Neo-Medieval music (sometimes referred to as dungeon synth) is a modern popular music characterized by elements of Medieval music and early music in general. Music styles within neo-Medieval music vary from authentic performance interpretations of Medieval music (understood as Classical music) to crossover genres that blend Medieval instruments, such as bagpipe, shawm and hurdy-gurdy with electronic music and rock. In many cases, it is more or less overlapping with styles such as folk rock, electric folk and neofolk.
Bands specializing in neo-Medieval music are particularly plentiful in Germany, although the genre also enjoys some popularity in North America, the Czech Republic, the Netherlands, France, United Kingdom, Italy and the Scandinavian countries.
It is difficult to point to an exact beginning of neo-Medieval music. One could argue that all Medieval-sounding tunes written after the actual Middle Ages are in some way neo-Medieval music; this definition would include music from as early as the Renaissance and onwards. Other examples of early neo-Medievalism in music would also include a number of Romantic composers such as Niels W. Gade, Edvard Grieg, and Felix Mendelssohn (who often used Medieval- and folk-style tunes in their music), as well as parts of the Carmina Burana by Carl Orff, and many movie soundtracks from the 20th century.
However, as a popular music form, the birth of neo-Medieval music is closely connected with the folk rock and roots music movement of the 1960s and 1970s. In many countries in Europe musicians sought to find their cultural roots, reviving music that had largely died out as a result of centuries of industrialization, and decades of exposure to United States music styles like jazz and rock.
The founding of the German band Ougenweide in 1970 is particularly important in this respect. Ougenweide revived many distinctly German and European genres, such as the Minnesang, and other examples of courtly love poetry and music. It is interesting to compare Ougenweide's approach to music with that of their contemporary kraut rock bands, especially Kraftwerk. Both sought to recreate German culture which they felt had been compromised by Nazism and World War II. But whereas Kraftwerk took music creation to an entirely new level, Ougenweide would revive ancient music and play types of instruments that, at least in Northern Europe, had been out of use for centuries.
In Great Britain, too, prog rock bands like Jethro Tull would often write songs with a Medieval touch to them. It was not until the late 1980s, however, that neo-medieval music would arise as an entire genre of its own, replete with a subculture following.
The Australian outfit Dead Can Dance who released most of their most famous works in the latter half of the 1980s was another early influence on the scene. Dead Can Dance had a far more pompous and symphonic sound than previous acts, and, although never considering themselves to be a Goth band, were mostly popular among Goths. This formed the precedence of neo-Medieval music being particular popular in the Goth scene.
1989 saw the formation of the German band Corvus Corax, two members of which were on the run from the disintegrating East German regime. Throughout the 1990s Corvus Corax would go on to have a profound effect on the state of neo-Medieval music.
Corvus Corax, along with other bands, started the now immensely popular strategy of combining medieval music with electronic music.
Neo-Medieval music by country
Neo-Medieval music enjoys popularity in many countries.
Germany is by far the most active country in the neo-Medieval scene. Nowhere else in the world are the artists so plentiful and the styles of music so diverse. The country contains such acts as Ioculatores (traditional Medieval music), Corvus Corax, In Extremo (Medieval metal), Saltatio Mortis, Faun (medieval pagan folk) and more ambient oriented bands like Helium Vola, Qntal, Love Is Colder Than Death, Saeldes Sanc and Estampie to mention a few. A particularly popular line-up is a variation of a traditional pipe-and-drum band, consisting mainly of modified bagpipes and a davul drum, often backed up by shawms in a manner reminiscent of a Breton bagad.
Sweden is home to the legendary folk rock band Hedningarna whose music contains a fair share of Medieval influences, not least in their choice of instruments; their songs often contain hurdy-gurdy, bagpipes and nyckelharpa. Whether the band is actually neo-Medieval or not may be a matter of debate. One could argue that they are merely infatuated with everything ancient. They have even been known to use Danish Bronze Age lurs, as well as playing gigs in castle ruins. However, their influence on the neo-Medieval scene in Scandinavia is arguably enormous. Garmarna is another important Swedish band in this context, as well as the Dead Can Dance/Qntal inspired act Arcana.
Medieval music in Denmark, and to some extent the other Nordic countries as well, has almost always been synonymous with Nordic dancing ballads. This particular type of ballad depends on cooperation between the lead singer and his audience. The singer narrates a story in song, to which the audience dances and falls in at the repeated chorus line which often predicts the end of the story (which is usually tragic). A song may last 20+ minutes. This tradition has been alive to the present day in the Faroe Islands where it is entirely a cappella, though this does not necessarily mean that it did not include instruments in its heyday. In Denmark the lyrics of most of the ballads, being always in the vernacular, were recorded by the landed nobility in the 16th century, and the melodies in the 19th and 20th centuries. Because of this vernacular ballad tradition, Danish and other Scandinavian neo-Medieval music is almost devoid of the Latin lyrics of e.g. the German scene.
Probably the best-known neo-Medieval band in Denmark is Sorten Muld whose songs are primarily interpretations of the above-mentioned dancing ballads. Although their music does contain hints of medieval instruments like hurdy-gurdy and nyckelharpa it relies heavily on trip hop influences, and most of the Medieval elements are downplayed in favour of synthesizer sounds, double bass, and filtered breakbeats.
In recent years other Danish bands playing in a more international (and more aggressive!) Medieval style have sprung up. These include Gny, Virelai, Solhverv, Asynje, and Valravn. These bands may or may not integrate the ballad tradition in their largely instrumental music.
Portugal has one of the oldest musical traditions in Europe. Situated in the Iberian Peninsula, it shares with Spain one of the largest musical manuscripts, the Cantigas de Santa Maria. The medieval culture is still very present nowadays. Almost every week there are reenactment festivals such as Viagem Medieval, the biggest medieval festival in Europe. The most famous medieval music band in Portugal is Strella do Dia. The band uses old iberian instruments and plays medieval music from the old Europe.
The most famous medieval music band in Hungary is Anno Musica.
In Finland, the rise of neo-medieval music has coincided that with history re-enactment and interest in living history. The best known Finnish neo-medieval band is Tarujen Saari. On the other hand, Finland is fairly well known of its heavy metal bands, and many bands such as Turisas have adopted Medieval-ish tunes and instruments, and Waltari has made also several neo-medievalish songs. Koistinen's electric kantele is widely employed on Finnish neo-medieval music.
The only one neo-medieval music band in Latvia is Obscurus Orbis, using wide variety of bagpipes and drums, they also uses hurdy-gurdy, shawns, bouzuki and Baltic national instrument kokle.
The well-known band Ataraxia from Italy has started creating music and live performances inspired by early (Medieval and Renaissance) music in the mid 80s. Their most significant albums inspired by this genre are Historiae (1998, CMI); Suenos (2001, CMI) and Kremasta Nera (2007).
Norway is famous for its thriving metal culture, and it is mainly within metal genres that neo-Medieval music finds its outlet in a Norwegian context. Bands like Lumsk are known for incorporating Medieval and folk elements into their music. More traditional folk-oriented bands like Ym:Stammen and Gåte also exist. Many Norwegian bands, metal- or otherwise oriented, have a remarkable Neo-pagan slant.
Stary Olsa is the best known neo-medieval music band in Belarus
In Mexico, the medieval recreation have some years, and there are bands like Arquelon playing medieval neo folk music with recreations of early instruments and sometimes use lyrics of medieval texts on their original songs.
Celtarabia often described as a medieval rave band play for dancing - featuring Hurdy Gurdy and Hammer Dulcimer the band play music from 'erect medievalism to tribal dervish' - mix mag. Initiated by Quentin Budworth as an experiment into the fusion of pan temporal and cultural elements to create a new, very different acoustic dance music.
Recently a very young band from USA has been very active in the neo-medieval field. Formed in 2011, Children Medieval Band has been playing at several Renaissance Faires in California. In the same time they have covered heavy industrial music and even got invited to open the concert for the German band Rammstein in Denver, Colorado. In April 2015 Children Medieval Band has released their first album - Treasure Underground - with 10 songs combining heavier rock with elements of medieval music. The CMB March song is the most representative by using a Susato melody and ending with a heavy riff. The members of Children Medieval Band are very young: Stefan, 13 years old, a multi-instrumentist who recently got videotaped playing the medieval piece Mohrentanz (Susato) on 12 instruments. He is assisted by his two sisters, Olga (11) on keyboards and Cornelia (9) on drums.