As far as famous genre pioneers and proto influencers, Jim Kirkwood may be the least famous of them all. Even when he is given credit, it’s generally in a “oh yeah can’t forget about that guy!” way, rather than a true veneration as someone like Aphex Twin, The Stooges, or even Mortiis in the dungeon synth genre itself. To me there are two reasons for this, both of which have really nothing to do with music quality. One, while most of what is considered the classic old school dungeon synth was conceived in the mid to late 90s, Kirkwood’s most “famous” works were made during the very late 80s and early 90s. The other is the more obvious reason, his works isn’t really dungeon synth per say. Despite being considered a dungeon synth pioneer, Kirkwood mostly makes fantasy inspired Berlin School, rather than using any of the ideas and synth textures we see as standard in dungeon synth today. This is a style that he continued during his entire career, which is one of the reasons in my opinion he has only recently been recognized as a significant figure in the community. Because despite being seen as a pioneer of the genre, Jim Kirkwood never really was a dungeon synth artist. Even late into the twilight of his career in the late 00s, despite updating his style in many ways, at his core, he was a student of Klaus Schulze more than he was of Mortiis and Depressive Silence.
Part of why I decided to review this album was to bring awareness to his existence, as I feel like even amongst dungeon synth diehards his status seems diminished to where I believe it should be. So for everyone out there who hasn’t explored him, please check out Jim Kirkwood if you at all enjoy dungeon synth, if anything to see a historical aspect of the music that influenced many other artists to come, if only in thematic content.
Now, all that said, while Master of Dragons is one of his most famous works, I would not consider it his best. Kirkwood has always had a bit of a habit of albums and songs going on too long. Even when he gets the textures perfect (and by god, Kirkwood has one of the most satisfying textures and sound founts in electronic music), his song writing leaves a bit to be desired. There are 9 tracks on here, and frankly if you were to put a gun to my head an ask if I could determine when a track begins and when one ends I wouldn’t be able to do it. I actually thought this was maybe a two track album with two longs tracks (something that Kirkwood has done before) before I looked it up and realized I was wrong. There are lots of fantastic beginnings, but the conclusions seems distant, and often feel like they never arrive, despite the track technically being over.
This is part of why I actually think 21st century Kirkwood is the best era for him, this is when he actually creates some interesting songs, while still having that same classic Jim Kirkwood sound. Master of Dragons is a very obviously amateur project that tries very hard not to sound like one. It manages in terms of the technical aspect, but the long form songwriting ends up dragging every idea like you’re chewing a steak until every bit of flavor has been sucked dry from the original tasty morsel. Kirkwood’s early work is plagued by his inability to fully realize his own potential, however his total mastery of his own atmosphere makes up for it to at least enough of a degree to create an enjoyable experience, even decades later.
Master of Dragons is perhaps a relatively overrated experience from a cult classic standpoint, but in my mind it’s dangerous to completely dismiss it from both a historical and quality perspective.
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