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Panopticon: Roads to the North

Panopticon: Roads to the North

(Bindrune/Nordvis)

by Craig Hayes

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.  

Stream Roads to the North now on NPR’s First Listen.

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Saor: Aura

Saor: Aura

(Northern Silence Productions)

by Craig Hayes

We’ve probably all got a complicated relationship with some branch of metal’s family tree, and personally, it’s that black/folk limb that’s proved to be the most troublesome for me over the years. I mean, there are bands that I love from that sphere, because they take you on such scenic journeys with their hymns to nature and their forebears. Bands like Árstíðir Lífsins, Skogen, Moonsorrow, or Falkenbach create powerfully evocative music, in that regard, but then there’s a host of other bands that just throw every traditional instrument into the mix, and wildly wave a sword around, all with the hope that something authentic is going to magically arise.

Of course, it doesn’t. If you don’t have an astute sense of compositional balance, and you don’t measure the folk and metal out carefully, you just end up with overly busy songs that obscure all the scenery. No amount of photoshoots with your taxidermy and antler collection is going to sell the authenticity of your music. It might make for a tankard-crashing or

jaunty distraction, but it’s not going to evoke a genuine sense of hearth and home. Albums that manage to do that are still rare treasures, and Saor’s latest full-length, Aura, is a stunning example of one of gems.

Saor is a one-man Scottish band, with Andy Marshall at the helm, and the band released a rightly applauded debut, Roots, in 2013. Marshall draws inspiration from his Scottish heritage and Scotland’s landscapes for Saor’s musical and lyrical aesthetic, and instruments like bodhrán, tin whistle, and bagpipes add the Celtic flavour to Saor’s atmospheric black metal and misty post-rock. All of those elements find perfect equilibrium on Aura, and the album, rather wonderfully, captures a clear sense of time and place.

Aura whisks you away for a tour of the glens and Highlands of Saor’s homeland, with heroic songs, like “Aura” and “Pillars of the Earth”, mixing bloodthirsty riffing with haunting acoustic passages to conjure a deep respect for days of yore. Catchy folk melodies and hurtling riffs are interwoven through “The Awakening”, and phenomenal album opener, “Children of the Mist” too, and you’ll hear echoes of that same counterpoising of the old-world with the new-world that makes songs from bands like Winterfylleth, Primordial, Fen, or Wodensthrone so appealing.

There’s plenty of aggressive guitars and percussion on Aura, and that brings a lot of clashing of steel. But, there’s also a great deal of reverential folk, which avoids dipping into hackneyed theatrics. Aura feels vibrant, and impassioned, but never melodramatic; and in that respect, Panopticon springs to mind when listening. Saor’s interweaving of traditional folk, black metal, and post-rock mirrors the successful use of the same in Panopticon’s songs; albeit with each obviously having different historical and geographic influences. It’s no surprise to find that Panopticon founder Austin Lunn guests on Aura too, because he and Marshall certainly share an affinity for writing lengthy, multi-layered songs that never lose sight of their core intimacy. 

Saor captures that sense of intimacy exceptionally well. Marshall’s vocals provide rousing battle cries, lamentations, and more meditative strolls through the heather; but, in each case, he never overplays his hand. There’s a lot of impressive musicianship on Aura too, but the album doesn’t simply derive its power from its heaviest, frenzied sections. It’s all about that aforementioned balance, where calmer moments transform into soaring sections, and those tides of history, and all those landscapes, come sweeping into view. 

There’s been a lot of talk about Aura being a contender for a very high placing on all those expected end of year lists in late 2014. That praise is entirely deserved, but not just because Aura happens to be a sterling example of how folk metal done right can paint such vivid portraits. The fact is, folk metal can also be hackneyed, overwrought, and, as mentioned, far too busy for its own good. However, Aura features as much full-blown rage as it does subtlety, and there’s real emotional connections to be made here. Certainly, if you’ve been put off by folk metal that only concentrates on overexcited chest-beating, then Saor’s engaging and unfolding storytelling might well be the album to bring you back into the fold.  

There’s a lot of words you can use describe Aura; like poetic, majestic, and breathtaking, for a start. However, it’s beautiful that works best of all. Aura is a beautiful blend of past and present, and a beautiful mix of reflective and impassioned music too. Most of all, Aura is an album with a beautiful sense of an artist pouring their heart into their work, and it’s a beautiful example of when all that passion reaches out, unimpeded, to touch the heart of the listener too.

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Midnight: No Mercy for Mayhem

MidnightNo Mercy for Mayhem

(Hells Headbangers)

 by John Serba

Midnight’s formula, agenda, modus operandi and philosophy can be summed up thusly: fuck you. Its compositions consist of a half-dozen chords played by loose wrists, gangland choruses shouting outrageous nonsense lyrics and arrangements stripped down to either the skin, because nudity is fucking awesome, or the bones, because skeletons are fucking cool. The band is the perfect Motörhead/Venom hybrid, welding the former’s greasy, lubricated OTT-speedball rock to the latter’s great and dreadful dumbass slop. You can picture any palm-muted chug-riff brought to Midnight’s rehearsal space being immediately hung, drawn and quartered and fed to the rats. Its sound is also smeared with the grime of shitty punk rock - just enough to make it good, since punk rock sucks and is boring in execution, but needs to exist so it can influence things that are better than it, e.g., Midnight. I honestly believe stuff this amazing and filthy and crass could only be played by guys from Cleveland. In fact, Midnight sounds exactly how those of us from outside Cleveland think a band from Cleveland should sound: loud, pissed off, aggressive, mean and stupid as hell. 

Midnight is essentially Athenar - real name: Jamie Walters - who plays all instruments on studio recordings, and trots out some literally hooded stooges to back him up for its raucous, fist-pumping live gigs. No Mercy for Mayhem is Midnight’s second full-length in a discography apparently inspired by those similar in slop and fury, Japan’s Sabbat, or fellow dwellers in America’s Armpit, Nunslaughter: lotsa 7-inches, splits, demos, EPs and bullshit live albums. (Go ahead and try to collect ‘em all, asshole.) Debut album Satanic Royalty released eight years after Midnight’s inception, is a front-to-back ripper, 10 songs, every one of them nasty and hook-laden, ugly verses wedded to sticky choruses in unholy matrimony. It’s the perfect communion of Ace of Spades and Black Metal, a collection of concise cuts, no filler, no dicking around. No Mercy for Mayhem is the sister record to Satanic Royalty, which is a nice way of saying it’s the same shit, different album cover. This is not a bad thing. Not in the least. Motörhead’s zero-percent sonic progression over 40 years is an insane achievement in steel-headed stubbornness, and they’re revered for it, deservingly so. They have about six different song templates, if you give enough of a shit to split that hair under the electron microscope - and while you’re peering through the eyepiece, you’ll notice some microscopic refinement of the formula, so the songs are catchier, beefier, punchier, more effective and impactful.Midnight is on a similar track, and obviously, doing as Lemmy does means you’re doing things right.

After a couple dozen compulsive repeat listens, No Mercy for Mayhem shows the slightest hint of NWOBHM influence, not immediately present on its predecessor. Otherwise, it’s just hammers pounding nails into holes, and if that’s a sloppy analogy, it’s absolutely in the spirit of the record’s lyrical content, which is far beyond metaphor, far beyond civility, far beyond sense. “Evil Like a Knife,” “Try Suicide” and the anthemic title track are lethal spikes on the bat, superb combinations of hook and riff, their profoundly stoopid werds transcending commonality to become idiot poetry, a higgledy-piggledy tossed salad of heavy metal cliches strung together, as if Cleveland has its own colloquial usage of terms such as death, curse, evil, leather, destruction, darkness, apocalypse. Other standouts are “Prowling Leather” (leather doesn’t prowl unless it’s still attached to the animal from whence it derived), “Aggressive Crucifixion” (when is crucifixion ever non-aggressive?) and closer/CD-only bonus track “Destroy Tsunami’s Power” (beware, only madness dwells here). “Whiplash Disaster” is the buried classic, a one-chord Motörhead battery with a soaring and melodic extended bridge and solo - as soaring and melodic as brash, gutter-trash metal from Cleveland gets, anyway. Without exception, every track is efficient and powerful, and the irony is, one of the grittiest, nastiest acts in the American underground displays serious pop sensibilities in its songwriting. Blasphemy? Fuck you.

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SfB Podcast Episode 007: Terence Hannum

For this episode, SfB talks to special guest Terence Hannum of experimental noise group Locrian about the band’s new material as well as his own work as a visual artist and solo musician. Hannum was kind enough to share a few examples of his artwork as well as a track below from his upcoming solo record Via Negativa set to be released August 16th on Utech Records


Phase II | Cassette Tape and Magnetic Cassette Tape Coating on Panel | 51” x 51” | 2014


Abscissa | Magnetic Cassette Tape Coating on Panel | 20” Diameter | 2014


Sustain | Cassette Tape, Leader Tape and Magnetic Cassette Tape Coating on Panel | 24” x 30” | 2014 (PRIVATE COLLECTION)




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