Saturday, June 11, 2022

Tapes from The IXth Key

I consider Live Session #1 by Secret Corridor to be the best crystallized incarnation of the dungeon synth microgenre. There are more famous albums and even more beautiful ones, but this one, to me, is the one that best captures what I love about this type of music, so of course I am always interested in what the artist releases. As it appears, this person is also behind the project The IXth Key which I had already listened to a couple years ago with the Potions mini-album without making the connection.

About two months ago I was looking for a cassette from Alder Deep at Discogs and found that the seller was also offering several tapes by The IXth (among many others) and went for them since; a) these are very rare to come by; b) I didn't want the regret from not acting when I had the chance; and c) because by that time I knew that Secret Corridor and The IXth Key were the same person. Same person, similar music, right?

Here's my review.

These were released by Wrought Records as part of a limited boxset. From what I understand my copies are spares from the original run which were offered soon after the boxset release. The cassettes and cases look nice, especially when they are put together with their contrasting colors. Production is a mixed bag. While the designs are good, quality seems not have been a top priority for the jcards are are somewhat flimsy and the stickers are a bit sloppily pasted leaving peels on the sides.
Curiously, The IXth Key is not credited anywhere by text, only by its emblem. While this might confuse those who are not in the know, if Lord Orots has one of the best personas in DS, The IXth has one of the best emblems.

The artwork seems to come from the same hand. Simple, yet effective.

Aside from the physical tapes, I was lucky to receive some of the extras which were included in the boxset, for, who could have guessed that the people of Wrought would be so nice as to send these, presumably boxset-exclusive merch, to the original owner and that he in turn would pass them on to me? What I got was the patch (maybe I'll frame it), the button (which was the one that I wanted most if you would have asked me) and the sticker to Winter… along with miscellaneous items from other DS musicians including a button from Longmoan and an unopened pack of Erang trading cards.

The sound of the tapes themselves is very good. On the entry and exit points for each side however there are noticeable "plugging" & "unplugging" sounds not unlike a needle drop on a turntable which also speaks to lax quality control. The cassettes are uniformly around 19 minutes per side which leave in many minutes of blank sound. A tighter fit in tape length would've been welcome.

I'll divide the set into three groups. The first one comprises Winter, Potions and October Moon; the second, Dungeon; and the last one, Dark Ages; you'll see why.

What appears to be the general idea with these releases is an exploration of different DS styles.

I listened to all two times each within ten days. After the first run I was underwhelmed and disappointed and wrote the first draft of this article questioning myself what had happened. I found the key, so to speak, right away on my second listening: the members of the first group sport simple compositions and I had been demanding too much of them and comparing them to my favorites from the genre. The trick for these three, then, is to take them in isolation as if nothing else existed. Under that spell, the music suddenly comes alive and expressive and does its job of giving the listener a good time. Who cares if there are better albums?


Winter synth is a very early offshoot from DS in its recent revival. Despite its bounty it still has much to explore and one can be excited about its future. I'm inclined to the classic twinkly sound and this album delivers on that by its periodic accents from a triangle or small bell. As such, it is more compositional than soundscape-esque.


This was my first introduction to the project and is the shortest of the set. The music portrays a sense of loneliness and even sorrow but that never falls into despair.  It is somewhat difficult to match the title to the music. On side B there's the sound of one single drop falling midway which is the only evident link. Departing from the 'potions' imagery this could work for a flower that blooms in the morning (Side A) and begins to wilt as evening approaches (side B). The melancholy shown here is even more powerfully pushed on the projects Royaume des Brumes and Spectral Castle, so it would be natural to check those out once one is done with these.

October Moon

This one is different from the others in that it has track titles; these describe the exploration of a haunted house. As such, it the most digestible to listen to and has "There's a Crying Ghost Under the Staircase" which is the most beautiful from the set. "What Lies in the Basement" sounds like something coming from Slasher Film Festival Strategy. Simple ideas around. The very last notes end subtly discordant which makes me think that the protagonist didn't quite make it out from the adventure. On the top of the shell there is printed the number 30, which probably doesn't mean anything as it also appears in the Discogs photos for the specific release included in the boxset. Side B has nothing on it: I listened to it anyway to see if there were any hidden surprises; alas, there were none.

This one might be marginally easier to find in the wild than expected as there's at least one other version, a self-released one from The IXth, that I've seen live and then gone (not listed on Discogs however).


This one stands up to all comers and on the second listening got even better. The loneliness from Potions continues only now with richer sound. I can picture two things happening here. The first one is that what we have here are musical depictions of different levels from a certain dungeon, starting from the outside on a deeply orange sunset and moving further and further into it. The difference with all the other dungeons that you have listened to, is that this one is completely empty. No trolls, no vermin, no anything, except for the structure of the levels themselves, dust, and a deep sense of abandonment.

The other possible reading I get is that this is the portrayal of the dungeon itself as an entity, narrating its inner life of desolation. There's no tragedy or grief, but only an existence apart from all living things. While it is alien in its perspective, the music bridges the chasm making it relatable to the listener.

In terms of artwork, I like what the artist did with the shadows falling on the steps in the front cover and the door looks straight out from Wizardry.

The compositions are restrained, yet relaxed. Each describes its idea in crystalline form not trying to heap unnecessary complications on top or to linger on on pointless repetition.  As to the narrative, if one was intended, we have a set plan, but the tracks could really work on any order.

You wouldn't want to change anything else. Not a good idea to mess with perfection and this one comes as close to it as anyone could reasonably hope for. It is a highlight of the genre that somehow has fallen out of the collective attention. If you see any of these tapes around, grab this one first. If you get any more, I think this one sounds best after taking Potions as an aperitif.  For my taste the sound is just right specifically in its use of distortion.

Dark Ages

Speaking of distortion you can go full swing on it.

I purposely didn't order this one for I knew the nature of the music, but it was sent to me anyway. If one were challenged to describe this one in one word, "harsh" would readily suffice. The distortion and this one is dialed up so high as to almost obscure the music. Looking behind the thick curtain of noise there are actual compositions that resemble church hymns that could almost work without the miasma. While I believe that Dungeon Noise is a legitimate way to carry DS forward, it doesn't really appeal to me and this album only makes me more entrenched in my disinclination. I think other projects can pull it, such as the already mentioned Alder Deep, but only because they retain a discernible melodic thread (Chapter 1: The Descent, Hambert's Tale) or a strong concept (Chapter 2: KGCF, Wildemoeder) to deliver the ambience. Noise for noise's sake is commendable for experimentation, but it seems to me that it is best used as an additive rather than a main dish. This one didn't get any better with the second listening and it is very unlikely I will be returning to it with any regularity. Undaunted, The IXth has explored more of this area in a split with Grimwin's Forge (not on tape but can still be found if you know where to look) and probably also in Chainmail which I'll mention in a second. The cassette for Dark Ages, as an object, is hands down the most stunning of the set, proud in all its black-clad redness. This one also has the best art in my opinion as it looks like you really could swing that flail if you wanted to.

There's even more

There is an extra title, "Rusty Chainmail", that completes the set but the seller didn't have it or offer it, so I can't tell you anything about it. The IXth experience doesn't end here as there are many other titles with varying availability. Probably the best of these other ones is the split with Alkilith, "The Citadel of Sleeping Towers". There are also the artist's other projects that can be found gathered, though not completely, on the Weeping Kingdom Lila Starless Bandcamp page.

While The IXth Key project doesn't necessarily showcase the artist at his/her best, it has pros going for it. If one forgets Dark Ages, the music holds up, which is paramount, and the project overall has an attractive visual concept and emblem. The accidental greatest strength for these albums however, is their rarity. For some of these (October Moon, Potions and Rusty), there's no way you can listen to the music unless you have the already limited physical media or bought the digital before it was removed. The internet doesn't have them; I've checked. It is a rare privilege to be able to listen at all and that ratchets up the mystique. This leads me to my concluding remarks.

To me music must be difficult. Having too easy access debases the enjoyment. Youtube, Spotify (oh, I so hate it) are doubly pernicious because they not only encourage disposability but also push one to move to the next song and the next song. There's no lasting impression. Physical media (and to a lesser extent paid digital services, such a Bandcamp) anchors the listener by the real commitment of forking money for specific albums and by the wait of delivery, and it also opens the door to selling, trading, bin hunting and collecting. These extra activities only add to the enjoyment. You have worked hard for your copy, you really own it, you have tangible matter in your hands and even extras. You, to put it succinctly, have paid due to the album and when the notes finally pours into your ear...that feeling is not to be had by consumerist, easy disposable music. Sure, there are disappointments, fool's errands and wild goose chases and collecting might devolve into hoarding. If music however stays at the forefront, by going harder rather than easier, meaning has a chance to take hold and one gets a higher, more enduring state of experience. Ask persons who have been born in the 80s or earlier about the music from their youth. 

For a different take on the boxset itself, I leave you with an authoritative review coming from a top collector.

update Feb 23


Of all the music from The IXth Key Ritual is likely the rarest among those that have received a tape release as there appears to be only eight copies of it in existence. If there are other titles and they aren't listed on Discogs or Bandcamp, I'm blind to them: I'm playing catch-up on most of the output, so keep that in mind. This one bugged me the most since I could get not much info on it, much less audio. Even the Wayback Machine wouldn't let me see its archived page on it while it was digitally live. According to the Weeping Kingdom facebook page it was given the kibosh, probably for good, back in mid 2020 because the artist didn't quite like it anymore along with "Tower" (which, btw, *might* have had a release of ten copies). Rateyourmusic did not think not much of it either.

However rare, there's been a copy on sale for maybe a year or more on Discogs. When I offered to buy it from the seller some months back, my message went unanswered. The problem appears to be that the seller won't ship it out of Europe. At the time of this writing it is still there. Towards the end of 2022, a second copy surfaced in Spain which I went for after twiddling my thumbs for a few weeks. From I could gather from the seller, this copy was originally purchased on the Internet (Bandcamp?) by a friend of his which later swapped it with him for a CD.

Judging by the artwork and general layout it belongs to the same era as the titles from the Wrought boxset. The jcard is thicker than those from Wrought and is blank on the backside. The cassette itself is a reclaimed one but nicely labeled in a loopy handwriting. This is the second time that I have received beautiful handwriting from a dungeon synth artist; who knew it was part of their skillset? 

It is also the shortest in duration just over nine mins. I had some trepidation with it: would those 9 minutes would be worth the anticipation and expenditure? If I were a musician (which I'm not even remotely) and I were to release so short a run, I'd make sure to make it really special for those lucky to land a copy. That, or if I were very unsure of the music. Which was this one?  When I finally pressed play, I was greeted with another short plugging sound and quite audible warbly tape hiss. After half a minute a sinusoidal drone began to appear which caught me completely off-guard. Was this one The IXth's incursion into drone? While I'm not that familiar with it and not as active in releases, Dungeon Drone is a thing. Once the wave had settled after another minute the main theme appeared on top of it consisting of just four notes  which kept going till near the end where it faded faster than in the long intro. After that the drone at length settled leaving the listener with the loud hiss. By then the show was over, but I kept on listening to see if something else would come up. The hiss finally gave up after half an hour when recorded music from a previous owner completed the side and went on to the other. I think I heard The Smiths somewhere there in between.

So what does Ritual sound like? If I compare it with the other albums, this one could comfortably fit into winter synth with its repeating pattern. The drone was always present but was unobtrusive and supported the melodic line. However, this one is very unlike most other winter synth albums I've listen to is that it is very dark. I can picture snow falling all right, but the snow is formed by unnaturally large flakes and... black; or that one has been trying to reach a winter hamlet in all haste only to find it, too late, slowly smoldering. The rising and falling of the drone's wave is quite effective in providing a slow pulse like something that would emanate from glowing embers. While not totally dismal or evil-sounding, it is the darkest from the project and rivals titles from the artist's more shadowy DS projects. Like Potions I cannot connect the title to the music but do get the aforementioned images. Maybe Dungeon, Potions and Ritual are more like a mirrors were you listen what you bring to them, which is quite a feat if you think about it. Also, like the ones at the beginning of the review, I felt that I had wasted money on the first go, but changed my mind on it after a couple more listens. Dungeon and Potions still top it and for many October Moon. Ritual may have become an evolutionary dead-end, but that also is of interest as it is a facet from the artist that one will no longer get to listen going forward. Aspects of it, however, become more exquisitely refined on some the artist's other projects, which means you can enjoy something akin to it, but not quite, by visiting Lila's Bandcamp page.

The Citadel of Sleeping Towers

This one has to be a crowd-pleaser. What's more, this one can be listened to readily and still be bought digitally. There is not much point in giving it a review since you can go judge for yourself, but let's have a go at it anyway for completeness sake.

I missed out on this one upon release on the Alkilith side and decided on waiting for its reappearance on the secondary market. Curiously, that has not happened yet despite all the copies around.  A few months back, I happened to check on a whim the WK's merch page and there's was one on offer from the IXth's side. I don't know how many were released at that moment but I immediately went for it. The jcard appears identical to the Alkilith side except it is unnumbered. The cassette, being a reused one, lacks also the labels and shell-color from the first release. Both sides are on the side A and are so thinly spaced that one might cross on to the second act unawares if one is not paying attention. The multipaneled jcard is a regular feature in Alkilith releases. The artwork, however, certainly comes from The IXth Key as the flail is a common motif in its album art, both physical and digital, along with the brick wall and pine trees (the moon and stars regularly appear as well). The creature can clearly be seen, even if not completely.

Alkilith appeared to me to be the junior partner but he manages to bring the best out of his talent and keeps up with The IXth. From all that I've listened from Alkilith this one this is where he shines the most. In every segment he brings new synth instruments and gives them their proper due. The sound is full of that old-school goodness and Alkilith obliges by adding judicious dashes of hiss and hum to round it off.

If I heard him right, Eidolon posits that the Wrought boxset represents the first era from The IXth Key. If so, here we find another era with a different sound from the artist that, while reminiscent to Dungeon, moves away from the minimalistic approach in being richer and quite recognizable in the scattered tracks and collaborations since.

While not labeled as such, both sides are fragmented into different tracks that superficially bear no relation to each other but hold well together with no obvious sore thumbs. Rather than a set narrative, we get the three-pronged hook from the title, the cover image and the text fragment. It is up to the listener to come up with her own story, but both sides end strong suggesting discrete episodes and a final climatic resolution. The nature of the citadel, its towers and the shoggoth-like creature are open questions as are the creature's plight and whether it emerges from it.

With Alkilith's side out this is the most common of the tape releases we've gone over and I'm confident copies will eventually surface on Discogs and such.

update Jul 23

Just the other day I was listening to Tyrannus' Black Sun and on a whim decided to compare it with Dark Ages. Wow!, with the benefit of the contrast Dark Ages now sounded... glorious. The melodies popped forward and its intricacies became more detailed; in a nutshell, it flipped my appreciation for it. I still think the actual noise elements are a couple of notches too loud in a bad way, but this latest listen has proven me wrong in my initial estimation.

update Sep 23

Ritual has become even more interesting than before. Here a couple more observations on it.

Some three months ago I was driving someone that was going to buy a raffle ticket. On the trip, the local classical music station was having an on-focus presentation on the passacaglia which featured samples from different composers like Pärt and Biber (not Justin). I decided that I would look into those at sometime in the future. When I finally came around listening to those, I was struck by the close identity, even in terms of tempo, of Biber's passacaglia theme to the one in Ritual. Either it is a happy coincidence, which is quite remarkable, or by design. If the latter, the ritual in Ritual can finally be identified if one reads up on Biber's work. 

I have played them both, back-to-back, and they work quite well together: different takes on the same idea. Ritual holds on to it with the album's unresolved repetition and Biber's finally lets loose all the built-up tension in baroque fireworks.

The other observation is that sandwiched in-between the layers of hiss, rumble, drone and theme there are some extra very faint ornamentation notes that I had not noticed until now; a pair for each theme note. These sound something like a cow bell, or perhaps more appropriately, the sound of a bell clanging back and forth on a death cart. Eerie! Once again, this take might not match The IXth Key's intent, but these fit so well nonetheless.

In closing, just some days ago, The IXth Key announced that it might very possibly re-release much of its back catalog on tape, so be on the lookout.


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