Panopticon offer a voice for the voiceless on emotional ‘Social Disservices’

I think I got pretty lucky growing up. I come from a good, loving family, and while we were raised Catholic, that never was shoved down our throats. We were allowed and encouraged to be individuals, to challenge ways of thinking, to not feel bad about standing out. Not that we didn’t butt heads now and again, and looking back, when there was conflict, it was me being a jerk, know-it-all-teen more than it was my parents not understanding my love for heavy metal and desire to grow out my hair. To this day my father, who could not be more different from me personally, still compliments me for taking my own road, even if it’s been a bumpy one. It means the world to hear that.

But, as noted, I was a lucky one. Not everyone I knew benefitted from the same family setting. One friend in particular took his own life on a bus ride to school one morning, an event that changed my life and my way of thinking forever. I remember the days that followed, the police trying to link his death to Satanism because he had weird symbols in his notebook he’d copied from Iron Maiden album covers, lyrics from other heavy metal albums he etched elsewhere, and strange notes about the band he claimed he was in that all looked goofily evil. He was a good, normal kid with a huge imagination, and he and I got on about heavy metal non-stop. While we weren’t best pals, he was a part of my group and I missed him. I was 15 at the time, and I never once thought about what led him to make this horrible decision because it scared me. I know it wasn’t heavy metal. I don’t care what the police and school authorities believed. That was naïve, pin-it-on-something-we-don’t-understand conclusion-drawing. What if they had seen my notebook? Would they have committed me? My guess is no. I was still alive.

This all leads to the new album from Panopticon, a stunning, four-track opus called “Social Disservices.” It gets its name from Austin Lundr (Seidr, Agnosis) and his examination of the mental and social services in this country, or as he puts it, disservices. He feels for kids who are misunderstood by their families, their educators, their clergy, what have you, who don’t recognize their individuality. Not all kids are bound to be the football star, the prom king or queen, the great debater. Not all kids will go on to become regular church-goers or great scholars. Sometimes kids will prefer those weird metal bands over the safe, sanitized stuff that all the others like. Maybe they’ll want to open a tattoo shop rather than work in corporate America. That doesn’t make them outlaws or vermin. In my opinion, it means they think outside the box and don’t settle for the status quo. They’re different because they challenge what they see around them, and that’s a damn good thing to do. But sometimes these kids are wrongly accused of being delinquents, put into metal or social systems that ultimately fail them, and then what becomes of them? Sometimes they eventually end up with multiple children with different mothers and no means to support everyone. That’s another story of a friend with whom I grew up, and it makes me sad. Lundr is trying to give these kids a voice. Just listen to him wail, “Never give in, never give up!” on “Subject.” You can’t mistake his compassion, his relation to these people.

So this third full-length from Panopticon is not your hate-filled, misanthropic slab of atmospheric black metal that comes down the pike from every other band. It’s a bleeding-heart call to power. It’s an emotional, heart-wrenching document, and maybe this isn’t the type of thing a metal writer should admit, but it brought tears to my eyes on a few occasions. It’s that affecting a piece of work, and while not everyone will have the same reaction I did, it’s sure to strike your heart somewhere. For even if you did grow up more fortunate than others, surely you’ve seen some people close to you suffer. Or maybe you just see the news now and again and wonder why some people get swallowed up by a system they perhaps had no business being absorbed by in the first place. If so, that makes you human.

There’s a large portion of the black metal audience that needs things to be all hate and evil all the time, and there’s no two ways about it. I never agreed with that sentiment personally because I always felt black metal should be a place with no boundaries or rules, and Lundr always has felt the same. None of his work has been outbursts of hate with no basis behind it. He’s always tried to reach out and tell stories of the downtrodden and those who perhaps don’t have a voice. He’s the voice of the voiceless. He even seemed ahead of the curve on his last record “Collapse,” where he envisioned the total collapse of government. Hmm. Seems we’re there. A car without an engine runs better.

Now, if you’re not here for the message and only care about the music, you’ll be served as well. Lundr’s all-encompassing atmospheric black metal, mixed with shoegaze, post-metal, doom and straight up rock, never has sounded more impactful. Every moment on this record drips with purpose, and each song is packed with drama and emotion. It’s fitting that the first two songs “Resident” and “Client” both open with the sound of distressed, crying babies and chattering kids, because these are the people who are the most vulnerable to fall into this pattern. “Resident” is creaky and suffocating at times, dizzying and explosive at others, with Lundr’s shrieks and growls telling the tale. “Client” is grittier, but it also folds in melodic sections that can be translated as both glorious and tortured. “Subject” begins with dissonant noise and has pain crawling in its underbelly, and there are lovely, dreamy sections of the song that seem to act as a sort of escape from reality. That doesn’t mean forgetting what’s true, but rather drifting somewhere else so one doesn’t become insane from the darkness. It ends with footsteps and a jail door sliding open, so you know exactly where the situation has led the protagonist. Closer “Patient,” the epic of the album at 20 minutes, is a beautiful piece of work, with spacious soloing, lush strings, devastated wails, and a mournful soul. You end up with a wide variety of conclusions to which you can draw. Should you feel uplifted that there’s a way out? Should you revel in pain and hopelessness that the cycle never ends? It seems like that’s up to the listener.

Panopticon always has been a project that lends itself to much soul searching. All of Lundr’s records under this banner push you to creep outside your comfort zone, or if you’re a part of the group he addresses directly, it makes you examine your path. It’s clear Lundr is pulling for the underdog here and will do whatever’s necessary to tell their story. He’s part of the 99 percent, so to speak, and he won’t rest until changes are made and people stuck in this trap have a way to realize a better life. We all deserve a chance to succeed and to make a life for ourselves, whatever that may be. Not everyone’s dream is the same, and we all should be thankful for that. But just because yours doesn’t match your neighbor’s, it doesn’t mean either of you is wrong or that one of you is “crazy.” Everyone doing and thinking the same thing is insane, and those of us who realize that are the lucky ones.

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