Most of us have challenging stretches in our lives that ultimately define us as a person. Or they inform who we are at a period of time and push us towards life’s next adventure. While what comes at the end of that road ultimately may be rewarding, there are bumps and bruises along the way, challenges we have to face, and a sense that what we are going through will get us to a new heights.
Austin Lunn, the driving force behind Panopticon, recently went through one of those formative periods. With his eyes set on become a brewer, he went to Norway to work an internship at Haand Bryggeriet so he could get more hands-on knowledge on what would become his craft. That meant going overseas and leaving behind loved ones for an extended period, but it has led to his work at Hammerheart Brewing Co. (he is head brewer and runs the establishment with brother in law Nathaniel Chapman). He also became a father for the first time and moved to Minnesota, away from his home in Kentucky, so that he could push forward the brewery. While many of these things ultimately were fruitful ventures, they took time, effort, change, and transformation to get to the point where he is today. All of these experiences led to the new Panopticon album “Roads to the North,” a more personal record than what we’ve gotten used to from Lunn and one that gives a picture into his heart and soul and what helped make him the man he is today.
Over the years, the atmospheric, creative black metal Lunn has made under the Panopticon banner always has been challenging and giving to the listener. But something seems to have stuck when he made “Kentucky,” his record about the plight of coal miners in his home state, which really seemed to inform his music. On that collection, we got an even deeper taste of his affection for bluegrass and American folk music, and those strains were woven into that record in a way not many–if any–other domestic artists are doing. That carries over to “Roads From the North,” as Lunn weaves in the sounds that are as much a part of his DNA as his thunderous metal, and that results in a record that could be a major turning point for U.S. black metal. Like many European bands that mix their nation’s style of folk into their makeup, Lunn has done the same with American music, and it makes for one of the most unique projects in metal today, and one of the most fascinating. Like the bulk of his previous work, I find “Roads to the North” a record that continually gives to the listener and provides new paths for exploration. It’s a stunning document I highly recommend you visit.
Lunn invited some like-minded musicians along with him on this journey, by the way. Joining him on “Roads to the North” are folks including Winterherz of Waldgefluster, Tanner Anderson of Celestiial and Obsequiae, Dave Condon of Altar of Plagues, Ben Smith of When Spring Sleeps, and Johan Becker of Austaras and Vukari, whose violin work is a major factor on this record. And let’s not forget producer extraordinaire Colin Marston, who helped bring this all together and create such amazing sonics. As for Lunn, he really exercises his musical ability and brings a ton of different instruments to the proceedings including dobro, mandolin, banjo, flutes, and many more. The guy’s pretty damn well-rounded you have to say.
The record opens with “The Echoes of a Disharmonic Evensong” that begins with crunchy footsteps, almost as if they’re trudging through an icy forest, and once winds whip up, the song opens. There is serious metallic crunch, but there also are mesmerizing folk rock strains that really carry the whole thing forward. Once the riffs kick in, they pack a wallop, sounding like a meeting of Scandinavian black metal and even some hardcore-laced crushing. The vocals are harsh and passionate, and the track manages to remain utterly compelling over its 10-minute run. Incredible start. “Where the Mountains Pierce the Sky” begins with some mountain-friendly calm, with strings and whistles flaming the embers and giving you a sense of calm. Then the track ignites with more spirited riffs that explode with power, engaging melodies, and an atmosphere that makes me imagine taking cover under tall trees while heavy rains crash down. The track builds beautifully, going from serene to devastating, and the final minutes bring bubbling growls, crunchy thrash intensity, and playing so fluid, it moves like a river.
That blends into the start of a triptych of tracks “The Long Road,” beginning with “One Last Fire” that’s rich with Appalachian folk passages and melodies so moving, they sweep you up into the record. Picked acoustics, slide guitar, and banjo are all part of the picture, and they add a sweeping sense to this rustic gem. The second part, “Capricious Miles,” roars open with the burning intensity returning to full throttle, and Lunn looking back on everything, as well as the road ahead of him, and realizing, “Nothing will ever be the same.” Bluegrass-style strings work their way back into mix, and as the song progresses over its second half, it gets airy and spacious before it thunderous last run. The third part “The Sigh of Summer” has a serene opening and stays that way for about three minutes before bursting wide open with thunderous playing, vicious howls, and furious blasts that propel this track. Like many of the other songs on here, there are peaks and valleys to bring you up and take you back down again, and at one point, a rough bassline blasts in, the pace begins to seriously chug, and surging lead guitar work takes over and leads to some unreal soloing. The track ends on a beautiful note, with whistles and folk ambiance setting up and floating you into the final part of the record.
“Norwegian Nights” is a softer, reflective song, where the vocals are clean and ruggedly expressive with Lunn noting, “My fragile sleep torn from me.” You almost can imagine him tossing and turning, wondering where his life is going, longing for those he left back home. A train passing by at the end perhaps is another callback to his roots. The song blends into “In Silence” that wallows in anything but that. There are blasts of cold darkness, and the guitar work burns on high, giving a sense of tumult and emotional overflow. As the song progresses, the folk melodies return, softening the surroundings with slide guitar, but there is a return to chaos before the track ends, setting the stage for the album finale. That would be the stunning “Chase the Grain,” a track that lets you have one final ride through this portrait of life’s progression, and it starts with elegant strings that lead to metallic waves. The song softens with acoustic guitars, Native American flutes, and woodsy notes, but then it opens up again with cinematic heaviness, huge musical progressions, harsh vocals, and cascading melodies. The final moments reclaim the serenity, letting the music fade out, as the journey comes to its end and a life is changed forever.
No matter what Lunn unearths, examines, or explores on his recordings, there’s never a shortage of inspiration and music that could make your heart and mind race. He’s never been consumed with devils or evil or all of the other things typically associated with black metal. Instead, he provokes thought, makes you think about issues perhaps you haven’t before, and even educates you. “Roads to the North” does all of those things, even if it is more introspective, and anyone who has had a long road to travel on the way to understanding or a new life can find tons of value here. Lunn’s never been afraid to put his thoughts and feelings out there for examination, and this one cuts closest to his heart. Not only will it be exciting to hear where his music goes from here, it also will be just as fulfilling to see how he grows as a man, a father, and a business owner.
For more on the band, go here: https://www.facebook.com/PANOPTICONBAND
To buy the album, go here: http://eihwazrecordings.com/distro/index.php?main_page=product_info&cPath=2&products_id=1480
Or here: http://www.nordvis.com/store/product_info.php?products_id=202
For more on the label, go here: http://bindrunerecordings.com/
Or here: http://www.nordvis.com/
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