Panopticon – Roads to the North

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Panopticon has fast become a trusted name when it comes to the furtherance of black metal. The project, lead by Louisville area resident Austin Lunn, (relatively) broke out of obscurity with 2012 record Kentucky, an ode to the early 1900’s coal labor strikes and the protest songs born out of the movement. Lunn combined the contemporary Post-Black Metal school of thought popularized by the likes of Wolves in the Throne Room with traditional Americana and Bluegrass passages, creating an absolutely striking and unique blend that has never been seen before on such a scale. Since then, Kentucky has already been heralded as a modern classic, and the metal community has been aching for more “blackgrass” (it’s okay; no one actually calls it that) ever since. Following up such a masterpiece can be a daunting task for one man to make, but Lunn doesn’t falter with its informal sequel, Roads to the North.

Roads to the North ultimately picks up where Kentucky left off, albeit with much more going for it in its grand scheme. The bluegrass vignettes are still prominently featured, contrasting the devastatingly bleak black metal with beautiful passages of somber folk both within the context of epic progressive tracks and confined within their own walls. ‘One Last Fire’ and ‘Norwegian Nights‘ are standalone tracks of North American folk complete with fiddle and banjo, untouched by distorted guitars or throaty screams. Elsewhere, the bluegrass interjects itself into the otherwise vicious ‘Where Mountains Pierce The Skies’ and ‘In Silence’ as picturesque stop-gaps in dynamic flow.

In addition to holding onto the genre-bending gimmick (and I use the term with utmost positivity and respect), Lunn gives the metallic aspect of Roads to the North a palpable facelift. One might expect the surrounding moments of blackened fury to be rife with tremolo picking and drum performances content with blastbeats and little else, but no aspect of Panopticon’s sound is phoned-in. Lunn seasons the tried and true black metal formula with melodic death metal across Roads to the North, providing another layer of potential hooks that will undoubtedly make an otherwise difficult prospect beg for repeated listen. At The Gates-inspired riffing and outrageous sweep-picking leads marry with black metal’s chaotic density and folk melodic sensibilities in tracks like ‘The Echoes of a Disharmonic Evensong’ and ‘Capricious Miles,’ bringing to mind internet favorites Cormorant. Further, the surprisingly technically impressive drum performance on the album demands praise in and of itself, allowing massive fills and intricate flair to writhe in and out of play.

Lunn further displays his versatility as a musician by partaking in breath-taking post-rock interludes throughout the record. Serene and beautifully hypnotic instrumental movements provide moments of introspection and subtlety, contrasting with the bombastic and almost spitefully extravagant flair that characterizes a large portion of Roads to the North at large. The stargazing showcased in ‘Capricious Miles’ and ‘The Sigh of Summer’ complete the package in that in practice, it effectively connects the many moving aspects of Panopticon’s sound in the boundless ethereal, where anything is possible. The listener doesn’t once question why genres come and go in often jarring transitions, because it all fits within the context of Roads to the North‘s grand design.

Above all though, this disparate blend of genres works because of Lunn’s sincerity; in a genre already supposedly co-opted by “hipsters,” ironic use of folk instrumentation would be a painfully embarrassing experience. On Roads to the North, both genres sharing tight quarters feels natural and begs no second thought. Lunn’s mastery of songwriting and technical ability among the myriad of instruments featured across this record is a testament to his earnest appreciation of music, both regardless of and in respect to their origins. Don’t be surprised when Panopticon tops many lists come year’s end, as Roads to the North is a phenomenal patchwork of music that is capable of transcending any labels attached.

Panopticon’s Roads to the North gets…

4.5/5

– JR

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