In the early 1990s, a handful of black metal artists were enticed by the possibility of conjuring new fantastical worlds from the deep isolation of their home setups. Rather than the dense metal sound of their existing projects, this new direction would be centred around intimate synth soundscapes: forlorn organs and otherworldly MIDI theatrics.
The music on ASCEND is predominantly from self-produced, self-distributed releases, typically manufactured in small numbers. Though some artists producing this style of music, most notably Mortiis and Burzum, gained wider recognition outside underground circles, it is only in recent years that the sound and its influence has really been appreciated. This is particularly the case with the late Matthew Davis and his recently reappraised Secret Stairways project, whose song ‘Lammas Tide’ (from the 1997 Enchantment of the Ring album) appears on ASCEND. A simple home recording on a Yamaha KX-W392 manages to be both elegant and tortured, ambiguously devotional and recalling latter years Popol Vuh.
This battle between dark and light is a constant thread through ASCEND, with simple minimal synth lines that can be both delicate and menacing. Compilation opener ‘The Dark Dreamquest’ from Italian black metal group Evol is loaded with occult warning, and Finnish act Kadotus 609’s ‘The Summoning Through Crimson’ is languid, twisted and dark. In spite of the darkness, several pieces of the music on ASCEND have formal similarities with the sometimes saccharine new age music that rose to prominence in that era: but to a rougher, darker ends. The closing song from Darkthrone icon (and past NTS radio host) Fenriz, under his Neptune Towers pseudonym, pulls us further out, with ‘To Cold Void Desolation’ — an astral synth project, akin to ’70s kosmische muzik masters Harmonia.
The gentler side can often amplify an uncannily sinister edge, heard in German act Dolch’s ‘Tumulus’, where orc marching horns contrast against delicate rompler harps and softly whispered chanting. It hammers home a deep loneliness and detachment constant throughout ASCEND, made possible by these unusual contrasts, both unsettling and otherworldly.