When it comes to underground music, the black metal genre is about as subterranean as it gets. Known for its harshness of sound and low-fidelity recording, and perhaps even more so for its infamously anti-religious lyrical material, it has built itself a reputation steeped in controversy. As of late, a number of such bands in the U.S. have infused their sound with various cultural and musical influences, and one of those is Kentucky’s Panopticon, who have just released their fifth full-length album, Roads to the North.
Cascadian black metal
Panopticon is the musical project of one man – Austin Lunn, a Kentucky native, environmental activist, and, when it comes to metal, a jack of all trades (he provides vocals and plays all the instruments you hear on the albums). Lunn began playing black metal, but eventually branched out into folk metal, traditional folk music, and bluegrass, along with blackgrass (a fusion of that genre and black metal). All in all, the music falls under the umbrella of ‘Cascadian black metal,’ a subgenre that defines particularly atmospheric, nature-oriented black metal with folk elements. It is so named because bands that started this trend, like Agalloch and Wolves in the Throne Room, originated in the Cascadian region of North America.
The last release by Panopticon was called Kentucky, and focused on the historical plight of coal miners in Lunn’s home state, especially their efforts to unionize and secure decent wages. It also dealt with coal mining in general as a harmful practice, with songs that referenced mountaintop removal and pollution of land and water. There were even covers of two famous labor songs, “Which Side Are You On?” by Florence Reece (and once covered also by Pete Seeger), and “Come All Ye Coal Miners” by Sarah Ogan Gunning.
Panopticon’s lyrics have differed from album to album, but have almost always been environment-themed, with socially conscious and culturally rich undertones. This is rather different than the decidedly more violent lyrics of the Norwegian and Swedish bands that first begat black metal – and yet it is not so far removed, at least in the thematic sense, from the genre’s penchant for constantly referencing and idealizing nature. One must remember that bands Immortal and Satyricon, both well-known black metal pioneers, wrote lyrics that spoke of worshipful adoration for – respectively – Scandinavian winter landscapes and the old forests of medieval times. Panopticon, for its part, continues this tradition, but focuses on the plentiful nature that exists in the Appalachian region of the U.S.
Further detailing why Panopticon moves away from the Scandinavian sound, Lunn said in an interview, “I love folk metal and Viking metal. It’s awesome and a lot of fun, and Viking metal-era Bathory is one of my favorite things to listen to. But I wanted to keep it honest. Yes, I love Scandinavian history, but I grew up in the Southern region of the U.S., and a lot of people are not aware of the history and folklore of their own region. The schools don’t promote it; I think American history classes in public schools dumb down our history.” I like to go to places where history happened, “feel the soil under my feet; learn about it,” and the music is reflective of that.
From sadness and sorrow to bucolic tranquility
That tradition remains quite prevalent on Roads to the North. While 2012’s Kentucky focused on coal mining and unions, and 2011’s Social Disservices focused on the unequal and prejudicial treatment of poor people and the mentally ill, the latest shifts things away from strong sociopolitical issues, and handles the dilemma of our warming planet from a more internal, primitivist, and romanticized perspective. Roads to the North indeed takes the listener along a road, with twists and turns emphasized by changing instrumental styles and cross-genre textures. Though deliberately subjective, Lunn purposefully sought to make the music emotively transitional, progressing from feelings of sadness and sorrow to those of bucolic tranquility.
Lunn incorporates the sounds of various instruments, including banjo, Native American flute, qilaut (a frame drum made of caribou skin, indigenous to the Inuit cultures of the Arctic), and fiddle. What’s best about these instruments is that they aren’t there to provide a hollow sense of eclecticism or multicultural sophistication, but rather, to truly benefit and color the music itself. As such, they are used where appropriate, and blended with the black metal (as in the three-part, 24-minute-long epic “The Long Road”) where it works.
“Where Mountains Pierce the Sky” is a particularly strong track; it begins with Americana-style folk music that transplants your eardrums onto a placid Appalachian hiking trail, then picks up the pace and connects this seamlessly to a black metal crescendo, which, visually speaking, rises in tandem with the mountains it lyricizes.
Given the swathe of intermingling genres and eco-themes that fill the album, one would expect this release to be not so much a road, but more a tangled mess of endless, busy highways. But it’s not so; every piece of music compliments the piece that preceded it, and no two styles clash. Not only is it the best recent example of successful music experimentation, it’s also arguably one of the most listenable – and re-listenable – albums Panopticon has ever done, and that’s a credit to Lunn’s musicianship.
According to Lunn, Roads to the North is the first release where Panopticon isn’t so much crying out in protest, but simply documenting and telling a powerful story, though often, as with most art, that is a form of protest in and of itself. “I started Panopticon when I was 24 or 25,” Lunn explained, “and I feel like now that I am 31, I have definitely changed as a person. I have gained perspective and turned inward more, withdrawing from city life and seeking more time alone, or with family. I live out in the woods now and have really grown to love it and cherish the solitude. I feel like in a lot of ways, the music reflects that.” On other records, “I was talking about what pissed me off; what I felt was wrong with the world. Now,” on Roads to the North, “I am finally ready to focus on what I think is right and beautiful in this world.”
Photo: Panopticon official Facebook page