Panopticon’s sixth album, Autumn Eternal, is finished. It will be a long wait until most people have a chance to experience it — it’s not scheduled for release until October 16, 2015. But for an album inspired by and named for Autumn, it’s only fitting that it come with the changing of the colors in the trees and the first bite of chill in the air. I can also assure you, as one among the fortunate few who have heard the album, that although the wait will be long, your patience will be richly rewarded.
All of Panopticon’s albums beginning with 2012’s Kentucky can be thought of as remembrances of time and place, functioning both as outlets for Austin Lunn’s creative impulses and also as records, or snap-shots, of particular experiences and the physical environments where they occurred. They have been inspired to a significant degree by the beauty of nature, and, as carefully constructed and richly layered as they are, you also get the sense when you hear them that they have been written and recorded with great passion.
In these ways, Autumn Eternal is like the last two albums that preceded it. It’s bursting with emotional intensity (it may be the most intense Panopticon album so far). It’s filled with powerful, sweeping melodies. It’s multi-layered, atmospheric, immersive, and memorable. But because Panopticon’s albums are such personal works, because they are snapshots of time and place in the life of their creator, there are also differences in the music as compared to those last two albums. People change, and Panopticon’s music continues to change as well.
I would guess that if asked to put a genre label on Panopticon, most people familiar with the last two albums to date would sum them up as a blend of black metal and traditional folk music. Autumn Eternal will be harder to label in that way. The only folk music on the album is the opening track, an acoustic instrumental piece called “Tamarack’s Gold Returns”, which celebrates the golden hues of the tamarack trees in the northern forests during fall; it ends with what sounds like a flowing stream, an ax splitting wood, and footsteps on drying leaves.
It’s a beautiful, soft, multi-layered track accented by Austin Lunn’s picking on the dobro and one of only two appearances on the album by violinist Johan Becker. Becker’s violin enhances the music’s wistful quality, but even here it makes its presence known only briefly — and when he appears again (in “Sleep To The Sound Of The Waves Crashing”), the performance is more classically influenced than an example of folk music.
The “black metal” label doesn’t comfortably fit the new album either. Lunn continues to rely on repeating, tremolo-picked chords throughout the album, but often in a way that creates a shimmering ambient sound as a backdrop for the layering of other instrumental parts, or as the vehicle for sweeping melodies that evoke the panoramic beauty of natural vistas, of forests, mountains, and tides crashing against the shore of an inland sea.
Lunn also breaks out the blast-beats and the double-bass thunder on this album, but there are more backbeats and rocking rhythms in evidence than blasting, perhaps most pronounced in the album’s title track. The drumming, which is remarkable, is still a vital ingredient in the music’s changing moods. There’s a martial snare beat and the boom of timpani during a stately interlude within “Into the North Woods”, while at other points on the album (including the finales for the title track and the song “Oaks Ablaze”) the drumming erupts in a volcano of fast progressions that are jaw-dropping in their speed and athleticism.
Austin Lunn’s vocals are another key ingredient in the music’s intensity. A mix of searing shrieks and sometimes impassioned yells, they’re a surviving remnant of the band’s black metal past. They’re always emotionally wrenching on Autumn Eternal, but there’s a hair-raising point on the song “Pale Ghosts” (the album’s most atmospherically anguished track) where it sounds like he held absolutely nothing back, as if his heart is being ripped from his chest. It put me in mind of his searing vocal performance with Seidr at last year’s Gilead Fest in a song dedicated to the memory of his father.
But the album is full of contrasts, and so in that same song you will hear echoing clean vocals accompanied by a reverberating guitar melody that does indeed sound ghostly. Petri Eskilinen from the Finnish band Rapture also contributes beautiful clean vocals over a very catchy bass line and cosmic guitars during another contrasting interlude in the album’s longest song, the 11-minute “A Superior Lament”.
Almost every song includes contrasting passages that alter the music’s emotional mood. There are urgent, even explosive, lead guitar melodies and solos that pierce through dense moving waves of sound and tumultuous rhythms like rays of sunlight through banks of clouds. But the music also takes turns toward meditative and reflective moods. “Sleep To The Sound Of The Waves Crashing” includes a beautiful instrumental interlude in which Johan Becker’s violin is joined by a guest cello performance by Nostarion from Dämmerfarben (and by a mellotron string melody concocted by producer Colin Marston). Another contrasting interlude comes during “Oaks Ablaze”, when the reverberating notes of a solitary guitar are joined by a somersaulting drum progression and a heavy, gravel-throated bass line.
The album begins with an instrumental piece and ends with another, but those two tracks could hardly be more different. The closing track, “The Winds Farewell”, is reminiscent of post-metal and may be the heaviest piece of music on the album. It’s anchored by a repeating bass melody that’s spine-shaking — and also very catchy. But the layered guitar melodies over that big drive train also give the song a mystical, heart-aching quality. Oddly enough, of all the memorable melodies on the album, this is the song that I’ve found unexpectedly popping into my head more than any other.
Ultimately, it’s difficult to brand Autumn Eternal with a genre label. For an album like this one, genre labels would actually be misleading, because any effort to sum it up with a phrase will fail to capture its many hues and textures. Like the riot of color in a northern forest during autumn, it’s a feast for the senses. Like the season it so vividly celebrates, it’s often melancholy, sometimes chilling, and frequently gorgeous.
It’s obvious that Austin Lunn poured his heart and soul into the music — the intensity of his own feeling comes through the music powerfully. There is much to be absorbed in this hour-long work, much to be discovered with each listening session, much to be appreciated as you peel back the music’s many layers. It is a magnificent achievement, different in some ways from both Kentucky and Roads To the North, but very much the equal of those albums in the care with which it was constructed and in the power of its impact. It will surely stand as one of this year’s best albums — and well worth the wait until October.
Autumn Eternal will be released on CD by Bindrune Recordings in the U.S. and by Nordvis in Europe, with a gatefold LP version to follow. The album was recorded at Austin Lunn’s studio in Minnesota, with engineering of the drums handled by Spenser Morris. The album was re-amped, mixed, mastered, and produced by Colin Marston. The track list is as follows:
1. Tamarack’s Gold Returns (4:33)
2. Into the North Woods (6:21)
3. Autumn Eternal (7:05)
4. Oaks Ablaze (8:38)
5. Sleep To the Sound of the Waves Crashing (8:41)
6. Pale Ghosts (8:14)
7. A Superior Lament (11:01)
8. The Winds Farewell (7:08)
Below the following links, you can here a collection of excerpts from the album that was released last Friday.