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 behind it 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 her 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; c) and 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 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 artists 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 in my second listening: the members of the first group sport simple compositions and I had been demanding to 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

Winter synth is a genre that intrigues me and feels like a natural extension to regular DS. What I liked best in this one are the periodic twinkly accents provided by a triangle or small bell.


Potions

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.


October Moon

This one has a story which involves 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.

Dungeon

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.

I like what the artist did with the shadows falling on the steps in the front cover.

If you see any of these tapes around, grab this one first. If you get 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

Talking 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 (that can still be found if you know where to look) and probably also in Chainmail which I'll mention in a second. This one has the best art in my opinion. 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 her other projects that can be found gathered, though not completely, on the Weeping Kingdom Bandcamp page.

While The IXth Key project doesn't necessarily showcase the artist at 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 this 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 succintly, 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.




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