Hermit Knight- Once

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Artist: Hermit Knight

Album:  Once

Label: Weregnome Records

Released: 6/24/2022

Country: USA

Hermit Knight is a favorite Dungeon Synth project of mine that I not only had the good fortune of already covering a couple months back with its then most recent release, Goblings: A Whimsical Goblin Adventure, but also befriending the man behind both the project and Weregnome Records throughout the process of my coverage.  In the following months, Nicholas Pahaman and I chatted off and on about various topics, sharing life experiences, and of course discussing Dungeon Synth.  Yet even in spite of this growing friendship, I was still very surprised and touched when Nicholas reached out to me and allowed me to listen to the latest Hermit Knight outing, Once.  This is not to say such a thing is unexpected of him because he is stingy in doling out his work, or overly protective of it (no more so than any self respecting artist has a right to that is), because he is much too generous to do either, but rather it is a rare and honorous thing to be on the receiving end of something that is in the beginning processes of being released to a larger audience.  And a larger audience is what is required of Hermit Knight’s latest foray, because it is the best one yet.  From the increasingly nuanced layerings, to the blending of elements of past releases to create a new experience that is still wholly familiar and unique to the Hermit Knight sound, Once is a record that expands the concept of what a Dungeon Synth album and project could be. 

For my original review on Goblings I incorporated elements of our impromptu “interview”.  I originally reached out to Nicholas to ask after album artwork to post in conjunction with the review as it was slated to be a surprise and had yet to be released, and was quite pleased with the results, so I felt it only right to incorporate such elements again, albeit a bit more planned and formally declared as such beforehand rather than after the fact.  Our interview took place over a social media app, me with a terrible memory and being slightly neurotic in wanting to ensure I wasn’t haphazardly paraphrasing another words insisted on this and Nicholas generously obliged (the condensed version being offered below). The goal of the interview being, to not only find out more about Once, but Hermit knight as well, how it spawned, where it was going, and most importantly, what its purpose was. 

It turns out that Hermit Knight is quite aptly named for a myriad of reasons.  For one it was a pandemic baby, our generation’s fucked-up echo of Baby Boomers, who hopefully won’t fuck things up as badly as all that.  Driven into seclusion from forced lockdowns and quarantines, Nicholas embraced the “New Hermetic Order” in the most 21st century way possible, by reaching out to other dungeon-dwelling recluses and turning it into a passion all his own, “…before the shutdowns and world ending, I listened in passing to dungeon synth, but never got into the community or crafted such work but I found a little home with kind folks to chat about the nerdiest things handmade some really fantastic friendships…it pushed me to find something I could be part of without ever leaving the house”.   Hermit Knight is also somewhat of an emblematic figure for Nicholas himself, having struggled with Bipolar disorder, a diagnosis that he is rather open about in hopes of becoming an advocate for peoples who suffer with the disorder.  It, has always been apart of him and something that he has had a mind to do, subconscious or otherwise, but paradoxically waited until a rather large stressor to bring it to fruition, “Hermit Knight has always been bubbling in my brain I suppose, but the shutdown fueled its birth…it’s a way to give voice to the emotions I’ve had my whole life and lack of a expansive vocabulary or emotional awareness to give voice to”.  Rather than succumbing to a potential bought of volatile emotions brought on by harsh circumstances, Nicholas chose instead to embrace his newfound solitude by exploring the depths of his disorder via a lonesome figure.  What is most telling about Nicholas as both an artist and a human is the way in which Hermit Knight records unfold.  For the majority of them, Hermit Knight and Solace in Solitude the overall theme is rather downtrodden and gloomy.  However, there are always patches of brightness, moments where it feels as if one is moving forward.  This shows both a man refusing to be defeated by an illness, looking around for the best parts of himself, and a guided exploration into spaces others may have difficulty going, casting light as it were, after a particularly dark stretch.  These are all things Nicholas knows about himself, though I suspect he is too humble to say as much, but he illustrates my point perfectly in his own words when he said, “I wanted to incorporate all of the feelings inside and not just focus on one.  I could have easily have just done DSBM(Depressive Suicidal Black Metal) and focus on horrible it all really is but having those little moments of victory like taking a shower or getting out of the house to finally see someone.  That’s the stripped-down version of the battles of our poor lonesome traveler.  Not very noble, but victories nonetheless”.  

But what about the actual album? How does everything I’ve just been talking about translate into what I’m supposed to be writing about, presumably why you clicked on the link? Simply put, it brings a greater understanding to the level of nuance and focus that Once has achieved, in not only progressively blending styles of past records as mentioned, but moving forward as an artist and person in lockstep with their creation so much so as to be a real time expression of the reflections and revelations of the artist.  Nicholas said as much himself, when in our interview he stated, “…I think so far Once has been my most focused piece… it really tries to capture the moments in a more vivid and lively manner… dealing with losses of a loved companion, ending of friendships, beginnings of new ones but it’s like this time, my emotions were more in tune to my writings”.  This sentiment is seemingly encapsulated within the first two tracks of the album, the titular “Once” and “An Unlikely Pair”, the former a point of lugubrious reflection, the latter an onset of a new journey (along with being the opening track for A Weregnome Spring, a live event recently hosted by Nicholas Pahaman and his Wife Selena featuring live performances and music videos of Weregnome Records artists).  The opening track “Once”  feels like it is more befitting of an outro rather than intro.  Perhaps it is after a fashion, in so much that it is starting off a completely new journey for our Hermit Knight that is vastly different than any he’s had before.   One that he must rest just a moment longer for, before embarking on.  It is low toned and slow moving, and recalls much of Hermit Knight’s first two records, while seemingly moving away from them in its brevity.  “An Unlikely Pair” starts us off onto the Hermit Knight’s newer path with a flamboyant, yet still slightly subdued, jaunt that gives an illusion of one trying to contain their joy in a public place in order to save face.  There is a steady  and measured complement of strings and flute type instruments that keep a reserved melody while a bouncing drum bops its way along the underside of the track.  What is interesting of note here, is that if one only focuses and listens to a particular instrumentation within the track they are able to find that it is rather down tempo and not at all very uplifting, yet somehow Nicholas Pahman acting as Hermit Knight has arranged it so that these individualistically down trodden aspects give a feeling of being upbeat in spite of their slower parameters, a remarkable feat that becomes a layering aspect of the overall theme of the record.

“Together, Just One More Time” is a blending of the first two track styles in how there is an introspective intro that is followed by an upturn in tempo and brightness.  What differs from the first two tracks however, is not only the length (just over ten minutes), but also how the instrumentation in this track is more up beat overall in addition to it’s tempo.  The length does actually help this track quite a bit, as it really encapsulates what Hermit Knight is all about.  There is an ebb and flow to the track that makes it feel as if it is a mini record within the record.  This is accomplished by the peaks and valleys within the track that are transitioned so smoothly one hardly notices when they are taking place, you are simply in a darkened room surrounded by spacious keys with reverberation and all of a sudden you are awash in a field of light with percussive tracks and high octave synths, and finally left to come down with an admixture of Hermit Knight’s signature key sounds, slow yet bright and reverbarting leaving you in a sense of comfort rather than desolation.  Knowing NIcholas’ plight with his mental illness gives an extra weight to this track in particular for me, as it helps articulate a concept in a way I haven’t experienced before.  It is one thing to read of bipolar disorder, and to hear tales of people’s darker or darkest times, but it is quite another to be fully submerged in it, to be transitioned from one feeling to the next like the movements within this track while not fully realizing a transition is occurring . It is all at once unsettling and enlightening, and wholly speaks to what I meant in saying that this is a record that could expand the concept of what a Dungeon Synth album could be, progressively immersive and challenging while still maintaining a semblance of the darker undertones and fantastical escapist elements that we all love about Dungeon Synth.  Not to mention the fact that the record and project itself could have broader implications in terms of positive advocacy for which the art was originally created for. 

“All Creatures Great and Small” is a light and short song that serves as a sort of breather from the heavier, “Together, Just One More Time” and is a great transition into “Time Passes (As Does All Things)”.  “Time Passes” is the most consistently jovial track on the record, and it also crosses the territory into an outright epic.  It begins with a funky key intro that is so playful that it would be questionable if it was Hermit Knight if it wasn’t for the signature sound and what follows.  The track quickly transitions into a more serious, albeit still consistently upbeat tone, with a roll of snare drums ushering in a crash of cymbals and strings, to create a forward style marching rhythm.  It is not long before there is yet another transition, this time away from the more percussive heavy into more of a reliance on a string and keys combination, the drums still being there however, just reduced to a supportive role and placed more into the background.  As the track progresses there are more spacious moments as in “Together, Just One More Time”  however,  they are more brief and are seemingly, from a narrative perspective, more about taking in some joyous moments in ponderance, instead of a more gloomy introspection.  This is where more of the nuance and layering of the album take place, while there is definitely more instrumental layering within tracks than in previous Hermit Knight releases, there is also nuance to how the tracks are layered within the record.  Starting out slower than ever and bringing us to this point of unmatched, in Hermit Knight history, brightness and hope via transitional and close to hopeful tracks like “Together, Just One More Time”, and regressive and seemingly despondent tracks like “Once” and “All Creatures Great and Small”, the later of which made all the more jarring when the opening lines of “Time Passes (As Does All Things)” comes in near manic fashion.  It underlines the very real and difficult struggle of wrestling with the particular mental illness that isBipolar disorder, and how it is often times confusing as well as conflicting.  And yet there is still glory to be found in even what some may view as the simplest thing, surviving, even though many would argue, myself included they are, “…victories nonetheless”

Once closes out with “It’s Time to Rest My Friend (The Rainbow Bridge Is Calling)”,  a previously released track celebrating the life of “…Charlie the Bunny Rabbit and to all the other pet companions we have lost along the way”.  Though it can be taken as the celebration of life of a beloved friend, I believe it’s place as the final note in this record is also a celebration of life in general, and perhaps an honorific for those who have succumbed to their own mental illnesses , though that is only personal speculation and not specifically mentioned in our interview.  The track itself has a lingering sort of beauty about it, meaning that is not too heavy-handed in one element or another and exists as a sort of transient being of etherealness that drifts from theme to theme.  It is a thoughtfully light ending to a rather dense record in terms of subject matter conveyed through elicited feelings, and it makes one feel as if they have been shown a light upon a path within a darkened forest through a break in the trees, one that, at times we have all felt as if we had lost.  Luckily enough for us, we have a companion in the form of Hermit Knight, whose sole function is to travel those ways, and illuminate even our darkest travels with moments of brightness, because he has been there before and knows the way out.

Condensed Interview:

Cave Dweller Music: Hello my friend!

Nicholas Pahaman: Hey what’s up buddy

CDM:  Living the good life with a baby on my lap, how you feeling after that turn around?(NP worked the previous overnight and was operating off little sleep)

NP: Haha, very nice man! Been feeling alright despite the little sinus infection I picked up ha.

CDM:Oh, Shit man I’m sorry to hear that, you still up for the interview, or do you need some rest?

NP: I’d be ok haha if you can handle my congested voice haha.  I been sleeping all day and waking up I’m just waking up now and gonna make some tea

CDM:  Actually, if youre cool, I was thinking just going through messenger?  That way everything is put down in place so I’m not doing you dirty by mixing up words haha

NP: Thats completely fine my guy!

(Took  small break so NP could grab his tea)

NP: Okay Dokay. Got my tea and water and sitting down now haha

CDM: First things first, what kind of tea?

NP:  Its my go to echinacea.  Especially when Im feeling down, but something about its flowery taste I dig. 

CDM:  I do Chamomile with a lemon wedge and a sprig of clove when I got a head cold its got a good spice to it, then everything else I defer to my wife haha. 

NP: Haha that sounds wonderful, I usually let the wife pick, she’s he real tea drinker, I like all the fun ones.  I never really got into black tea, but usually I’m a coffee guy, but Sleepytime all the way.

(we talk about tea for a while)

CDM: So now that we have the super important stuff out of the way I guess we should get down to this silly music that we both love haha

NP: Haha yeah, glad you got the snippet for tea drinkers weekly sorted. 

CDM: Do you think your work in the Dungeon Synth Community has helped get through these past couple of years of insanity?

Np: I really believe it was a personal savior of sorts.  Like right before the shutdowns and world ending, I listened in passing to Dungeon Synth but never got active into the community or crafted such works.  But I found a little home with kind folks to chat about the nerdiest things and made some really fantastic friendships whereas I would have never met them otherwise.  You know, like now I’m on the cusp of growing older, so friend groups grow smaller in person due to work constraints and families expanding.

CDM: So in a sense the pandemic got you into Dungeon Synth?

NP: I Think it for real did.  Like it pushed me to find something I could be part of without leaving the house. 

CDM:  For sure, that makes the time you take for yourself take on a special significance.  Is that where the drive to create Hermit Knight came from?

NP:  Exactly, so out of my lonesome shutdown and restless spirit I founded the label and began making music.  So Hermit Knight has always been bubbling in my brain I suppose, but the shutdown fueled its birth.

CDM: That’s a rad response to stress.

NP: The idea of Hermit Knight is how I shut myself from the outside world and those I love due to my mental illness and weird way of shutting down.  The shutdown kind of heightened that response, because now it wasn’t by my own choice.

CDM: So Hermit Knight is your way of coping with the world?

NP: Its a way to give voice to the emotions I’ve had my whole life and lack of a expansive vocabulary or emotional awareness to give voice to.

CDM: That’s really beautiful 

NP: It really focuses on the mania, the depression and the solitude that having bipolar finds you. 

CDM:  I can see where that would give you an alleviation in a healthy and thoughtful way… One thing I’ve noticed about Hermit Knight is that even with the first couple records that are on the whole more down trodden there are elements of brightness and moving forward, do you think that is representative of your disorder? As a sort of amplification?

NP: I think that is a perfect representation of it, as it heads towards the unknown “ending” or quest final boss, it grows in excitement and feelings of extreme natures.  The first two where really focused more on the downside and with brief moments of reprieve or mental clarity.  Or really the joy of making it another day.  

CDM: Do you think that also contributes to your unique sound? You have a very distinctive almost reedy kind of through keys that is a bit shaky but still pulls through on the tracks. 

NP:  I think it translates really well into the music, like the uneasiness or chaos that happens internally but somehow there is always a moment of a still and quiet deep breath, bringing pure joy.  I wanted to incorporate all of the feelings inside and not just focus on one.  I could easily have just done DSBM and focused on how horrible it all really is, but having those little moments of victory.  Like taking a shower or getting out of the house to finally see someone.  Thats the stripped down version of the battles of our poor lonesome traveler.  Not very noble, but victories none the less. 

CDM: I know Goblings was created in hand with a game, and it was way more upbeat, was that always intended trajectory or was it more of an epiphanous decision?

NP: Well in the beginning it was basically a trade for a logo for a track.  After hearing the whole idea of the game and starting to work on the track, I was wildly inspired and told the artist, “Well, I’m making you a damn album”. 

CDM: (In response to the “Small victiories comment) It’s the small ones that amount to the greater good in the end, that’s very much how I approached my sobriety and anxiety disorder that went off the rails after cleaning up.

NP:  That’s wonderful to hear my friend, and bless our partners.  They are the strong ones.  Without Selena, I wouldn’t be who I am or have the strength to focus

CDM: Thanks Man! I’d been clean for a couple years before I met her but she really got me back into the world. 

NP: Oh thats good! She only got the hermit version of Aaron huh?

CDM: Yeah, thank god, I was not what you’d call a “pleasant human” when I was in my cups haha. 

NP: But everyone deserves a redemption story. 

CDM: Fuck yes my friend, I couldnt agree more.  

NP: And big high fives to the wife for being there for you, she’s a queen. 

CDM: And to yours man, she sounds like one bad mother fucker, I mean based on our previous conversations we’ve had. 

NP: Haha she is, chaotic and beautiful but the kindest person I’ve ever met

CDM: Chaotic Good is probably the best alignment haha

NP: And she lets me make nerdy synth music and helps me run a tape label haha.  I agree!

CDM:  That’s fucking killer man, and she’s super supportive too, I love seeing you guys doing it together. 

NP: Yeah, Two little gnomes doing nerd stuff. 

CDM: Backtracking just a sec, to the redemption piece you mentioned, would you consider Once to be a redemptive record? Since there are blended elements of all records thus far to almost bombastic effect.

NP: Yes, I think so far Once has been my most focused piece.  Like as a whole its an album of true reflection.  It really tries to capture the moments in a more vivid and lively manner.  It really is like turning a new leaf, acceptance for what was before and what still lies ahead.  Dealing with losses of a loved companion, ending of friendships, beginnings of new ones, but its like this time, my emotions were more in tune to my writings.  

CDM: So, an encapsulated metaphor for a period of time?

NP: Exactly.  I feel the sway and uneasiness of lets take the s/t album, was less apparent in this one

CDM: Do you feel more comfortable, or confident perhaps, in your writings as a result of this record? 

NP: It more so knew what it was trying to say.  This took me to a whole other level, it was really confidence that was lacking not the skill to do so, I just usually rushing and not focus on the little things, feeling too busy or wanting to get a piece done.  

CDM: Less of an exploration and more of a declaration of feelings?

NP:  I couldn’t put that better myself.  I used to be in the mindset that life was fleeting and I needed to create and put out things everyday.  This time, as I’ve aged and become more aware of myself, I decided to take an opposite approach.  Let’s let the music breathe and focus on every single element.  

CDM:  That’s actually kind of hitting close to some of the questions I formulated before hand, when I was wondering if it was “more deliberate” because there is a lot of layering of sounds, and just a whole lot more going on. 

NP: Yeah, it really was me playing along with each measure like a hundred times and taking it all in.  The layers, which since you listened to other HK stuff, is my bread and butter and my makes my heart swell with like 3 melodies at once.  This was like amplified.  And to state earlier, I said I had the skill of of the music at hand, I’m not a great musician by any means haha, I just know the DAW enough to work around well enough in it.  Not trying to make it sound like I’m some egocentric musician.  I’m just a guy who makes music in a room like everyone else in these scenes.  

CDM: Haha, honestly, especially when it comes to Dungeon Synth, its the final product.  I use free software and a $30 midi keyboard from Target to fuck around with and I always dig what I come up with. 

NP: Hahaha, really I use a small midi for most of my work, I used to work with real synths and keyboards back in the day, but financially I haven’t that luxury anymore.  While I do plan to makes some side projects with my old keyboards under another banner, Hermit Knight, I enjoy the process I have for it know.

CDM:  If there is the one thing you want people to take away from this record, or even Hermit Knight in general, but what would you want it to be? If you were talking to all the other gents and ladies in rooms with their keys?

NP: I think the most important thing I always say that the label on our specials or to those that are interested in this particular type of music, is you can make art, anyone can make art.  Express yourself and se where that road takes you, don’t make it for anyone else, that isn’t the point.  It doesn’t have to be Beetohven nor artwork by Dali.  it just has to be honest and from the heart.  That’s the biggest thing.  Make the music or art that you want.  If it doesn’t work, keep at it.  

CDM: That’s an incredible sentiment. 

NP: Thanks.  I make Hermit Knight for myself.  I listen to it all of the time, its what I want to hear, its nice that a few other folks have latched onto it and find meaning and connections in it, but I’d make it whether one or none heard it.  And honestly, for like 20 years no one heard my music haha.  

CDM: I think that really comes through within the music, and I believe that is one of the reasons why there did such an individualistic sound to your music, much like Erang’s passion for imagination and the possibilities it has. 

NP: I love Erang so much, I would put them as super high on my list for inspiration.  Not necessarily the sound, but more so the thoughts and feelings that go into their works.  Plus Erang is an absolute king.  

(From there on the interview turn into a more casual conversation between us that doesn’t pertain to DS, thereby ending it)

Be righteous by listening to and supporting Hermit Knight on Bandcamp: https://weregnomerecords.bandcamp.com/album/once-wgr079

A Weregnome Spring:

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