With comforting scenes of woodland animals and fairy tale creatures, comfy synth initially flourished during the pandemic – and has been a favourite among dedicated online circles ever since
Each winter, the Scandinavian concept of hygge comes in from the cold – perhaps best exemplified by reading a cosy book by a crackling fire, while a blustering wind howls outside. In recent years, idealising nature and cosiness, cottagecore and its offshoots – prariecore, warmcore, goblincore – extended this concept to all seasons, with romanticised visions of foraging, hunkering down in remote cabins, harvesting crops of fruit, frolicking animals, and wildflowers blooming on the edge of verdant green forests. Soundtracking this aesthetic online is a growing community of artists making comfy synth, a flourishing microgenre that evokes feelings of folksy nostalgia by way of lo-fi, beatless electronics that swaddle listeners in a snug sonic blanket, and a typically waddling pace that feels like the aural equivalent of immersing yourself in Arthur Rackham’s lost Cadbury’s box art.
Comfy synth emerged in 2019 as an offshoot of ‘dungeon synth’ – an electronic genre of atmospheric, swooping synthesiser music that originated in the extreme metal underground – when one artist, Ohio-based Grandma’s Cottage, released his debut EP, Cottage. Unlike dungeon synth, the songs were less about icy tundras, fortresses, and ancient curses, but rather wholesome activities like picking beans, sipping on glasses of milk, and going fishing. While both dungeon and comfy synth embrace minimalist compositions, the latter has a notably lighter sound, with plinking pianos and hazy synthesiser arrangements. It wasn’t long before other artists followed suit, as hundreds of fans flocked to Instagram, Reddit and YouTube to celebrate the small yet dedicated microgenre.
Comfy synth releases typically come with their own backstories played out in immersive worlds, with covers depicting tableaus like woodland creatures huddled on picnic blankets, pouring lemonade and munching carrots, or birds watching over lakes in Tolkein’s Middle Earth. There are gentleman rabbits scaling hills, steam trains stopping at autumnal stations, Beatrix Potter’s galoshes-wearing angler frog, Jeremy Fisher, and flute-playing mischievous mushrooms, the bucolic imagery bolstering the overall feeling of wholesomeness. It’s no doubt for this reason that comfy synth boomed in popularity during the pandemic, a time when we were all searching for home comforts. In the years since, the community has continued to thrive: the initial irony has been replaced with genuine appreciation, with recent releases by artists like the Surf Gnomes and the Gentleman Terrapin attracting fresh audiences.
While you won’t find many comfy synth artists on Spotify, most of the tracks exist on the Comfy Synth Archives playlist on YouTube, which has amassed hundreds of thousands of views. While eclectic labels like Fiadh Productions, Woodland Crown, and Phantom Lure respectively release comfy synth artists like the woodland-inspired Jocund Forest, the off-kilter interdimensional sounds of Five Odd Eichhörnchen, and the smooth-jazz capers of Tiny Mouse, perhaps the only comfy synth label, strictly speaking, is Mouseblanket Records. The label’s owner IDs himself as a 131-year-old rodent called Grandfather Mouse, and opens emails with the greeting ‘comfy tidings’. He says the genre is ideal for “wrapping up in a blanket, idyllic walks, simple meals, and peaceful reflection”. But it’s also “uncompromising music that conjures up old memories you’ve somehow forgotten, full of talking animals, imaginary relatives, mysterious cottages, and other magical things”.
Grandfather Mouse speculates that the growing interest in comfy synth in online spaces may be due to that idealised nostalgia for a period of time that never was – a romanticised, invented kind of world. “But comfy synth also deals in a very concrete nostalgia faded memories of childhood, grandparents, pets, and others who’ve gone from your life,” he says, perhaps all the more pertinent considering a global pandemic combined with the often alienating march of modernity. Its warbling, compressed production and occasionally eerie vibes, has a darker side where releases are often also imbued with a relatable, haunting feeling “like a broken cursed toy” – a little closer to the original definition of 'nostalgia': a melancholic sickness, longing for return.
With song titles like “Picking Beans” by Grandma’s Cottage, Tiny Mouse’s “Looking for a Tiny Friend”, and Mushroom Grandpa’s “Life Under Snow”, it’s hard to believe that this music – with all of its homey stylings, samples of birdsong and lullaby-like synths – has a lineage that traces back to the corpsepaint-clad church-burning of Norway’s black metal scene of the early 90s. These early dungeon synth sounds, like that of former Emperor bass player Mortiis, were themselves influenced by music swimming in fantasy motifs (think: the sweeping orchestral score of Conan the Barbarian), but also synth pioneers like kosmische originators Tangerine Dream, and the neoclassical darkwave of Dead Can Dance. With broader themes than the Tolkein-inspired dungeon-dwelling umbrella genre, perhaps comfy synth is coming full circle to those originators, and more than anything else, is a DIY, software-driven synth scene with each project telling a self-contained story.
“Objectively there’s no correlation between black metal and comfy synth unless you know the history,” says dungeon-turned-comfy-synth artist Purzum, who releases music on WereGnome records. “But that was the big idea behind Purzum: I wanted to create something of a bridge between the two, taking something notorious for being hateful and evil, spin it on its ear, and into something positive.” His song titles are plays on classic metal tracks – for example, “Slumber of the Beast” (Number of the Beast), “In League with Satin” (In League with Satan) and ”Call of the Dinner Spoon” (Call of the Wintermoon) – and are accompanied by a cosy aesthetic that is “just as important but rarely ever talked about” in keyboard-based music. “Aesthetics can add so much to the overall journey on which the artist leads the listener,” he adds.
What actually constitutes ‘dungeon’ or ‘fantasy’ or ‘comfy’ synth is often hotly debated in online enthusiast spaces, and dungeon synth purists have wondered if the wave of comfy synth releases is a mere passing fad, but its small but dedicated fandom continues to grow. It’s “the solid replacement” for YouTube’s infamous lofi beats to relax or study to, writes one recent convert. In online spaces like Facebook and Bandcamp, it would seem there’s plenty of space for charting new comfy territories here in 2023, as ‘Gnomebient’ and comfy synth playlists continue to crop up on Spotify. Artists like Tiny Mouse have incorporated more smooth-jazzy, improvisational sounds as on their 2022 EP Escaping The Cat: “Escaping The Cat is my most jazzy record to date, all wrapped in the Tiny Mouse style,” they explain. Grandma’s Cottage is now taking inspiration from videogame music on his 2022 EP, Favorite Places, while the melancholy wintry goblin sounds of Onfang’s 2023 record Late Winter Blooms shows there’s plenty of room for evolution in the genre – provided it keeps its whimsical core.
“I think there’s a lot of space to try new things in comfy synth,” concludes Grandfather Mouse, who along with Grandma's Cottage has noticed an upswing in interest among the tight-knit community, and believes the genre is only just getting started. “I wouldn't be surprised if, maybe five years from now, the sound has developed into something completely different than what it is now” – although given the manifold stresses of our often discomforting world, it’s hopefully one that remains just as incredibly cosy.