Digre // The Way of a Pilgrim

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5.3

self-released / 2017

For anyone who grew up playing 8-bit RPGs, the sound of dungeon synth music will instantly call to mind long journeys, but Swedish chiptune artist Digre's The Way of a Pilgrim is almost certainly the first time the genre's metallic bleeps, bloops, and drones have signified a spiritual sojourn rather than a trek through an enemy-filled overworld.

A "searching pagan" and black metal musician (how Scandinavian), Olof Svante converted to Eastern Orthodoxy after witnessing the baptism of a friend at a parish in his small town of Umeå and being moved by its power. He gave up black metal at the counsel of his priest, but returned to music as Digre, making dungeon synth-style chiptune with Christian themes - his first release, Martyryxan, took many of its melodies straight from Orthodox choir sheets.

The Way of a Pilgrim, on the other hand, is entirely inspired by the 19th century Russian text of the same name, a well-known work of spiritual literature. (J.D. Salinger fans might remember the book as figuring heavily into Franny and Zooey) In it, the unnamed Pilgrim recounts his quest to discover how to follow Scripture's exhortation to "pray without ceasing". Among other adventures, he encounters a starets (or "spiritual father") who tells him about the Jesus Prayer - "Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me a sinner" - and instructs him in how to pray it continuously, so that the prayer almost becomes a kind of breathing.

The Way of a Pilgrim's seven tracks each represent a different part of its protagonist's journey, and they range from dreary slogs to triumphal hymns like "Feast of the Annunciation”. And appropriate to the hard-bitten asceticism of the source material, The Way of the Pilgrim's chiptune compositions are austere, with nary a hint of embellishment added to their NES-era tones. Indeed, the album probably would have benefited from some extra instrumental flourishes, or maybe a broader palette of 8-bit sounds - even compared to modern dungeon synth contemporaries, these songs are absolutely skeletal. Still, Digre's project would be remarkable for its oddity and total uniqueness alone, and for anyone with an interest in Russian 19th century prayer manuals, old-school dungeon-crawlers, or both, it’s well worth checking out.