BEST OF 2014 — 2. PANOPTICON, ‘Roads to the North’ (Bindrune Recordings/Nordvis)

Panopticon cover
Anyone who doesn’t think metal is a personal endeavor has not been introduced to Panopticon and its creator Austin Lunn. Over the course of this project’s existence, it has touched upon and exposed subject matter that would make most black metal “enthusiasts” scoff, such as the heavy toll paid by those who depend on social services and the plight of Kentucky coal miners.

But Lunn is not your average musician, nor does he adhere to some archaic formula for what must embody black metal, or metal for that matter. Here is a man who cares for his fellow person, who hurts at the mention of injustice, and who takes great pride in pouring himself into each ounce of his music. This is a major reason Lunn’s work here in Panopticon and elsewhere has meant so much to me. I feel like, here’s a guy not afraid to put himself out there. Here’s a guy who can stare down the people who demand a certain aesthetic and approach from black metal and doesn’t blink. He follows his own path and sees his vision right up to the end. An honorable man. Metal could use more people like Lunn and more bands like Panopticon.

“Roads to the North” is a record that just stomped on my heart from the start. It’s a document that I had an easy time absorbing because of my admiration for Panopticon’s body of work but also took me a little further than usual. Here, Lunn documents major changes in his life and his journey away from his longtime home and friends in Kentucky and to a “strange land” in Norway, where he started to follow his path toward becoming a brewer. If you’re not familiar, read our review here where you can learn all you need to know. Lunn assembled musicians with whom he is close (including members of Waldgefluster, Obsequiae, Celestiial, Altar of Plagues, and many more) and what resulted is a transcendent experience you must hear to understand. This isn’t just a record. It’s a snap shot—his words—of a time in his life that was existence-altering. Lunn was kind enough to answer our questions, and in a way on he could, impart his humanity and humility into the responses. We thank him, not just for his answers, but for his music that has changed the way we hear metal.

Meat Mead Metal: We are naming “Roads to the North” as the No. 2 metal album of the year. It seems this album really has resonated with people not just as a great metal record but also emotionally. How does that make you feel both as an artist and a person?

Austin Lunn: I’m not sure how to react to it all. I make music for my own sake, as a way to process my thoughts and feelings. So when it resonates with other people, I have a myriad reactions to it. I often get really embarrassed or hyper critical of myself, like maybe I could have done better. But then I remember that it’s best to “come from the heart” and play like no one is listening, as Mr. Guy Clark said.

MMM: With Panopticon’s past records, you have concentrated a lot on social issues and topics such as the plight of Kentucky coal miners. But on “Roads to the North,” you’ve created a very personal portrait, an intimate look into a period of your life where you went through a major journey and transformation. Why did you decide to reveal so much of yourself on this record?

AL: “On the Subject of Mortality” was also an intensely personal album, as was both “Social Disservices” and “Kentucky.” The album takes a stance that is less about social commentary than the records before, and yeah, I am done for the time being with social commentary. But as in the past, I still remain an introspective person who deals with my own troubles and thoughts via music. I think I am trying to find a place of peace and calm with music these days. I am attracted to music that is inspired by location, inspired by nature, so that is what I am striving for, to reflect the land I tread, places that are dear to me, and the seasons that inspire me.

MMM: You continue to meld traditional American folk music into your sound on “Roads to the North.” Do you consider this a permanent aspect of the project’s sound now? Could you add even more musical elements into future recordings?

AL: I’m not sure if that will be permanent. I am just trying to follow the inspiration while I have a hold of it. Who knows what is to come?

MMM: There is a long section in the middle of the album that is “The Long Road” triptych. It’s quite the journey you go through as a listener on those tracks, and I can only imagine what you put into that from your standpoint. Explain as much as you care to what portion of your transformation we’re at during this point of the record. It feels like things are coming to a head.

AL: “The Long Road” is a love song of sorts. The instrumental section is an auditory snap shot of my last night at my house in Louisville. That house was a gathering place for my crew. We drank thousands of beers in that house and around the fire pit over the years, so “One Last Fire” was about splitting and burning the rest of my  firewood, drinking as many beers as we could, and building the fire a big as we could late into the night. It was our “last” hurrah.

“Capricious Miles” is my thank you to my Louisville friends. It’s a promise that I will return home as much as possible. And I do. “The Sigh of Summer” is very personal. It’s about feeling so goddamn alone in a new place. Standing around a new fire pit on the cusp of autumn with new people I don’t know, drinking beers that aren’t regionally available back home. It feels like going through the motions. Trying to find the ease and comfort of friends now in my 30s is a fool’s errand. My family and I have had to grow accustomed to our life changes, and there have certainly been some unanticipated growing pains.

MMM: “Norwegian Nights” is one of those tracks many black metal-style bands would not attempt. It’s tender, vulnerable, and a very human moment. Talk about that track and what it means to this album.

AL: It is another snap shot. I wrote the bulk of that song when (his wife) Bek and I were living in a one-room cabin at the edge of Drammen, Norway. I was a month into my internship. We were living in a foreign land, getting used to the way things worked over there. It was a lament to changes and changes to come. Musically, it is very inspired by Blaze Foley and Townes Van Zandt, who have been big inspirations to me over the past years.

MMM: Ultimately, how do you feel about how this record has been embraced by metal fans, and how do you feel it stands as a milestone in your career? Could we expect more personal records from Panopticon in the future?

AL: I’m not sure. I try not to read reviews and internet stuff. People can act pretty callous when they don’t have to see the expression on someone’s face when they say negative things. On the other hand, the praise has been nice, but I have never been good at accepting compliments. In general, I just feel awkward. So generally, I just keep my head down and focus on work.

MMM: On a different note, but still related, how are things going with Hammerheart Brewing? Seems like you guys have a lot going on and things are really moving quite well

AL: I try not to wear too many hats at once. I do my best to keep my work at Hammerheart as separate as possible from Panopticon.

MMM: Hammerheart has a 98 percent on Beer Advocate. Not sure if things like that mean anything to you, but what’s your reaction to that one?

AL: I am eternally in debt  to my mentors at Haand Bryggeriet and very thankful for them. They have trained me and given me a way to provide for myself and my family for the rest of my life, and for that I feel incredibly fortunate.

MMM: What’s next for Panopticon? Considering you always seem to be creating something musically, it doesn’t seem out of the ordinary to ask if you’re already thinking of a new record. Anything else going on with your myriad other projects?

AL: I completed the work for “Roads to the North” well over a year ago. In that time (since), I have completed demos for an entire new album and will be entering the studio at Menegroth with Colin Marston sometime in the spring. The new songs don’t sound like “Roads to the North.” They are a bit more autumn-themed and melancholic. The inspiration and idea for this album came up in 2010 when I was in Norway for the second time driving near Flå (listening to The Morningside) in autumn. The mountains were golden with the sun breaking through a clouded sky. It was so beautiful. I realized that I am absolutely obsessed with autumn and needed to make album inspired by it.

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