One of the main advantages an artist has after “breaking through” is the ability to push their personal projects into new directions at a much quicker rate while still keeping a centralized theme looming over the heads of their art’s interpreters. Case in point: Panopticon, a band that has been on just about every extreme music fan’s radar since the release of its most memorable album to date, Kentucky, which was released two years ago.
Before Kentucky, Panopticon was a cool, one-man black metal band featuring a dude who also played a banjo and other instruments that were very unconventional to the world of black metal. Sounds gimmicky, right? That’s not to say this supposed shtick took away from the greatness of the albums that came before Kentucky, but they made it difficult to see any thematic cohesiveness from album to album.
All of that changed two years ago, when Austin Lunn exposed a larger piece of himself in his music than he ever had before. One look at Kentucky‘s album cover was all it took for today’s fans of Panopticon to know the album was going to be THE album. And it was… in all of its perfections and imperfections. A funny stringed instrument that most people are only used to hearing in theatrical renditions of the Civil War quickly became something that reminded a man of his grandfather or great-grandfather. And that’s when the lightbulb finally turned on in our heads: Black metal is so often about the past, and so is Panopticon. It’s said that art sells because of the emotional response it invokes in its listeners / viewers. While each individual person has unique sets of emotions and preferences as to which ones they want to feel, it’s really difficult not to succumb to a man opening up his chest and exposing his heart in the middle of the room. So now that everyone is watching, let’s see what else this man has to show us.
Roads to the North is Panopticon’s first release on Bindrune Recordings, a label most known for releasing dark, atmospheric and folk-themed music such as Wodensthrone‘s Loss, which is easily one of the best albums of the last decade. Although Panopticon still pays homage to its own Kentuckian past as it has done on previous albums, there’s a hauntingly sorrowful Scandinavian vibe that occupies the album’s core. Alongside the album’s emotional moments come some fun surprises as well, such as the blistering melodeath riffs in the album’s opening tracks, “The Echoes of a Disharmonic Evensong” and “Where Mountians Pierce the Sky.” The placement of the first two songs, if nothing more, are proof that Mr. Lunn probably has a damn fun time writing music.
Immediately following the 23 minutes of Roads to the North‘s first two tracks, some pretty fuckin’ mean banjoing and fiddling erupts into a trilogy of songs entitled “The Long Road.” And my-oh-my if these tracks don’t make the entire album worth purchasing. What’s immediately impressive is Panopticon’s ability to make unconventional rock instruments sound so inherently metal in “The Long Road Part 1: One Last Fire,” all without the use of guitars or drums whatsoever.
Parts two and three, entitled “Capricious Miles” and “The Sigh of Summer” respectively, are absolutely gorgeous in every way. Melodic notes ebb and flow alongside distant screams and some more progressively suspenseful, Opeth-ian elements a-la Damnation mixed with Caspian-esque post-rock at times, but the listeners are hammered down with blastbeats often enough to remember what it is they’re listening to. Ultimately, no comparison to any outside entity is needed to digest “Roads to the North,” but it’s still difficult not to ponder the sheer amount of influences that were squeezed into a 75-minute piece of music.
Although Roads to the North‘s climax comes a bit early, the remaining few tracks are quite impressive. Instrumentally, Lunn seems to be a master of just about every type of musical instrument, be it percussion, string, electronic, keyboard or wind (the flutes used in “The Sigh of Summer” add a wonderful Native-American touch to the conclusion of the album’s trilogy). It’s not only the usage of said instruments that makes Panopticon such an enormous project, but also the cultural appreciation with which they’re played. If Kentucky gave listeners insight into Austin Lunn’s immediate cultural heritage, Roads to the North goes even further back, as if each note being played stretches across the Atlantic to embrace his ancestors of the old world.
The only minor complaint one may express is that the album feels a bit disjointed due to the fact that there’s just so damn much going on. There does exist, however, a connection behind all of the musical attributes of Roads to the North, even if it’s not too clear. Kind of like a speaker whose main intent is to thank every person in the room, things can be a bit all-over-the-place, but at the end of the speech, nobody remembers anything other than the strong emotions that were felt — and shared. In this room sit the coal miners, the European immigrants, the Native Americans and modern-day listeners just wanting to wrap their emotions around the past. There’s no doubt that these people feel lots of love, and if they could speak words, they’d probably tell Austin Lunn that they love him in return.