Best of 2011 — 5. Panopticon, “Social Disservices” (Flenser Records)

Those of you who have closely read the first 35 entries of the best albums of 2011 probably noticed a consistent theme of the ability of the music to spark an intense emotional reaction. The creators of these albums bombard the listener with what otherwise would be unknown worlds to  help the listener relate in some way to what’s going on in the composition. One of the most affecting albums of 2011, in that sense, was Panopticon’s third full-length record “Social Disservices,” an opus that shines a light on psychological and social service agencies and how they often fail to actually help the people they’re designed to reach.

From the album’s opening, where babies are wailing as if unattended – both by a person and by society itself – you get the idea you’re in for a gut-wrenching journey. That’s absolutely true, both with Austin Lunn’s shrieking storm of atmospheric black metal and by the messages he drives home. Yes, you probably can listen without paying heed to what he’s trying to say here. But you’d really have to work hard at ignoring his words and the other sonic elements he uses to express himself. It’s a rare black metal effort that, while it espouses failures and trappings of our surroundings, it has a gigantic and sympathetic heart and tries to offer a helping hand. It doesn’t revel in hate, though Lunn certainly expresses his fair share of frustration and pain. It isn’t evil. As I pointed out in the review of the record, when Lunn howls, “Never give in, never give up!” on heavy and, at times, melodic and lovely, “Subject,” he’s trying to empower. That’s not exactly a prevailing trait in the world of black metal, but I love when artists paint outside the lines and ignore the “should” of a particular genre. No rules. And there are none with Panopticon.

Lunn was kind enough to answer some questions about “Social Disservices” and his Panopticon project in general. I was so pleased, yet totally not surprised at all, to find his answers incredibly thoughtful and deep. You can tell he didn’t just fire away with answers off the cuff and that he really thought about what he wanted to say. It makes for as interesting and passionate a verbal exchange experience as his music always managed to be.

Meat Mead Metal: Your new album “Social Disservices” has been chosen our No. 5 metal album of the year. Critical reception to the album has been pretty favorable elsewhere as well. Is that something that pleases you as an artist/creator to have your work embraced, or is it just kind of icing on the cake?

Austin Lunn: It was something that was pretty unexpected, as I feel like the album kind of bucks some popular trends in “black metal” at this time. I tend to favor more atmospheric and wandering music, but I just did not feel that was right for this subject matter. It needed to be dark and angry. The record needed to express my frustration with the subject. So I am pleasantly surprised with the record’s reception and certainly am very grateful for it. I honestly thought the record would not be well received.

MMM: You tackle some pretty sensitive material on the new album, things that people either don’t realize or care to talk about. How important is it for you to get your listeners out of their comfort zones and thinking about subject matter perhaps they didn’t consider before?

AL: I think the main point of the record was to get people out of their comfort zones and get them thinking about the underbelly of life. The lyrics are at times quite disturbing, in my opinion, and musically it becomes quite ugly at moments. The intro to the second track is 2.5 minutes of screaming children (and was 3 minutes, but the label and some other friends  thought it was a bit much) and that alone is meant to invoke a feeling of discomfort. I think if folks take the time to read the lyrics and the liner notes, they will understand what I am trying to say with the record. That doesn’t mean they will agree, but my hope is to at least put it in their minds.

MMM: Did personal experiences play a role, both musically and lyrically, in the creation of “Social Disservices”? Or is the album more of a case study?

AL: Yes. Absolutely. There is a lot of me, personally, in this record. I worked with at-risk teens, the mentally ill, homeless and youth in crisis for 6 years, throughout reach, mentoring, crisis intervention and residential treatment. There are many sides to this coin, and I have a bit of perspective on the issue, so in a lot of ways, this record was therapy for me. A release of 6 years of emotions. The album was sent to press right as I was starting my internship overseas, so it also kind of symbolized a change for my life.

MMM: Ultimately, what do you hope listeners take away from “Social Disservices”?

AL: I want folks who are going through these issues to know that they are not alone, and there are people in their corner pulling for them. I think people are often drawn to extreme music because they have emotions that are hard to deal with, and extreme music can be very cathartic, so it makes sense to use it as a place to process those thoughts and feelings. I hope there is at least one person who feels that from this record.

MMM: You’ve had quite a prolific year with both the Panopticon and Seidr releases? What else, that you can discuss, do you have in the works?

AL: There is another Panopticon album that is done and mastered. The art is being worked on and it will be out in early 2012. It is, once again, a concept album about the state of Kentucky, where I have lived for nearly 10 years, dealing with mountain top removal, the coal mining/union struggle, as well as the history of this great state. It is very, very melodic and at times technical, but at the same time there are traditional songs, country, blue grass and folk. It is pretty diverse. I will also have some splits and collaboration records being recorded this year. Seidr is in the middle of recording our second full- length, a very long, very heavy epic about the distant cosmos and our spiritual connection to it. It is by far our heaviest and most progressive record. I have a few other projects in the works that will be announced as they unfold. It is going to be a very busy year for me.

For more on the band, go here: https://www.facebook.com/PANOPTICONBAND

To buy “Social Disservices,” go here: http://store.theflenser.com/

For more on the label, go here: http://theflenser.com/