots of different versions, the original SNES one is by far the best.

I’d also throw Eternal Wind, the Final Fantast 3 world map theme, in there as it does something similar with a main melody and lots of small melodies bouncing off of it in the background. I’m not really the kind to listen to video game soundtracks as a whole, but those two songs are incredible and a huge influence on what I wanted to do.

ACT: As with many JRPGs, the dark fantasy stories you tell through your music and aesthetics are a metaphor for struggle in real life. If you can, please talk a bit about the real-life experiences that have influenced your music.

SW: Without wanting to go into details, those themes of overcoming loss are very real. The music is all initially written as a way of processing some form of negativity, whether that be sadness or loss or anger, and whether they be personal or political.

As a whole, Lunar Cult is an attempt not to necessarily rise above those feelings, but to work through them, with titles like ‘It’s OK To Be Sad’ (from Nocturnal Offerings) and ‘I Am So Tired’ (from Ageless Defiance) being simple statements of fact – sometimes just putting it out there is helpful.

Likewise, I’d like to think the intent of ‘Binary is for Code, Not Gender’ and ‘Bleeps and Bloops Against Bigotry’ are pretty clear. But on Death Cannot Contain You and Into Unknown Darkness, it is – generally – less explicit, intended to tap into the radical political history of sci-fi and fantasy, and what someone might read as a deeply personal statement someone else might read as a political one. Both are valid and intended. 

ACT: Soundtracks aside, what are your picks for 80s/90s RPGs?

SW: As previous answers probably indicated, I’m very fond of Final Fantasy games up until FFXII, though these days I shy away from them a little because I know what I’m like in that I want to complete every side-quest and collect every item, and I just don’t have the time for it anymore. I’m sure someone will think picking such a big series of mainstream games will make me seem boring or something, but fuck it.

Also, Planescape: Torment is a masterpiece and was a huge influence on the musical and thematic arc that started with Death Cannot Contain You.

ACT: Finally, I really like the art style but I found the combat in Earthbound to be excessively difficult, is it actually difficult or am I just rubbish at it?

SW: I’ve never actually played it so I have no idea haha – sorry!

ACT: Thank you so much for your time. Do you have anything you want to add or promote outside of your own work?

SW: Thank you for inviting me to take part in this! There’s a lot of bands and labels I’ve mentioned throughout this, and I’d recommend people go check them out – support antifascist dungeon synth! Support antifascist metal! And most importantly, support one another.

Into Unknown Darkness will be released by Lunar Cult on 9th July.

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