Panopticon: Roads to the North
The cast of characters featured in black metal’s history has made for a damn entertaining tale over the years. However, I’ve always thought that tale should come with a little prelude too. In the early 80s, landmark releases from UK punk band Discharge, including their Why? and Hear Nothing See Nothing Say Nothing LPs, were not only milestones in the annals of punk rock, but also hugely influential in extreme metal’s birth too. Plenty of formative black metal bands have certainly cited Discharge’s stripped-back, über-incensed sound as inspiring, before Discharge had to go and ruin their early promise by actually trying to play heavy metal.
Still, we’re not here to talk about Discharge’s mistakes, we all make those, what really matters is that Discharge provided black metal with a dose of incandescent rage. In fact, if you took Discharge out of black metal’s family tree, you’d be missing a crucial link, but for all their musical influence, the majority of black metal bands weren’t remotely interested in Discharge’s political objectives. Black metal might have been hellbent on critiquing modernity on some level, but most black metal bands held very different views to the Discharge’s anarchist stance.
Anarchism was really explored by crusty, grindcore, and d-beat bands at first. However, as we all know, in recent times, punk-informed principles are routinely wrapped around black metal. Bands like Falls of Rauros, Martyrdöd, Iskra, Skagos, Wheels Within Wheels, Wolves in the Throne Room, and Merkaba all explore philosophies which can be directly or obliquely linked to radical politics and issues like environmentalism, the rights of indigenous peoples, or the disadvantaged in society. Admittedly, some of those bands wouldn’t necessarily identify with the Red and Anarchist black metal movement that has arisen over the years at all, but their focus is still a far cry from the misanthropy and elitism more commonly associated with black metal.
It’s at that point, where black metal is less interested in hatemongering, and more interested in connecting with notions of community and nature, that you’ll find multi-instrumentalist and vocalist Austin Lunn’s celebrated band, Panopticon. I have no idea if Lunn listens to Discharge, or has ever drawn anything from the band, and it’s not like the US is short of anarchic bands that helped stoked the fires under extreme metal either. However, there is a clear connection between Panopticon and Discharge, one that links back to the creative spark of black metal’s very earliest years, where rules were made to be broken.
These days, there’s an endless supply black metal bands indulging in the same hackneyed circle-jerks, but with Panopticon there is no adherence to the rulebook, and no doctrinal stagnation. The band’s nonconformity is right there in Panopticon’s lyrical thread, but it’s evident in the band’s musical diversity. Lunn hasn’t been afraid to blend acoustic instrumentation, washed-out post-rock, ambient passages, doom, melancholic and hooky melodies, and field recordings and samples into his take on black metal. Split releases over the years, with bands such as Lake of Blood, Vestiges, Wheels Within Wheels, When Bitter Spring Sleeps, Falls of Rauros, and Skagos have seen Panopticon follow varying avenues of musical exploration. Some of those releases have seen Panopticon set off down vitriolic pathways, with plenty of brutal buzzsaw fury, while others have been more reflective and meditative strolls. However, as great as many of those split releases have been, it’s on Panopticon’s full-length releases that Lunn has obviously been able to fully express what his vision of black metal entails.
Earlier works, like Panopticon’s 2008 self-titled debut, found orthodox, crustier, and more progressive black metal battling it out over the album’s epic tracks. In 2009, Panopticon’s second full-length, Collapse, brought a huge leap in compositional strength. Lunn told a tale, informed by his Pagan beliefs, where society was in ruins, and the will to survive was tested. Collapse brought plenty of acidic riffs and blasting percussion, but woven through the album were passages of folk, and huge majestic melodies, and it all hinted at something even more adventurous in the works.
That arrived in 2011, with Panopticon’s first masterpiece, Social Disservices. As much as black metal has always sought to conjure up the supernatural nastiness, that’s nothing compared to the real world horrors we can inflict on each other, and Social Disservices dealt with that fact. The album tackled the failings of mental health services to care for vulnerable children, and Social Disservices’ four songs laid out a gut-punch narrative. Everything about the album’s exploration of loss, abuse, and hopelessness was reflected in the intensity of the music. Black metal’s menace ratcheted up the pain, and deeply emotional passages of post rock and ambient doom were there to capture the sorrowfulness. No black metal album has come close to exposing a human tragedy like Social Disservices, but then, no black metal band has released anything quite like what Panopticon did next.
In 2012, Panopticon returned with Kentucky, which focused on the costs of the coal mining industry. Lunn honored workers solidarity and struggles, and the landscapes of Kentucky’s back hills, but, musically, Kentucky was an unexpected surprise. Lunn had drawn from folk and country beforehand, but the traditional Appalachian folk and bluegrass set amongst cascading torrents of black metal on the album certainly raised eyebrows. Kentucky’s juxtaposition of musical styles further underscored that Panopticon was never going to be enslaved by genre restrictions, and in hindsight we shouldn’t have been surprised at all, given oppression in any form is something Lunn has always fought against. For the many who recognised that Kentucky was a bona fide masterwork, the second in a row for Panopticon, there was a huge amount of admiration for Lunn’s determination to be so wilfully disobedient, because that crucial element tied the album’s themes, music, and Lunn’s own artistic courage, together.
Which brings us to Panopticon’s latest release, Roads to the North. Once again, Lunn’s expressive songwriting means black metal provides a lot of the structure here, but there’s plenty of other additions to the framework too. Opener, “The Echoes of a Disharmonic Evensong” finds a string arrangement hunkering down amongst a chaotic storm of percussion, echoing vocals, and shredding, razor-blade guitars. The song is one Panopticon’s best, and most aggressive, yet, and it’s followed by, “Where Mountains Pierce the Sky”, which sees the folk return for a melodic introduction, before the fittingly giant riffs arise.
Roads to the North’s centrepiece is the three-part suite, “The Long Road”. The mammoth song grants Lunn plenty of room to play with a range of moods and instrumentation. Homespun folk appears in the first passage, a cyclone of black and melodic death metal in the next, and the track ends with a psychedelic post-rock amble, which descends into a maelstrom. Roads to the North’s latter half continues with that same volatile temper. “Norwegian Nights” features a mournful acoustic guitar, and clean vocals, making for a gorgeously wistful song. But then, “In Silence” follows on, only to ramp things back up, with a battering collision of death and black metal. Final track, “Chase the Grain”, covers virtually all the terrain that Panopticon’s traversed on Roads to the North. Bluegrass, folk, post-rock, and doom, death, and black metal are run through the mill, with giant ascending melodies emerging on a song that’s gripping, commanding, and always enthralling.
Joining Lunn on Roads to the North are a host of guests, including allies from Waldgefluster, Celestiial, Obsequiae, and Altar of Plagues, and the album has been superbly produced by Colin Marston. The crusty hooks on Roads to the North are perfectly jagged, and the folk reeks of campfires, and nights under the stars. There’s a far heavier presence of melodic death metal here too, with a similar timbre to one of Lunn’s other magnificent projects, Seidr. However, it’s that darkly atmospheric metal that sees Lunn constantly crossing the boundaries, rearranging those black metal elements where he sees fit, and ignoring any and all rules; as he has always done.
What Roads to the North brings most, is the sense of an artist searching for meaning in a world given to superficial distractions. That’s not an unfamiliar feel for Panopticon, and like all of the band’s releases so far, Roads to the North doesn’t feature any throwaway moments or lightweight diversions. The album is filled with lengthy, and often highly intricate songs. You need to make time to step outside the mundane, to pause, and listen. The reward for doing that isn’t simply enjoying some phenomenal music, although there’s plenty of that on Roads to the North. Ultimately, it’s about accompanying Lunn, as he connects the soul-stirring reward that comes from music that explores what it means to be present, in an often indifferent and cruel world.
There’s a great deal of emotional power in that connection, and Panopticon matches that with equally powerful music. However, and this is key, it’s a power that’s shared. Lunn might be howling about injustice, screaming with sorrow, or hailing the glories of reconnecting with nature, but with every Panopticon release he’s always made clear that we’re all welcome to participate in the journey. There’s no isolation here, no sense of Lunn limiting anyone from seeking the answers to life’s myriad problems, and if that sits in defiance of black metal’s exclusivity, then thank fucking Odin for that.
Panopticon doesn’t deal in hollow symbolism, and run-of-the-mill preening and posturing. This is honest music, which challenges convention, and that’s what marks Roads to the North as just as rebellious as any of Panopticon’s previous releases. That renegade spirit is what bands like Discharge handed over to metal; that drive to subvert, with a jolt of revolutionary energy. Roads to the North brings exactly that, providing more evidence of Panopticon’s innovative and insurrectionist heart. Once again, Lunn shows us what it means to be brave, bold, and truly creative. If only more metal bands did the same.