Here in the Midwest, winter symbolizes nature’s aging process and the failure to sustain existence. Freezing winds pierce the skin like a final goodbye. Vegetation disappears like time itself. The harvested fields empty like an old, forgotten cemetery.
Such is life.
Some years ago, I introduced a friend to Panopticon, the musical solo project of Tennessee native Austin Lunn. Today, he resides in Minnesota, but spent nearly a decade as a Kentucky resident, which is a mere stone’s throw away from our home in Indiana. Looking back, I wish I’d better described Lunn’s music. I’d have said something more profound, akin to, “It’s like enjoying a cigar by a warm campfire, yet, at times, it’s ominous, like watching and listening to a middle-American Pentecostal pastor, arms coiled with snakes, scream about the rapture.” Unfortunately, I probably gave a square response like, “Oh, it’s just perfect, folky black metal.” I failed in terms of doing Lunn’s work justice. And oddly, Lunn’s wise words have always been a reminder—to me, at least—that failure is simply part of life. From political and socioeconomic issues to collapses and sufferings, we’re constantly forced to face the inevitable failure.
Along the way, we grapple with it as best we can, desperately holding on to our youth (some of us), engaging in outlandish behavior to attempt to rediscover our passion for life or revitalize our youth. But it’s pointless. You are what you are. And with each day, you become more and more of that.
It is the natural cycle of life. Be born, grow, die, be born, grow, die.
Our planet has such cycles as well. But along the way, our desperate attempts to halt our own cycles got in the way of the planet’s cycles. So desperate to evade our inevitabilities, we will harness and destroy the very lifeforce we thrive from to just have one more day of youth and ease. We will desecrate the sacred cathedrals of the wilderness, the havens of all life, just so that we can have a simpler existence with more abundant resources for a privileged few.
Sometimes, I turn back the pages to Panopticon’s 2012 release, Kentucky, the album that solidified Lunn as a savant in blending black metal, bluegrass, and folk. In addition to the tremolo picking, blast beats, and banjos, Lunn tackled the dark histories of the Bluegrass State through sound. After that, I might flip the pages to Social Disservices, music heavily influenced by Lunn’s time as a social worker, and a somber note that society fails even the most vulnerable. And finally, I might find myself entranced with …And Again into the Light, an album created in the image of human suffering. Each of these records—and Lunn’s entire discography in general—should be consumed by connoisseurs of the aforementioned genres.
After listening to the first 20 minutes of The Rime of Memory, it was evident that this thing is so ambitious and impressive that it must be heard, not just by the extreme music faithful but also by those who appreciate the brilliance of art.
Perhaps it’s the opener, a short but sorrowful acoustic arrangement entitled “I Erindringens Høstlige Dysterhet,” written to mourn the loss of the elder generation of Minnesota’s Scandinavian immigrants during the pandemic.
Or maybe it’s the subsequent track, a 20-minute journey known as “Winter’s Ghost,” split into two parts. The first eight minutes, deemed “Hiraeth,” a synonym for homesickness, showcases Lunn’s perfected ability to hypnotize us with folk and bluegrass compositions sparked by finger-picked acoustic guitars, flutes, and choir hymns, while the remaining 12 minutes, deemed “Hjemløs,” hit with blizzarding gusts of atmospheric black metal and a doom passage near the tail-end. Lunn’s angered pleas for yesteryear howl in the mix like wounded prey:
In exchange for the fire’s warmth, I delve into memory.
Nostalgia replaced hope as reality replaces dreams.
Maybe it’s the 16-minute “Cedar Skeletons,” a relentless song at first, with machine gun fire drumming and an oak-thick bass tone. Around the eight-minute mark, a spoken-word sample underlies slow-tempo grooves before a grandiose, orchestral finale topped off with heavy, gorgeous riffs and a pensive solo.
And the mire’s death is suspended till the coming of spring.
And the songbird flies south and continues to sing.
And the warmth resumes the rot that we know it will bring.
The horror is knowing our endeavors will not amount to a thing.
Perhaps it’s the instant atmospheric wrath of “An Autumn Storm,” that buries you beneath layers of frozen symphonies for nearly nine minutes. The track blossoms into an accordion break as a short poem is read in Norwegian before ripping more frostbitten flesh from bone with the black metal aggression similarly felt in Lunn’s earlier works like Roads to the North or Autumn Eternal:
(Translated) Cold tears fall from the sky on a winter night.
They shatter into consciousness like shards of glass.
The wounds will always remain open with the painful truth.
That our image of paradise is shattered.
Or it could be the onslaught of tempo shifts and soaring leads on “Enduring the Snow Drought,” only to be met with the lines:
By truth and horror none shall be spared.
Left to embrace the phantoms of those who once cared.
So if it is true the sun also rises in hell.
I’ll applaud the hope in this world and keep none for myself.
Nonetheless, the final voyage and highlight of the album, “The Blue Against the White,” would be just enough to reel any music connoisseur in as it emerges with serene, clean singing and brings back more of an orchestral vibe with some dashes of extreme metal. It does offer a much different ambiance but still feels cohesive. Lunn’s vocals remain low and echo in the mix as the final minutes drift away, like the years, months, days, hours, and minutes of life. It’s a perfect conclusion to Lunn’s 75-minute canvas of sonic art.
The phantom limb heart for the soul weathered numb.
The celluloid dances for the dead and succumbed.
The symphony plays forever on into the abyss.
The messages screaming to those who will never hear this.
The Rime of Memory reminds us of an old cliché—Father Time is undefeated. And the sad truth? We are what we fear—bringers of death—failing the foundations of life and each other. But maybe that’s what life is—one colossal failure. Still, therein lies irony. Lunn reminds us with his music that it’s a beautiful, fascinating, colossal failure worth living. Because even while listening to life’s coldest songs, you can find a few notes of warmth, even if that means stealing the sounds from that which harbors our very own existence.
Under a midwestern night sky, Austin Lunn has emerged with yet another superb, cathartic arrangement of art that dances like the aurora borealis between melancholy and captivating.
Such is life.