Verminaard is one of the more unique Dungeon Synth projects to emerge in recent times, and instantly caught my attention with the ‘Wardens of the Light-Starved Realm’ EP released earlier this year (such an epic title, too). The dissonant melodies and bizarre atmosphere set Verminaard apart in a scene that is now flooded with generic releases. In this interview I speak to Verminaard mastermind John about his style, process, and fantasy in general.
- Greetings John! Thanks for taking the time to answer this interview with Barbarian Skull. Please provide us with the history of Verminaard, what does the project’s name mean?
The pleasure is all mine! As to the history of Verminaard, I guess it’s been brewing in the back of my mind for a long time now, but I didn’t realize it until recently, if that makes sense. I’ve loved dungeon synth for going on about 5 years or so now, and throughout that time of listening to the old classics, new releases, and everything in between, I’ve had thoughts here and there of trying my hand at creating it. I came up with little melodies and ideas here and there, but nothing was ever really done with them. Then, one weekend in the middle of January of 2016 I just suddenly had a huge compulsion to write. It sounds kind of weird, but it was like all of these ideas had been building up like a river behind a dam, and then that was the day it just burst.
The project’s name is a reference to the Dragonlance series of books by Margaret Weis & Tracy Hickman. Verminaard of Nidus is a prominent figure in the first book of the series, Dragons of Autumn Twilight. He’s a cleric of the dark goddess Takhisis, who has set into motion her Dragonarmies for nefarious purposes; Verminaard commands the Red Dragonarmy. He was born into a long line of heroes and had the potential to be a great force for good, but he was corrupted by Takhisis from a young age to ensure that this did not come to pass, and in the end became one of her greatest champions. I’ve always been fascinated by tales of corruption, so he’s one of my favorite fantasy villains, though my true favorite comes from the same series, the death knight Lord Soth. Soth was initially going to be the name for the project, but I think Verminaard sounds a bit more fitting for whatever reason.
- Verminaard’s first release ‘Wardens of a Light-Starved Realm’ carries the feeling of a die-hard fantasy fan. What role does fantasy play in your life? Why do you think Dungeon Synth is an appropriate medium for expressing fantasy concepts?
Fantasy plays a very large role in my life, in numerous ways. When I was a kid, and into my teenage years, I really wasn’t in a great place mentally – I suffered a lot from anxiety and depression, and I didn’t have a ton of friends, though the ones I did have were fantastic and I’m still very close with them to this day. Fantasy books were a great way for me to escape from the unpleasantness of my day to day life. Weis & Hickman’s Dragonlance books were the first fantasy books I discovered, so they remain my original love, but after that I branched out and just read whatever fantasy books I could find, including the works of David Eddings, Raymond E. Feist, Fritz Leiber, Robert E. Howard, Ursula K. Le Guin, Clark Ashton Smith and of course Tolkien. These days, I’m doing a lot better. I recently started going to college for information technology so I can get out of my dead end job, I socialize more, and am just generally a happier person. However, fantasy still gives me a place I can escape to and recharge when the world won’t let up.
I feel like dungeon synth and fantasy go so well together for a number of reasons. Among these is the general sense of other-worldliness that synthesizers tend to have about them. Of course, there are your orchestral sounds like trombones, harps and horns, but synthesizers also tend to go into territory where it’s obvious that it isn’t a real instrument. I think that the blending of those more “realistic” or “grounded” sounds with the more “out there” sounds just works very well because it’s familiar and at the same time, it isn’t. There are of course acts on the extreme ends of that spectrum, being either composed of all realistic instruments or all obviously synthesized instruments, but I think that most tend to hold some sort of middle ground. That blending of the tangible and intangible gives off a very fantasy vibe to me, if that makes any sense.
- What are your greatest influences for Verminaard, both musically and conceptually? How did you discover the Dungeon Synth genre initially?
Musically, Verminaard is inspired by quite a few acts, both in and out of the dungeon synth genre, but if I had to cite the biggest artist I take cues from, it would probably be Abandoned Places. Apparently that influence shines through, because when I talk to people, they’ll often tell me that they get a feeling similar to what Abandoned Places evokes, which is such a massive compliment to me. I’m surprised by it, considering our forms of instrumentation are very different, but I won’t complain. I’ve always been interested in music that toys with your expectations – you’re listening to it and you think, “ah, yes, I see where this is going,” and then it goes somewhere completely different, or, even better, it only goes partway to where you thought it was going to go. I believe that Abandoned Places is the master at doing this, and I try to emulate something similar in my music. Conceptually, Verminaard is inspired by everything and anything to do with fantasy – the literature, of course, but also the computer games and pen & paper roleplaying games. In fact, the majority of Wardens was composed about random adventures I’ve had in RPGs. However, as one would probably imagine due to the project’s name, the Dragonlance books and setting also serve as a huge inspiration for this project. It wasn’t as blatant on Wardens, but the next release is going to be a concept album based on a particular event within the books, and my plan is for subsequent releases to follow that format as well.
It’s a bit hard for me to remember where I first discovered dungeon synth. I’ve always loved music like this ever since I was introduced to the works of Dargaard, a neoclassical darkwave act, years ago. The first release I picked up that I can distinctly remember being classified as dungeon synth ,though, was Lord Lovidicus’ “Trolldom.” That’s probably been about, say, five years ago now? I believe that’s when the term “dungeon synth” first started taking off, because I don’t remember ever seeing it used before then. Mortiis used the term “dark dungeon music” but most other acts that made music that would be considered dungeon synth now used terms like “fantasy ambient,” which is also a term I use to describe my music because I feel it fits just as well as dungeon synth. Dungeon synth is a hell of a lot catchier, though!
- What was your inspiration for creating the Wardens of a Light Starved Realm EP? How did you get the ideas for the songs and do they fit into a theme?
My inspiration for Wardens, truth be told, was a bit scattered. I mean, yes, of course there is the overarching theme of fantasy and adventure, but the songs are self contained, they don’t really have any relation to each other in my mind. “Those Who Stand Against the Fallen” is about a specific scene in the Dragonlance novels where a lone knight stands upon the battlements of a fortress and duels a Dragon Highlord – anyone familiar with the works will immediately know what I’m talking about. It was initially given a name that used a line from the book to give very obvious reference to it, but I decided to change it because the whole release didn’t end up being about Dragonlance, and it felt strange to make it that obvious if the whole release wasn’t about Dragonlance. That might not make sense to anyone other than myself, but it was a very pressing issue to me! The rest of the songs were about random adventures I’ve been on in RPGs that stuck out in my head – that’s probably the first place my mind ends up wandering if I don’t have direct inspiration from something like literature. So, no, there wasn’t a big, well thought out theme for Wardens, but that’s something that’s definitely changed with my new work. I just wanted to create an EP of varied fantasy atmospheres with Wardens.
- Wardens of a Light-Starved Realm saw several different tape editions, tell us more about the different editions of the tape. Do you plan to stick with the tape format or explore other formats for future releases?
There are two editions of Wardens of a Light-Starved Realm, and I apologize to anyone who is confused by this. It wasn’t intentional. Both releases are exactly the same save the packaging and possibly the mastering – the “home run,” as I’ve been terming it, was created on my own personal tape deck from my own personal master. Everything about the home run is DIY, which unfortunately in this case means that it’s also a bit more rough around the edges. The recording level is a bit low to avoid clipping due to some shoddy mixing on my part, so there’s some tape hiss, and the cover, which is just a very basic design I made, is cut out of card stock by hand using scissors and hand numbered on the reverse side. I initially planned just the home run to be able to trade with some friends I had made in the community, but I was then approached by Wulfrune Worxx about a release on their distro. Wulfrune Worxx and Out of Season collaborated on that release. The only difference that I’m aware of between that release and my own release is the packaging – the Wulfrune Worxx / Out of Season one looks much more professional and features the full artwork on the front, not the framed version of my home release. I’ve included a comparison picture. The mastering may also be slightly different, I’m not sure – I don’t have a copy of this release, personally, just some of the j-cards they sent my way. Before I had received the Wulfrune Worxx / Out of Season j-cards, I was contacted by Lighten Up Sounds with an order for five copies of my EP for their distro, so I sold them 5 copies of the home run. So the general breakdown is: if you purchased your copy directly from me or from Lighten Up Sounds, it’s the home run. If you purchased it from Wulfrune Worxx or Out of Season, it’s their release. I’ll try to avoid this in the future – rookie mistakes!
As of this moment, I plan on sticking to tape. I’m thrilled that tape still has such a prominent place in this scene, because tape is much easier for me to produce. In the future, I plan on mostly sticking to a DIY approach for my releases. I’ll of course provide copies for distros, but I want to design my own layouts, print my own covers, dub my own tapes and the like, as I did with the home run of Wardens. With this in mind, the cost of production is much lower than a CD, plus I’ve always just liked tapes. I’m not opposed to releasing on CD, but it’s just not something I’ve looked much into, and I currently don’t have much interest in it either. Maybe one day, though!
- Verminaard stands out in the modern Dungeon Synth scene for it’s unique sound. I really enjoy the strange, almost dissonant melodies you create, which gives the entire project an obscure sound. What is your writing process like? How do you feel new material will progress from the first EP (if at all)?
Thank you! The writing process for Verminaard generally begins with a “seed” of some sort. A lot of times, when I’m at work or at the store buying groceries or just doing whatever in my day to day life, melodies and the like will just kind of pop up, and I’ll immediately pull out my phone and sing whatever melody I have in my head into a voice memo recorder for future reference. I’ll then go into my DAW, record the melody, and proceed from there. The melodies for Verminaard typically aren’t restrained to a particular scale, save for the chromatic, which probably explains why the melodies sound strange. I recognize that the melodies I write are odd, and I try to construct the rest of the music to play that up. That being said, I try to throw the listener something that sounds a bit more conventional from time to time so they aren’t completely lost.
In the earlier days of Verminaard, my writing process was a bit different – I’d first come up with chord progressions that I liked, then loop them and bang out melodies through trial and error over them. Songs like “Those Who Stand Against the Fallen” and “Down Crumbling Stairs Into the Throat of Darkness” were composed in this fashion. It worked, but I found that I was getting way too bogged down in thinking “x chord progression is going to y, so I’m going to go to z with the melody.” With songs like “Where Lifeless Eyes Hold Vigil” and all of my new material, I instead just focused on making strong single lines, whether they were bass lines or melodies, and I just let chords and such weave themselves naturally from that. I’ve found my songwriting has improved and I’m much less prone to getting blocked up that way. It’s easy to make a tapestry from single threads, but it’s harder to pull a single thread out of a tapestry…or something like that. I should write cards for Hallmark! New material is progressing as stated a second ago, but my songs are also becoming much longer. The track I’m working on right now is going to clock in at least at 16 minutes long by the time it’s done, but I expect it to be more like 20-25.
- What is next in Verminaard’s future?
The main goal right now is working on my debut full-length release, at least 40 minutes or so. When that will be done, I have no idea. Hopefully before the end of 2016? After that…just working on whatever the next release will be, I guess. In general, I don’t really have much of a timeline for these things. I just work on the music, and when I feel like I’m sitting on a release, I’ll get some artwork done for it and send it out into the wild, and begin work on the next release! I surely don’t plan on stopping any time soon.
- Thanks again for answering this interview, any last words are yours!
I would like to thank everyone in the dungeon synth scene that has supported my works – you guys are awesome! In particular though, I would like to thank you here at Barbarian Skull, as well as Trogool, Raevjager and Barak Tor – you were the first to give feedback and support to Verminaard, and for that I’m extremely thankful. In addition to this, huge thanks go out to the people who helped me get the various artwork for Verminaard figured out – Moonroot Art did a fantastic job with the logo, and Bard of Cernunnos Woods, Metal Hell, etc drew an absolutely brilliant picture for the album cover. I plan on having a different iteration of the hooded guy on all of my future release covers somewhere – he might not always be as prominent as he is here, but he’ll be hiding out somewhere, so be on the lookout for him!The forges are lit once more, and I anticipate Verminaard unleashing his first full assault before the end of the year!