On January 31st Bindrune Recordings will release two album-length splits, one by Panopticon and Nechochwen, and the other by Panopticon and Aerial Ruin. Today, Bindrune has made both albums available for streaming, and in addition to presenting streams of both albums we’re also sharing interviews we did with all three bands after we had a chance to spend some time with the music.
In this post we talked with Austin Lunn of Panopticon and Nechochwen about the music on their split. On the Panopticon side, Austin Lunn recorded one very long song (“Rune’s Heart”), and Nechochwen contributed four brand new tracks. I’ve shared some thoughts about the songs by each band in the course of the interview, but in a nutshell this is a powerful album that brilliantly displays the formidable talents of each band, and one that should not be missed.
And now, let’s turn to the interview:
With the benefit of hindsight, knowing now that both of these splits exist, it seems like both of them are unions that were meant to happen. But finding out how they came to be seems like a good place to start. How did the Panopticon split with Nechochwen come about?
Austin: Aaron, Andrew, and I have been friends for several years and we had talked about the idea of doing a split together more than 7 years ago, initially. As time went on we got busy with other projects and we finally got to it… A lot of discussion, texts, and email exchanges went into the planning of the split… ultimately, it turned out better than I could have hoped for.
I wrote multiple songs for this split… I’d decide I didn’t like something and then I’d scrap it… I actually wrote a demo for a 20-minute song back when I lived in Louisville for this record, but scrapped that as well… I don’t even know if I have an mp3 of that song anymore… ultimately, with as important as Nechochwen is to me, I decided that I wanted to write a song that was very personal, something I could pour a lot of heart into… and this was the song that came of it. I also felt that because Nechochwen are such a musically advanced band, with such amazing musicianship, that I would need to really practice a lot so I didn’t embarrass myself by being on the same piece of wax as them, hahah. They are a a high standard to reckon with…so I tried REALLY hard to level up for this record.
N: I think we all talked about collaborating a long time ago, maybe 2013 or ’14, but the timing wasn’t right. Nechochwen works very, very slowly and we were probably in the process of recording Heart of Akamon at the time. Panopticon is quite prolific but I take a lot of time writing music and I get distracted easily. I started writing songs around the time that Akamon was released and Pohonasin and I also wanted to re-do an older song in a different way than the original. I believe it was during a road trip to see Obsequiae perform in Minneapolis in 2016 that we went to Hammerheart Brewing and said “let’s make this split happen, the timing is right.” That time hanging out got the project set in motion. The four songs we were working on seemed perfect for half of the record and a fifth song we recorded worked well for the split 7” with Bhleg that was released last year.
How much interaction did you (Austin) have with Andrew and Aaron about the songs that would be on the split? I know that you and Tanner (Obsequiae) added vocals for “The Megalith”, but apart from that, did you talk in advance with Nechochwen about what you would each be doing, or did you each do your own thing, and basically find out after the fact what the other one had done?
Yeh, There was pretty constant communication, shooting demos back and forth… sending pictures of sketches for the art… lots of interaction.
On their Bandcamp page for the split Nechochwen have provided a significant amount of insight into the inspirations for their three tracks, as well as the lyrics, and I’ll come back to those. You haven’t shared the lyrics to Panopticon’s long song on the split, “Rune’s Heart”, because you’ve written they are a personal letter to your son Rune. But you’ve explained what the song is about. It seems to me that everything on this split, from both bands, is intensely personal and very connected to family. I have the same question for both bands: I can understand how very personal and private experiences, and very personal and private thoughts, can inspire music. I think the best music is of that kind. But what led you to share this music with the public? What do you get out of exposing your hearts to strangers?
Austin: The ordeal that Rune went through was something we (Bekah and I) generally kept private until it was over. We didn’t want to scare our friends and family. But when it was over I needed to process the emotions and trauma of it all. In addition to that, I also felt like it would be good thing to share the experience with others… I have met quite a few people over the past 3 years that have gone through similar ordeals and I know there is comfort in being able to relate to others about our own experiences. So I chose to share my experience as a way to process but also as a way to reach out to others as well. I felt weird about airing my family’s trauma, but at the same time, after the initial announcement of the record, so many people wrote me sharing their experiences and opening their hearts about their lives.
For a long time after Rune got out of the hospital, I would get choked up and teary-eyed when I was talking about him… it kinda showed me that I needed to process… and music is the way that I sort these kinds of things out. My apologies to any folks I have met over the years that have felt uncomfortable when talking to me because I got a little emotional… I know that can be awkward, hahaha.
Another reason for making this song was that I want to donate the money I make to The Children’s Hospital that performed his surgery and took care of him. So hopefully, if the record sells well, I can make a pretty substantial donation to them and help other families as well.
N: I never really thought about this. The first two songs are based on Ohio legend and the last song is a poem based on an ideal, problem-free life that we’d probably all like to have but cannot. The third song, “The Mingling Waters”, is probably the most personal because of the time I have spent trying to unlock the secrets of one special place since I was a tiny kid scooping up minnows out of that creek. It’s part of me and often on my mind so it’s hard to not get a bit personal about it.
To answer your question, I think I do this because I believe it is fuel for creating interesting songs. I used to write about other things, vague or universally dark types of things when I was younger, and I don’t think those songs were as interesting. Another reason is that I think these subjects deserve some sort of a tribute from someone. Maybe a documentary or a book would be ok, too, but I don’t make those and nobody else seems to care about writing about ancient inhabitants of these creeks or an old elm tree, or about the Gnadenhutten massacre or the Shades of Death or any of the subjects I write songs about. It’s what I am personally interested in and these songs are conversations about it. If I wrote about relationships, modern politics, fantasy, or something like that, the songs would be terrible and I would probably hate them and never release them.
This next few questions are for Austin, and the first one concerns the vocals you contributed to “The Megalith”. I’m not sure you’ve previously contributed vocals to someone else’s music (if you have, please remind me!). How did you approach that in this instance? How did you get your head in the place that you felt was right for the song and for what you did?
I’ve done a few guest vocal spots but it’s not something I do a lot of… I was excited to do this for Nechochwen. Aaron sent me a demo of the song and the lyrics, so I basically just followed what he had asked for. I did the vocals a little more death metally than normal to kind of fit their sound more.
Focusing on “Rune’s Heart”, I see that a portion of the lyrics are from a poem (“Take My Heart”) by Reece Wagstaff that he wrote for your son Rune. What can you tell us about Reece, or about the poem?
Reece is a good friend of mine. When Rune was in the hospital and things were taking a turn for the worse, I was still going into work everyday after essentially staying up all night to watch over him.This went on for weeks. He would scream and cry in the night and try to pull all of the tubes and IVs out of himself, so I had to watch over him in the night. Bek would be with him in the day. She was exhausted…. we were both completely exhausted… I was so tired I started making mistakes at work in the brew house, some of which were dangerous… a commercial brewery is a good place to get hurt….
So I finally called Reece, who is also a brewer (he was head brewer at another brewery at the time) and asked if he would be willing to work a few of my shifts so I could rest a bit. He immediately accepted and after he hung up the phone wrote the poem about Rune. He is a really brilliant poet. Reece came through for me in a time of dire need, and now he and I work together at Hammerheart Brewing every day brewing and packaging the beer. His friendship and support have been tremendous for me and my family…. And he seems to have a special bond with Rune as well.
The song was written for your son, but you dedicate it to your partner Bekah, in remembrance of her strength through your son’s ordeal. She also screamed and sang on the song. How did you convince her to do that?
So much of this whole ordeal was henged on her strength. She was so strong through it all and I felt as if she should also have a presence on the song. It was her first time to ever be recorded, so she was nervous, but she did a great job and found it very cathartic. Her photography has always been a major part of the band, essentially the visual representation of Panopticon, through album covers and our live visuals, but it really meant a lot to me to have an audible contribution from her and I hope she will do it again. As it turns out, she has a lovely singing voice!
The terrors of having a child in serious peril are hard to convey to anyone who hasn’t been there. In Rune’s case, he underwent heart surgery to repair a restriction in his aorta. That kind of surgery is inherently dangerous, and he was so young when it happened. You couldn’t be there with him. You couldn’t help him once they took him from you into the operating room. All you could do was wait and worry. Those feelings of fear and helplessness are probably not something you’ll ever forget. Was making this song a way of helping you live with that?
For sure. The surgery was absolutely terrifying, but the month and a half that followed in the hospital due to complications was the hardest part. The fear, the disappointment… it was agonizing. Watching him suffer through it all and not understand why he was in such pain, why he couldn’t eat, why he wasn’t allowed to drink water, why he had all these tubes coming out of him, who all the strange people touching him were… all the machines beeping… he was just terrified. Luckily he doesn’t remember a lot of it, since he was so young. But every now and then flashes of it come back to his mind and I can see the fear in his eyes… he is still very fixated on having a water bottle at all times… he has PTSD from the ordeal that has taken a long time to work through. But I am relieved and proud to say that he is very healthy and very happy… it’s my hope that the painful memories will continue to fade. Rune is only 4 and he is one of the strongest people I have ever known.
As you say, Rune had a lot of complications, and I suspect that was even worse, since you had to be right with him through all that, and then a second surgical procedure since nothing else seemed to succeed in closing the wound. You’ve said that in addition to the agony of watching that happen, you also experienced rage. The thought occurred to me that listening to the song yourself might be a complicated experience. Does it bring back all the terrors and the fury and the frustration? Is it maybe a song you want to stay away from?
Well, as cathartic as writing the song was, it was in the early stages, like a wall I couldn’t climb… I just felt like I was trying to pull apart this hopelessly jumbled and tangled ball of emotions… so it took me quite some time to weed through it all. When I finally was able to sort it all out and organize my thoughts, I was so exhausted of thinking about it all. Now that it’s in the rearview mirror, it certainly is something I try not to dwell on. But at the same time, it’s part of his story and part of our story…something that continues to define and refine who we are as people.
“Rune’s Heart” is an extravagant work, more than 19 minutes long, and you packed a lot of intense sensations into those minutes. It’s tumultuous and thunderous, frenzied and frightening (especially the screaming vocals), but I have to say it’s also pulse-pounding and neck-bending, with tremendous fiery vibrancy, and the music also soars heavenward, elevated by what sound like angelic voices — it put my heart in my throat more than once. Not surprisingly, it also has its heart-breaking moments, even when things are going full-throttle — moments that channel feelings of helplessness and anguish. And the acoustic country passage in the center of the song, where you sing instead of roar, is so wistful and sad, but beautifully poignant. Maybe it helps to know the back-story, but the music makes me feel the whole narrative of what happened, right up to the entrancing finale, which sounds… reverent and tender, exhausted but relieved.
The song was written almost as a narrative for the events… like a movie of what happened… it literally goes from before the surgery at the beginning of the song, all the way to him finally coming home by the end… so it is certainly in chronological order in its movements. Lyrically it follows the events… much of the lyrics were written as the events were actually happening… in hospital waiting rooms and intensive care units while he was unconscious… So yes, it is very much a narrative.
Have you let Rune hear the song? If so, how did he react to it? And if you haven’t, you know the day will come when he knows you wrote a song about this experience he had. What do you hope he will feel about it, now or later?
He hears my music from time to time… but the music he likes to listen to the most is Rush. So that’s his music of choice haha. Unfortunately, he did find out about Neil Peart’s passing last week, and his immediate reaction was fearing that he wouldn’t be able to listen to Rush anymore… so we soothed his fears by explaining to him that we will always have the Rush records he loves. RIP Neil Peart… one of my heroes and Rune’s as well.
Now you’ve written songs for both of your boys, with “Håkan’s Song” on the 2016 split with Waldgeflüster, both of them now immortalized in song. Maybe some day they’ll write a song about you. Do you think they might become musicians some day? They’re young ‘uns still, but do they show any interest?
Well, Rune has a little guitar and Håkan has a little drum set. Håkan isn’t as interested in the drums as he was when he was Rune’s age, but with any luck, one of them will take up music. They both love music (Håkan’s favorite band is Iron Maiden). Who knows, maybe one day I’ll have the joy of getting to jam with my boys in my studio space. I used to jam with my old man (he was a drummer). So that would be an absolute treasure for me.
I had always hoped that if I wrote a song for my boys, it would be like Kris Kristofferson’s “From here to forever”. That song wrecks me…When I saw Kris Kristofferson and Merle Haggard years ago… I showed up to the show, I had literally bought the last ticket, grabbed a beer, and climbed up to my nosebleed seat to watch the show. The moment that Kris said, just like on the album, “Here’s one I wrote for my kids”, I immediately choked up. As he sang, I had tears running down my cheek. The old folks in front of me, in their Sunday best, tried to sneak a pick of the tattooed, bearded metalhead in a battle vest and Amebix shirt crying in his beer to Kris Kristofferson but their flash went off and I saw them hahaha. Maybe one day I’ll write a tranquil song about the joy my boys have brought me and how grateful I am for them, and their mother.
If Nechochwen has time, I’ve got some questions about their songs too:
You’ve explained that “Of Wisdom and Prophecy” and “The Megalith” were inspired by a story called “The Legend of Standing Rock” in a book of local Indian and pioneer stories that your uncle gave you. I remember that story from my own childhood, though I haven’t thought about it in ages. But you’ve given your own interpretation to the lessons of the story.
N: You’ve read Doc Schilling’s book? Wow, that’s great, I didn’t think anyone outside of a 20-mile radius of where I live had ever heard of that book. I suppose that book really got around — or did you grow up near Yellow Creek in Ohio? On a side-note, the rock that is the subject of those songs is now a protected breeding area for the American Hellbender salamander.
I grew up in Austin, Texas, and it was my grandmother on my mother’s side who gave that book to me and my brother. She led a fascinating life, and I could go on about the connection between that and the stories, but that will have to wait for another day.
In the lyrics of your songs on the split there are images of violence, horrors, and death. But “Of Wisdom and Prophecy” is entrancing, and its whirling leads seem buoyant and even jubilant, and although “The Megalith” includes scorching vocals and riffing that at times seems grim, it’s also tremendously vibrant. The acoustic guitar interlude, accompanied by singing, has a bright and lilting quality, and there’s a wild, ebullient quality to the the riffing and soloing that follows. I even thought of some classic heavy metal and power metal bands for a minute. And the riff at the end has a glorious, ethereal quality. What was your own thinking in translating these two aspects of the story into music?
N: Thanks for that description and I’m flattered that you heard all of that in there. “Of Wisdom and Prophecy’s” guitar structure is quite old and I knew that at some point it would get matched with the right lyrics and rhythm section. I approached it and explained it to Pohonasin like this: The first song of the two, “Of Wisdom and Prophecy”, takes place when that rock fell. Who knows when that was? Maybe a million years ago? The song is very short and serves as an introduction but also foreshadows the things that men would do there many years into the future. In my mind, the jubilant melody and rhythm that you mentioned, similar to a power metal riff or something, fits well with this theme. I wanted the rhythm to be choppy and to build in intensity, like how the rock skidded down that hill into Yellow Creek so long ago. The conclusion is like the chaotic splash of that massive stone into the water that must have scared wildlife away for weeks.
“The Megalith”, in contrast, is much longer and varied in approach. The legend and the actions of the men involved are complicated emotionally and politically and are probably controversial for historians and scientists due to the ecological impact it implies in pre-contact America. I thought that the music should match the complexity of this aspect of the story. In addition, the dynamics of the music change throughout the song to follow both the philosophical and visceral parts of the story. In this legend, one tribe intended to exterminate the other but were instead poisoned through trickery and thrown in the water to rot in the sun. Regardless of its historical accuracy, if this doesn’t stir up some of the most aggressive and twisting riffs you can write, you are probably doing it wrong. I also wanted several vocal styles for additional contrast and was grateful that Austin and Tanner could contribute their vocals to this.
The words of “The Mingling Waters” speak about a return of cremated ashes to the earth, or rather to the flowing waters of smaller and greater rivers. The beautiful folk music at the outset does seem to flow and glisten like mountain streams — but it becomes much heavier and moodier in its tone when the drums and electric instruments and the harsh vocals come in. The singing later adds a different dimension, and helps move the atmosphere of the music into mythic territory. At the end the song slows and softens again, casting a spell again.
I think both the words and the music of “The Mingling Waters” are beautiful, even though this song also deals with death. You’ve written that this song is a tribute to the land along two streams in West Virginia where your grandparents lived and to the various people who inhabited this land for thousands of years, and that you imagined cremations there long ago, which became the basis for this song. What brought those thoughts to mind at the time when you wrote the song, and what emotions did you hope to convey in the music?
N: Yes, it was my grandparents’ place and it’s still in the family. I saw an archaeological team on the other side of the creek a few years ago but they wouldn’t tell me what they found there. There is a village site nearby that is fairly recent, about 800 years ago, but there have been people traveling these creeks for 16,000 years. They told me to check out archaeological reports in a year or so, and when I did, they basically told me to pound sand because some coal company owned the land and no one is allowed to access this info about private land.
I’ve had to do my own research into whoever lived there long ago. I can only speculate about the people who lived there but I’ve always wanted to know who made the things laying in that creek, who painted in nearby caves, etc. I wrote this song for the people that grew up there – friends and family, people that want to have a conversation about those who used to live there and how they probably thought about their ancestors and how they lived, too. I suppose I wanted to draw the listener into the conversation, to build some attachment to the person who became ashes flowing in these waters and to then think about who used to live in your own backyard. I spend a lot of time thinking about what this beautiful country looked like before our skylines and Wal-Marts and cell towers. Maybe at the mellow part at the end, you can zone out and think about your own travels in this life and where you will travel after you leave it.
“The Red Road” is apparently an older tune, but the track on the split is a new version of it. I found the rhyming lyrics quite beautiful and inspiring, and hopeful. Are the words older too, or did you write them for this recording of the tune?
N: The song in this metal form pre-dates any of the released Nechochwen material. I think I wrote it in 2005 and demoed it with a drum machine. It was really raw and I only had some vague lyrical ideas. Then I recorded Algonkian Mythos, when I thought Nechochwen would always be an acoustic/classical guitar project. When I was writing material for what would become Azimuths to the Otherworld, I initially thought I was going to release another folk-type album. I took this old song, arranged it for three classical guitars, recorded it, and called it “Gissis Mikana”. The Sun Trail basically. It was only later that Pohonasin and I decided to also record some metal songs for this album. I wrote the words last year or maybe late 2018, just my thoughts in the form of a poem on the subject of trying to live the best we can amongst many internal and external obstacles and distractions. I had the idea in my head for years but didn’t write anything concrete until recently. They wouldn’t have worked for the classical version.
What inspired this particular song?
N: The sun, basically. I thought a little booklet by Tamarack Song that I read was interesting. I’m sure they are very ancient thoughts but it got me thinking about how the sun’s daily path looks like a smooth arc, the smooth path we want our lives to travel on. Unlike the sun, we get our diversions. Addictions, apathy, sorrow, as well as good friends, triumphs, delusions of grandeur, whatever other little peaks and valleys we experience on our path. “Follow the red road of the sun if you can, but no one can blaze such a trail through the land.” That sums up the song, but at the same time, thinking about this maybe helps because you see where you’ve been and where you are going, what kind of path you are on.
The central riff is electrifying and highly contagious — it seems to skirl, like Highland bagpipes — though the song also has a lively jabbing and bounding quality, and there’s a melody around the mid-section that seems to draw upon Native American music traditions, but I’m certainly no expert in those. There’s also a lot of vocal variety in the song, including some that sound solemn. I’d like to ask again what your vision was for the music, what emotions and thoughts you were trying to leave in the minds of those who hear it?
N: Thank you. This song took many years to materialize. Not because it’s very sophisticated or complex or anything; just because sometimes it works out that way. A concept sometimes returns but mostly stays in the background for whatever reason. I don’t know where this bagpipes-type riff came from but I agree, I think your description is spot-on. If you were to hear the underlying riff by itself (listen to “Gissis Mikana”), this effect basically disappears. When played acoustically, the verse riff sounds kind of like some medieval idea. In “The Red Road”, this riff sounds closer to maybe a Rotting Christ riff or something.
I wish I had a more profound answer but looking back 15 years ago to the birth of this song, I was just writing riffs that I liked and I still like them now. It very much shows our influences in the riffs, and the spoken vocals were probably influenced by Arcturus. I think I improvised these on the spot and aren’t part of the lyrical poem. This vocal influence goes back to when I was still in high school. The mid-section you are referring to bears no resemblance to the demo or the classical version. This section was new, added in experimentally, improvised, and definitely sounds more like what Nechochwen became over the years.
This song is about one’s individual path; each is unique and yet we all experience similar trials and successes with variations in the details, don’t we? We aren’t really trying to instill any particular emotion here but maybe, instead, all of them? I am suggesting that each listener would have their own thoughts about their own path rather than us trying to make a song that makes people sad, angry, uplifted, or whatever.