If you were having trouble wringing every last bit of red, orange, and gold out of the crisp fall season, this album has more of it to offer. Autumn Eternal is the newest release by Panopticon – a one-man project by Austin Lunn, who threads the music with strands of black metal, folk, and bluegrass. After releasing numerous pro-union, pro-environment albums, this release takes things back to basics, reuniting the listener with the nature that served as Lunn’s inspiration.
Autumn Eternal is the followup to Panopticon’s 2014 release, Roads to the North, a wintry meditation on the Scandinavian landscape, and 2012’s Kentucky, which dealt with coal miners’ fight to unionize in the 1930s, the dangers of mountaintop removal, and the desecration of ecosystems from fossil fuels. This time around, Lunn seeks to reunite the listener with the natural world; indeed, it can be seen as a clarion call for the Facebook and smartphone generation to wake up and smell the changing of seasons, and observe the autumn in all its glory. It’s an important music release at a time when many bands, even amongst the metal scene, have become too invested in technology, and too far removed from the environment that surrounds them.
I’ve always felt that Panopticon hit its peak with Kentucky; certainly, I didn’t expect another of their releases to define their music as profoundly as that album did. Autumn Eternal changed my mind. A cut above Roads to the North (though perhaps I just prefer the autumnal imagery over the snowscapes of Roads), every track on this release was as good as, or better than, the one that preceded it. Indeed, I could not find a single song on the entire album that I felt did not measure up in quality. This was not only an excellent Panopticon album, but one of the best metal releases I’ve heard in years, and perhaps the single musical release that will serve as the gateway into the bluegrass and folk genres for some more musically conservative metal fans.
That being said, this is probably the most guitar-driven Panopticon album I’ve heard in years, to the exclusion of much of the more experimental instrumentation we might have come to expect from Lunn. Where previously, elements like the banjo and Irish tin whistle were prominently featured, here they wander about the periphery, coming into the songs where needed but used sparingly enough to make the guitar (more electric than acoustic this time around) the focal point of the affair.
Still, this time we get violin and cello added to the melting pot, and the recipe continues to be a successful one. That’s easily noticeable on tracks like the nearly nine-minute-long “Sleep to the Sound of the Waves Crashing,” and on “Tamarack’s Gold Returns,” which has now become my favorite instrumental track of all time by this artist. That violin is contributed by Johan Becker of prog metal band Austaras, one of several guest musicians on this record, whose instrument matches Lunn’s use of the dobro (a particular type of guitar), creating a captivating tune.
One critique of mine: in contrast with its two predecessors, the vocals on Autumn Eternal feel like they are rather low in the mix. And I understand that, to some degree, Lunn has always tried to have the sound match the aesthetics of each album (i.e. on the winter-themed Roads, we got a sort of clear, crystalline sound). And yet, the vocal mix here doesn’t necessarily embody this record’s motif, even though all of the instrumental parts absolutely do. “Oaks Ablaze” and “Into the North Woods,” both outstanding tracks, could have done with a less buried quality, sonically speaking. But it still works, and if anything, it does admittedly forge more of a traditional black metal sound than previous outings. Sometimes convention can be refreshing.
Moving beyond the music, the ideology behind it is readily apparent; Lunn wants to awaken people once more to the world that they ignore and dismiss. In his own words, this release was meant to “focus on the deep wealth of beauty in the natural world.” He added that he intends to use Panopticon to “sing the praise of what makes this life worth living.” And part of that, he seems to feel, is getting out and exploring; leaving behind the safety of tech-driven consumerism and seeing new places. Discussing his own surroundings and environment, Lunn said, “I actually go to these places, see it, feel the soil under my feet, learn about it, rather than sitting on my ass all day playing video games. I just don’t have much interest in that. Let’s take life for all it is worth, rather than sitting behind a glowing computer screen.”
Panopticon can’t help but evoke Lunn’s feelings on these issues, and that really comes through on Autumn Eternal, proving that it’s more than a simple celebration of the windy season. Like the changing foliage that serves as a hallmark of autumn, so too does this album ask people to change; to reconnect with the earth and, perhaps, to put some color back in their lives, as well.
Photo: Autumn Eternal. | Panopticon Facebook page