I guess I’m something of a dungeon synth fan now! Since my last foray into the genre went so well, and since it’s been a little while since we’ve had a Rainbows up in here, I figured I would give it a shot. There’s something about the gloomy, melancholic vibes and the meditative soundscapes that the genre throws out that mesh very nicely with the changing weather and the dropping temperatures. Couple that with a healthy dose of inspiration from, what else, World of Warcraft and what do you get? Vælastrasz and their monumental twenty first full length release, Sunstrider.
For me, World of Warcraft is like a warm blanket on a cold day. That game used to be my life, and while I don’t play anymore, there is something very comforting about going back through all the lore that I used to live and breathe and letting myself get lost in the story all over again, especially when that lore concerns The Burning Crusade, an expansion that is very dear to my heart. Apparently, it is also dear to the musician known as Vælastrasz (named after the corrupted red dragon encountered in the Blackwing Lair raid of classic WoW), because the whole of their latest release deals with the story behind this expansion. Specifically, it focuses on the tragedy of Kæl’thas Sunstrider and his quest to destroy the Sunwell, the font of magic that both supplies his people with their power and has been silently corrupting them for generations. He is both an outcast and traitor as well as a savior and leader, and Sunstrider effortlessly captures the nuance and emotional depth inherent in the story via classic, traditional dungeon synth aesthetics: minimalist compositions that build over successive loops and repetitions, atmospheric soundscapes built of layers of synthesized instruments and narrative, meditative melodies. It should come as no surprise that these compositions show the mark of someone who has more than just studied, but perfected the craft of writing dungeon synth, considering just how massive the discography of Vælastrasz is. Few projects can boast of over twenty releases, but there is plenty of source material for them to pull from, so it only makes sense that not only do the songs just keep coming, they also keep getting better with age.
Sunstrider itself is a touch on the melancholic side, with plaintive synth melodies embellishing the torture and torment of the titular character. The album opens with “Sunwell”, a short intro piece before launching into “The Sun King Rises,” a mournful and somber number that ebbs and flows through winding repetitions and scaffolding layers. Similarly, “Leaving Quel’thalas” utilizes gentle piano and string synths to layer simple melodies into something complex and cinematic. “Kil’Jaeden’s Promise” is a little more on the aggressive side, with the programmed drums playing a larger part in the overall momentum. “A Traitor in the Twisting Nether” closes in a grand fashion, stretching over eleven minutes with striking emotion and vivid depth. Overall, there is a lot of variation in the voices used, which helps the songs stand out and feel like distinct chapters in a story. The songs are minimal, but definitely not understated. There’s just enough going on here to comfortably provide background music for a role playing session and to be intently focused on.
If nothing else, Sunstrider successfully reignited the fires of nostalgia in me, and it makes me really miss my time playing World of Warcraft. Especially with a new expansion dropping (one that may or may not once again feature Kæl’thas Sunstrider), listening to these melodies made me feel right back in the middle of it, and that is a testament to how well-crafted these songs are. They have an incredible way of putting you right where you need to be to see the story unfold. Whether you’re a dungeon synth fan, a World of Warcraft fan, or just someone looking to broaden their musical horizons, this is a release that deserves a listen. Lok’tar Ogar.