The early days of dungeon synth haven’t been as obsessively chronicled as those of the Norwegian second wave of black metal, even though some of the same individuals were involved in both. As such, not as many people may be as familiar with American duo Casket of Dreams and their lone full-length Dragons of Autumn Twilight as the project deserves. Originally released by the half-legendary/half-infamous Wild Rags records in 1998, the album hasn’t aged a day despite being out of print for the better part of two decades.
However, that’s about to change: Ancient Meadow Records and Dungeons Deep Records are teaming up to reissue Dragons of Autumn Twilight on vinyl and cassette respectively, allowing modern audiences a chance to discover this early classic. I had the chance recently to chat with Robert N, one of the two individuals behind the project back in ’98, about those early dungeon days and his plans for new music.
Clandestine Sounds: Hey, first off – thank you for the interview. It had been a while since I’d last listened to Dragons of Autumn Twilight, and I was astonished by how contemporary it sounds – most 20-year-old albums don’t sound like they could have been released last week. Since it was released in 1998, there’s not a whole lot of information revealed about either the record or Casket of Dreams aside from there being some sort of connection with Xasthur from roughly that same time period. So to start, can you take us back to ‘98 and talk a bit about how the project came together and Dragons came to be?
Robert N: Contemporary? I would say it’s more timeless, in the sense that the genre has stayed pretty much the same. It hasn’t incorporated other styles the way metal has. We made the songs because it was something we could do ourselves without relying on others. The connection to Xasthur was Mike playing drums on the first recorded split Scott did with a local band [ed. note: Orosius]. Later on I ended up doing some singing for the acoustic stuff he has been doing for the last ten years.
CS: There are a lot of different threads in that answer I want to follow. Let’s start with the ‘relying on others’ part – was the project born out of some kind of frustration with your other band situations at the time?
RN: Yes, much frustration. People saying “book the studio” and disappearing at the last minute. We couldn’t even bribe people to play in many cases. Having everything programmed meant we only had to book studio time.
CS: So were you really even fans of dungeon synth – or dark dungeon music, or whatever you knew the genre as in ‘98 – when you started working on Casket of Dreams? Or was it simply a convenience factor that led you to that style of music?
RN: Yes, definitely. Dead Can Dance, Goblin, Tangerine Dream, Mortiis were all influential in the development of our music. Video game music as well. I think there was a part we sampled from Zelda on the last song.
CS: That’s an interesting collection of artists. I think a lot of younger dungeon synth musicians would dispute the idea that Tangerine Dream has any kind of connection at all to the genre, but I can totally hear it. You’re also the first I’ve seen mention Dead Can Dance in a DS context. Was DS less dependent on black metal back in its formative days than most people believe?
RN: The first Casket of Dreams songs were created in 1996 by me for another band, but I ended up creating a separate project for them. At that time, there wasn’t a genre called dungeon synth. You had Cold Meat Industry, but those bands were labeled dark ambient. I’m sure the early artists that went on to be called dungeon synth would probably mention those artists as influential in their music.
CS: Dragons was released by Wild Rags Records, which has an… interesting history to say the least. Before getting into that, Casket of Dreams was a total outlier on that label. I think Shadowcaster was the only other band on the label that sounded even remotely like you – they seemed to primarily release thrash and thrashy-black and death metal. How did you end up releasing the album with them?
RN: I remember Shadowcaster. It was a side-project of someone from a US black metal band. Can’t remember which? Richard trusted me and gave me the money to record the CD without even hearing it, which is rare. It was a small record label but had many bands that went on to have success. Emperor, Behemoth, Gorgoroth, and Necrophobic all got their start on Wild Rags.
CS: Since there’s been plenty written about Wild Rags owner Ricardo Campos elsewhere, I don’t want to delve into all of that. Instead, I’m curious as to what your relationship with him was like.
RN: Wild Rags always treated me decently so no complaints. He was a funny guy who told it like it is. Sensitive types thought he was a rude businessman, but he had another side to him that maybe I was one of the few people who saw. He trusted me and I had no reason not to trust him.
A friend of mine who worked there said he used to give me the finger every time I left his shop. I remember leaving the shop once and turning around to see if it was true and he forgot to, which he quickly rectified – ha!
CS: I’m thinking we should maybe back up a bit here. You and Mike played together in other bands both before and after Casket of Dreams. I’ll admit to knowing very little about your history together – how far back do you two go?
RN: Me and Mike met in high school and played together in different bands that I’d rather not mention for personal reasons. He went on to do some cool things like playing guitar for Possessed! He was always the more talented one and I learned something new every time I jammed with him.
CS: Since you continued to play together for a number of years after Dragons of Autumn Twilight came out, why didn’t you ever do a second Casket record?
RN: I did make keyboard songs afterwards but we ended up turning them into metal or industrial stuff with vocals. I do have some new stuff I’m working on that will be released as Casket of Dreams. It shouldn’t be too different from the old stuff except more percussive. I might try a few experiments with it to keep things fresh.
CS: I was planning to ask about that, so since you brought it up – Dragons is being reissued soon on cassette by Dungeons Deep Records and on LP from Ancient Meadow. How did that all come about?
RN: I guess Ancient Meadow got ahold of Mike through YouTube. He must have left a comment about the music and was contacted. As for Dungeons Deep, I asked them who did their layouts, and he expressed an interest in the project. They both did a killer job on the layout and seem enthusiastic about repressing it.
CS: I’m friendly with them both, and I can confirm that both are really good dudes. Did it surprise you at all that there’s still interest in Casket of Dreams, two decades after that album came out? I’m guessing it’s been out of print for at least fifteen years – there was just the one CD press by Wild Rags, correct?
RN: Yeah, it surprised me somewhat. I don’t even have a copy of it, so it will be neat to have one again. I just need a record or tape player now! In all seriousness though I am surprised and honored to be working with both labels. Great guys.
CS: I want to circle back and pick up on something you’d said in your first response about how as a genre, dungeon synth hasn’t changed much in the last 20 years. I think there are some who may disagree with you (including myself). How much have you kept up with the genre over the years? Are there any contemporary artists that you enjoy?
RN: I check out new releases on the Dungeon Synth Archives page so I’m pretty caught up on what’s happening. I also check out new releases in the synthwave/industrial genre. What artists do you think are breaking boundaries for the genre?
CS: I feel like DSA seems to stick pretty closely to the ‘dark dungeon music’ template of Era I Mortiis, but there are a lot of artists who are making music outside of that template. I’d point to Adam Matlock as one of the real trailblazers right now in that respect. I especially like his project Kolessa, which has a strong avant garde jazz vibe to it. I’d also mention Mors Certa, who takes an almost 70s prog approach to her music. There are a lot of genre purists who don’t consider medieval artists like Fief or Sequestered Keep ‘dungeon synth’ either. Then there’s the ‘stoner synth’ artist Resinator…
RN: I’ve only heard of Fief before, but if artists are bringing new sounds into the genre that’s what’s needed to keep it fresh. I am trying as well with the new music. Whether people like it or not, I think it’s necessary as an artist.
CS: You alluded to this earlier – you’re working a new EP called The Spiral Revelation under the name Casket of Dreams. Are you doing it solo? Are you still using programmed synths for the new stuff, or have you switched over to VSTs?
RN: The new EP should be out by the end of the year. It’s mostly solo, but I will have a few guests here or there on a few songs if needed. The new material is close musically to the old stuff with a few surprises. Wouldn’t be interesting to me to just copy what’s been done before.
CS: What are your plans for Casket of Dreams after the EP? Do you intend to keep both it and Arcane Asylum going?
RN: I quit the other project because I couldn’t get along with the guitar player. He had an all or nothing approach to the music which is great if you’re rich and can take risks. I’d rather make music than sit in a rehearsal room with metal jocks.
CS: Thanks again for being willing to answer a few questions. I like to leave the final word to the artists – anything else you want to add?
RN: Thanks for the interest in the project. New music out soon!