In a CDM exclusive interview, Leigh Wright of Wyrd Daze talks with Chicago, Illinois dungeon synth artist Zack Dolin, the mind behind science fantasy synth project Scrying Glass. They talk sci-fi, fantasy, dungeon synth, world building, musical influences and more.
Written for CDM by Leigh Wright (Wyrd Daze)
Listen to the new album Weaver: Bandcamp
Follow Scrying Glass: Instagram
Please introduce and tell us about yourself (if you would like to remain anonymous you can limit this introduction to your project/s. Either way, please do go into as much detail as you’d like).
Hi there, my name is Zack Dolin, creator of the fantasy synth project Scrying Glass, as well as music released under my own name. I’m from Chicago, IL, and currently living in Maryland. By day, I’m a software engineer, husband and dad. At night, I can often be found at my music desk, clicking furiously at the MIDI piano roll while drinking sparkling water. I’m an avid reader of science fiction, fantasy, and non-fiction. The top places I’d like to visit right now are Alaska, Switzerland, and Korea, and my favorite food is pizza.
Tell us about the story / world building / themes behind your project/s
At the time I first discovered dungeon synth, I was hooked on the Dying Earth series by Jack Vance, which led to the notion of creating an album influenced by Jack Vance’s science-fantasy stylings, and became the first Scrying Glass album Beyond Sight. Musically, this translated into odd time signatures, through-composed songs, and frequent musical twists and turns (which was all basically up my alley anyway). The next SG album, Wyrmhole, also paid homage to Jack Vance with its first track, “Planet Adventure”.
Subsequently, I released a split album with Fen Walker, taking part in the ongoing epic unfolding in the land of Ur, and which contained themes inspired by fantasy author Clark Ashton Smith and his story The Seven Geases. My most recent album, Weaver, doesn’t contain any specific literary references, and is more a hodgepodge of motifs, but still firmly rooted in a very Vancian flavor of science fantasy synth.
Tell us about the art & design associated with your project/s
The artist who created my logo and much-loved album covers is Aaron Lawrance. He doesn’t advertise his work on Instagram, but he responded to a Reddit post in search of a logo artist. Aaron is studious in collecting and immersing himself in source material, to the point of listening to the Jack Vance Tschai series on audiobook, just to aid in visualization. As far as his paintings, they nail the vintage look of 70’s sci-fi paperbacks and prog rock album covers, and are striking in their composition and depth of narrative.
My split with Fen Walker, Behold! Visions from the Scrying Pool! was treated to artwork by Brendan Elliot. His vertically symmetrical cover with two battle-worn figures staring at each other’s reflections embodied everything I love about his work – the sweeping, storied landscapes (riddled with mystery and runic etchings), the gnarled rock and tree structures, and vibrant colors.
What are some of your influences (musical and otherwise)?
Scrying Glass contains DNA from Frank Zappa, a multitude of 70’s prog bands (ELP, Genesis, PFM, King Crimson, to name a few), and video game soundtracks from my childhood, such as Space Quest, Monkey Island, Legend of Zelda, and Marble Madness. As far as dungeon synth artists, definitely Jim Kirkwood, with his music firmly rooted in fantasy but extending well beyond the boundaries of spacetime. Others include Old Sorcery, Fief, Malfet, Ur Pale, Vandalorum, Fen Walker, and Castle Zagyx. Discovering Fen Walker’s “Sojourns in the Realm of the Undermoon” was a personal epiphany, where I felt a desire to mix “progressive” elements with dungeon synth in a similar way, and in general start my own project.
Some DS cassettes on my regular rotation lately are “Sacred Remains” by Heaven, “The Grey Wanderer” by Arcana Liturgia, “Brackenlore” by Fernmage, “The Bastion of Pines” by Frost Clad, “Tales from Toasty Troll Tavern” by Unsheathed Glory, “The Temple Revealed” by Runecaster, and many others.
Show/tell us about your creative space and process
My home office is both my daytime work and nighttime music space. At the moment, I use four hardware units – a Juno 106 for leads and basslines, a Novation Peak for various pads and leads, a Roland SC-88 Pro as an instrument library and drum kit, and an Elektron Model:Cycles, mostly for kicks and electronic drum sounds. I also use a ton of VST instruments and effects. The DAW I use is Reaper.
I don’t really know how to play the keyboard, so 99% of the time, my tracks are entirely pre-programmed using the MIDI piano roll. Using a MIDI splitter, I route the 16 channels from my Focusrite Clarett audio interface to the various hardware instruments: the Juno gets channel 1, the Peak gets channel 2, the Elektron has channels 3-7, and the SC-88 Pro has channels 8-16. When I either complete a track or need to free up a MIDI channel, I record the audio output of the hardware instruments back into my DAW.
Sometimes I’ll start with a melody or idea that’s been kicking around my head, but usually I just throw notes on the piano roll, and start building a composition from there. It involves a lot of tweaking and refining by ear, almost like sculpting. My songs frequently change keys and rhythms, a quality that I find is largely beyond my control. In the future, I’d like to start building more cohesive songs that present more variation on a single theme, as opposed to the constantly changing/shifting tracks I tend to produce. I find that starting with a bassline is the quickest way for me to build a tune— starting with a melody is doable, but takes much longer.
How does your sense of place affect the way you express yourself?
My music room / office is an oasis where I can unwind from the pressures of daily life and indulge in experimentation. Creating music is a time-consuming and solitary endeavor, which can often be a major challenge for me. Sometimes things flow quickly and easily, and other times it takes 2-3 hours just to find the right instrument for the mix, whereby listening to the same passage repeatedly becomes a kind of torture. But finishing and releasing music into the world is ultimately gratifying and provides a sense of accomplishment.
What does dungeon synth (and/or related genres) mean to you?
One of my favorite aspects of dungeon synth is exploring all the far-flung and wondrous concepts for albums and track names, which complement the music to form a uniquely immersive and transportive experience that is rarely found with such potency in other genres. I’m also deeply fascinated by the way dungeon synth fuses the ancient and archaic with modern sounds and technology, often creating a haunting or otherworldly atmosphere.
How would you describe the Dungeon Synth community?
They are a group of avid listeners and artists, with a predilection for dark and fantastical storytelling, and who often enjoy finding beauty in the melancholic and somber. They are drawn to the darker side of human nature and the otherworldly, but remain a warm and positive community eager to engage with both veterans and newcomers alike. I think many also experience a deep appreciation for the creative works that influenced them as a child, and view them as important pieces of their creative background and personal history.
Tell us about your gaming habits: video games, RPG, tabletop, other? Past & present.
I grew up playing NES, Super NES, Genesis, and PC adventure games like King’s Quest (particularly III and IV), Space Quest, Monkey Island, and Day of the Tentacle. I have recently enjoyed Stardew Valley, Undertale, and Minecraft, but primarily play tabletop board games— especially “Euro” style ones like Concordia, Glass Road, Rococo, Stone Age, and Bruges.
If you could step through a portal to any realm of fantasy (established or otherwise), where would it be?
As a kid I spent many an afternoon on my parents’ Apple IIGS, wandering the Kingdom of Daventry (and dying a lot) in the Kings Quest adventure series. Other fictional places I’d love to visit are Larry Niven’s Known Space, the town of Stardew Valley, and Buckkeep from Robin Hobb’s Farseer trilogy.