Interview: dungeon synth artist Forgotten Pathways

Today we have for you probably the richest interview ever on the blog.  German dungeon synth artist Forgotten Pathways has already reached cult status with the debut Shrouded In Mystery.  The original demo was released in 1998 but has since been re-released in the form of Re-Shrouded In Mystery.  Sole member Cedric Hommel was generous to devote some time in answering our questions.  We thank him for that!

First of all… the name Forgotten Pathways evokes images akin to dungeon synth and dark ambient artists. What’s the idea behind the name?

Back in the days I thought about a suitable name quite some time, and it took rather long until I came up with „Forgotten Pathways“ – if I remember correctly, that wasn’t in seclusion at home or in the woods or something like that, but instead with friends in a pub while getting drunk.

For me, Forgotten Pathways was always about past legends, lore and historical ages long bygone. It should act as a sort of portal into worlds that have perished, or maybe never really existed – although, who knows if they haven’t? As long as someone travels there in his mind, they might become some sort of reality, if only in form of a dream or reverie.

Forgotten Pathways for me is a vehicle for my own escapism, but also an invitation for others. I’d like to not only do songs that entertain in a more simple way (which is fine, too), but really want to dwell on that escapism in a complex sense. Mostly, my music is inspired by a certain legend, historical event or maybe a painting. What interests me then is the atmosphere it creates, apart of the straight facts behind that story or picture – the feelings, the tragedy, the magic. You know, when you look at a painting depicting a vast landscape or a raging battle – or read about someone thrown into the cellars of his own castle to rot there until the end of his life, you are intrigued by some aspects of that, which are not necessarily the main subject. It is this into which I’m looking, and I think that a lot of these tales resonate in most of us. Be it due to fairy-tales we’ve been told when we were children, be it due to an interest into legendary and folklore, or by watching Fantasy movies and playing role-playing games: there’s a certain part in us, that yearns for deep emotions and feeds on an ancient, subconscious wisdom. Maybe I only make that up in my own head, but I have the impression that certain „patterns“ are consistent over the ages, when it comes to legends and folklore.

And, to finally come back to your original question, this is what I strife for and try to lure others into: to walk on these „Forgotten Pathways“, to re-awaken past ghosts, to enter mythical and magical realms by using your mind and emotions.

Shrouded In Mystery has gained somewhat of a “cult” status. What is your feeling behind that and the response you’ve received directly?

Of course I’m glad that „Shrouded In Mystery“ managed to leave an impression for some people. Back then, when I released it, the music that is nowadays called „Dungeon Synth“ (DS) was even more of a niche genre than today, so the general interest was quite low and almost non-existent. I received many good and also a few bad reviews in fanzines who have likely all perished in the meantime, and I traded with several bands and projects. But there was no „scene“ or a definition of a genre, as there is today. Surely I’m a bit proud to belong to the founders, respectively the 2nd wave of DS. Still that feels a bit strange, though, due to the long hiatus in which I hardly had any connection to either Dungeon Synth or Black Metal. The whole recognition or rediscovery of my music came as quite a surprise to me.

I think, though, that modern DS has found its own new direction and several acts have emerged that have taken the torch and lead the way. There’s to say, though, that while I acknowledge Forgotten Pathways to be categorized as Dungeon Synth and can well live with that, I still feel about it as something more or less genre-independent and do favor the term „Medieval Ambient“ in lack of a better one.

Also, Forgotten Pathways has always been a project of isolation, introspection and seclusion. I’m of course glad and thankful for positive feedback which gives me strength and stimulation. But I’m also a bit of a hermit with a tendency to retreat, so I’m not sure about how long I’ll be brooding in silence over new music this time.

What was the cause of the 20 year silence since Shrouded In Mystery and what inspired the Long Way Home release?

At the late 1990s, I was very much into extreme Metal, especially Black Metal. Around the turn of the millennium, I had the feeling that Black Metal was getting stale (nicely put) and I couldn’t get into that any more. Also, my life was at a turning point, which I guess is quite common at that stage of life. School was over, and I had to decide what’s next and earn money. Some old friendships broke, things changed, the familiar patterns of behavior didn’t work anymore. So for several years I meandered through life, trying to find back into balance. I also lost connection to music in that time – I still listened to lots of music, though hardly to Metal, to which I didn’t find access anymore in that time. And I didn’t manage to work consistently on my own music, although I tried every once in a while over the years. Even though most songs were left as fragments, there are some which I finished. But still it was more an experimentation than a continuation.

When I found back to Metal a few years ago, and when I got my life more into balance, I was able to reconnect to my own musical expression, too. At some point I just felt that I had to sit down and compose something – and after all these years, it instantly felt right. All these years, when I had a detached feeling while trying to do music, seemed to have led me to this moment, which was pretty much like that cliche statement of „flicking that switch“. I found a powerful force of inspiration and made „A Long Way Home“ – so, of course that title is somewhat meaningful.

It also describes the conceptual theme of the album, in being an entry point into an often recurring motif of fairy-tales: finding the way home, after being lost in a forest or cast out into the world. „A Long Way Home“ focuses on a variety of old fairy tales and legends, mostly of a medieval or even older origin. Which again shows that aspect of „forgotten pathways“ leading deep into the subconscious cultural heritage, common to so many fairy-tales.

Why the decision to re-work it as ReShrouded In Mystery and was this just a remastering or did you re-record with analog or digital equipment?

When I recorded „Shrouded In Mystery“, I used a keyboard with pre-programmed sounds and the ability to arrange songs on up to six (if I remember correctly) tracks. There was of course no graphic interface or something like that, so one had to record by playing in real time, making this a complicated and sometimes tedious process especially on the long and complex tracks. That resulted in several playing errors and in often hobbling drums. I know that this has a certain charm to it, but I myself never liked that so much. These insufficiencies, which today are sometimes done on purpose in order to sound more authentic, have always upset me a bit. So, when I decided to re-release „Shrouded In Mystery“ and to remaster the original recordings, I wondered what it would sound like if I finally made the old songs the way I would have wanted them to sound in the first place. Which includes a better sounding instrumentation as well as tighter percussion etc.

So I re-recorded the songs fully anew, which means I did not re-use old Midi data or something like that, and did vary a bit in the compositions, so most of the songs got a little bit longer, too. Equipment-wise, I used only digital equipment, quite the same as I used on „A Long Way Home“, but I tried to recreate the character of the old keyboard sound instead of aiming for the orchestral weight.

Once I started, I also re-recorded the bonus tracks of the unreleased „Beowulf“ demo as well. This whole process also made me interested into trying to compose in the old way again, so we’ll see if this leads to something new…

I believe I read in an interview you did with the Barbarian Skull web-zine that you only use the computer and programs to compose anymore. Why the decision to completely abandon analog equipment and are you using analog samples now?

Yes, that is correct, I’m solely working digitally now, at least concerning the use of synthesizers. After composing on the keyboard I focused on computer recording, although this was a long learning process. It wasn’t until several years after that I really learned to record and compose on a computer, and I’ve never looked back since. Even when I used the keyboard back then, I quickly felt limited. I wanted to use acoustic instruments, vocals, and more sounds, effects and tracks. Some things worked with workarounds, such as sound effect recordings and vocals which I first recorded onto a cassette and then routed that into the keyboard via a Walkman connected to an Aux In – a matter of the right timing, then. But I didn’t like to be restrained to few tracks, to mostly unusable sounds, to few effects parameters and to that style of working and recording.

And afterwards, I never cared much for analog devices, but used digital instruments instead. It is of course different in some aspects, but honestly I think not that much. One can use analog synthesizers as well as a digital recording environment in very different ways, and finding your personal way to do this might be similar in both worlds – and they intersect in several aspects, anyway. For me, recording digitally on a computer offers just the freedom in all different choices that I like – I guess I won’t ever return to using analog equipment, but I think about emulating it to some degree digitally. That huge freedom of working digitally and non-destructively surely has its own pitfalls, and being more restricted might be sort of an asset that I failed to appreciate for quite some time.

I also read that you are working on new material. What’s the status on that and how has it evolved since the “ReShrouded..” release?

I am indeed loosely working on new material, but right now I’m not as focussed as when I composed „A Long Way Home“. I seem to need a creative rush, which only happens every now and then, and often I’m unable to use that momentum when it’s there because I am hindered by too much work or family stuff. Right now, I have some songs that go into different directions – there’s material that’s more in the vein of „A Long Way Home“, but I try to go into more of an Epic / Medieval direction instead of a Romantic / Mysterious one, which „A Long Way Home“ was more about. I’ve also been working loosely since years on another concept, which is less structured and should go into a Ritual / Ambient atmosphere – revolving mostly about the perception of Death in the ancient world. Also, I pursue something much more different, which includes a good portion of Death and Doom Metal and a certain concept on another theme. I’m curious about how this will turn out and if that’s something worth exploring.

In any case, I fear that each of these future releases will still take some time, but who knows? Another creative manic rush, and I might be able to finish faster. Also, I’ll be soon going over some older and previously unreleased material from around 2001/2002. Back then I already finished working on that release, including doing the whole artwork, but then decided to let it rest for a while; which turned out to be around 15 years, now. Not everything of that is really suitable to be released from my point of view of today, but there’s some really fine stuff that should finally see the light of day. Although that too is quite different from „Shrouded In Mystery“ or anything else I’ve done.

Other than a new release, what plans do you have for the rest of 2017 and into 2018?

In 2017/early 2018, I think I’ll use the dark season of the year to find some quietness and retreat, if possible. And I’ll try to turn that into a creative output. Also, I want to read more consistently – my unread books are ca. three times the way from Earth to Moon, and include such classics as the whole Conan cycle and the complete compilation of H. P. Lovecraft.

And also I’ll be travelling to some other distant countries. I’ve been to both Japan and Southern Italy this year, to Australia last year, so let’s see about next year. It would be nice to go to Scandinavia again, and travelling to the US is also planned for the near future.

And of course I’m very excited about the vinyl edition of „Shrouded In Mystery“ on Dunkelheit Produktionen! That will be likely the first big thing in early 2018 and is something I didn’t dare dreaming about. I’m really curious about how it will look and feel like.

In your opinion, what do you think makes a great dungeon synth record?

Hmm, I think there are many people who could answer this one much better than I can – honestly, I seldom listen to Dungeon Synth. I’ve always been much more of a Metal listener, and my own music was, apart of early Mortiis, mainly inspired by Summoning, for example – or in general Black Metal, often with Symphonic influences and Medieval atmosphere, among other styles. So for me, that early atmospheric mix is something I wanted to make a strong essence of, and that’s an aspect what I went for in „Shrouded In Mystery“, too.

I still like something like that a lot, so maybe I would say: for me, Dungeon Synth should try to create a strong atmosphere which evokes certain feelings and images of the mind, such as the longing for something that has been lost forever or for so long, that there’s only fragments left; the  epic legends and tales, and the tragedies inherent therein; the absence of hope, the dark web of death and decay that surrounds us and everything which exists. And yet I think, that all these bleak and dreary aspects become more refined, if some light and colors are applied to them, and that there’s beauty in every downfall. So Dungeon Synth should always keep a light side, something a bit playful and maybe even naive, making it something of a bittersweet matter, and keeps room for association.

At least that would be my feeling about „old-school Dungeon Synth“, although I’m aware that there are different sub-styles nowadays with influences beyond those mentioned above, or not sharing these at all. My own recent music may not be so much more in the vein of that, although I myself still feel quite the same about it. There are a few DS records I listened to recently which captured that certain feeling quite well in my opinion, such as the wonderful „Ruins and Reverence“ by Oldenhelm.

Why do you think that dungeon synth is often so closely related to black metal? That is, beyond the fact that Burzum-one of the most infamous black metal artists composed the two synth albums while in prison?

I think that Dungeon Synth is indeed somewhat of a distant relative to Black Metal. It quite certainly grew in the shadows of it, and shares a variety of common characteristics. One is the musical niche aspect, for example. Even though Black Metal became a large sub-genre at the end of the 90s and early 00s with albums being in the charts, it originally was a small movement harshly directed against everything and willing to become and stay outcast. It also often included a certain escapist aspect, in being rebellious as well as very individual. With metal-heads often feeling a part of a large family, whether being Heavy-, Thrash- or Death Metal-maniacs, Black Metal followers were mostly loners, fanatics and hermits. While other Metal styles often include a certain party feeling to some extent, Black Metal mostly thrives on introspective, mysticism and hate.

Dungeon Synth is somewhat similar, in being music that is mostly made by single musicians, that hardly features a party feeling and is music directed at retreat from the outside world. It shares the despise for the modern world and its people, and is obviously (and willingly) no recipe for success in the music business.

That said, there’s of course the musical relation between Black Metal and Dungeon Synth. Mortiis played in Emperor, Burzum recorded Ambient music early on his albums, and there are the many intros and outros on diverse Black Metal records, as well as keyboard parts being introduced into the music almost since the beginning of Black Metal. That’s of course not restricted to Black Metal, other Metal styles share these Ambient influences and keyboard parts. But I think it’s the combination with the aforementioned aspects that closely relates Dungeon Synth to Black Metal.

Another aspect I often think about is the role of vocals in Black Metal, and the equivalently mostly missing vocals in Dungeon Synth. In Black Metal, the style of singing has devolved into something often deliberately incomprehensible, having become more of an instrument than the main focus of a song. Even in Death Metal, growling is often meant to be  understood and to „merely“ enhance the atmosphere of pain, hate and death. Maybe this (almost) absence of song in Black Metal in favor of demonic screams and hisses is also somewhat related to the (mostly) absence of song in Dungeon Synth, making the impact and atmosphere of the music as a whole even more important that the fixation on voice and lyrics.

Situation: You receive a huge commission payment to compose a full-length dungeon synth style album as a tribute to the Black Forest of Germany. What is your plan involving achieving inspiration and an accurate sonic “picture” of this? Field recordings, walking around, pictures and paintings? And what kinds of sounds would you use?

Wow, that’s an interesting question, thank you!

I think, I first would prepare in advance to actually going there: trying to get an overview of the Black Forest and which cultural areas it covers, mostly about the past, from the early civilizations over the centuries until maybe around the Industrial Revolution, which naturally took away a lot of the magic of the unknown. I’d read into the history of that area, to get to know the most important historical and cultural parameters, regional folklore, legends, sagas and fairy-tales. I’d also check into cultural peculiarities, such as song, dance, speech/dialect or specific traditional musical instruments, and see which points of interest would be important to see – nature sites, castles, churches, historic centers, etc.

Then I’d go visit there – maybe a mix of the larger cities, small villages and the forest itself. It would be interesting to wander the forest in different areas, and maybe even spend a night or two there in a tent or a log cabin. In the villages, it would be great to get a grasp of the traditional customs (or what’s left of it anyway). Likely, I’d try to hit the right season for visiting the Black Forest, some time around late Summer or Fall, with sunny days as well as damp and rainy days, to experience different moods.

Then I’d try to compose some parts while still being there, to memorize the atmosphere later on. I’d also do field recordings, as you mentioned – they might be a powerful tool to enhance the special atmosphere. Back home then, I’d compose by using what you’ve mentioned for further inspiration – paintings, pictures, re-reading traditional poetry, songs and legends.

And one thing is always similarly important for me, I almost forgot about it, haha! Eating and drinking regional cuisine – that’s definitely imbibing the soul of a place in it’s most literal meaning!

So, all I need now is someone willing to spend a lot of money on me for working on an album about the Black Forest…

Many, many years down the road, a very distant relative locates a box in the attic of an old house? Inside the box are copies of your albums and something to play them on. What do you want them to know about Forgotten Pathways simply from listening to the music?

That’s a cool question, too!

I think it would be nice to give my descendant a glimpse into my personality, or at least something that could fill a dull name with some life to it. It’s always good to know about your family, and I remember that I always enjoyed finding out things about distant relatives myself. That fills out the painting of one’s past a little bit, and I would find it great to know that some future family member will have the entertainment of finding such a part of his or her own puzzle.

On the other hand, I’d hope that listening to the music would work the way I described before: That he or she takes the time to listen to the music and accepts the invitation to walk down the pathways long forgotten…

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