Next month the world will get a new Panopticon album. Like all Panopticon albums, but maybe more so than any other, it’s a very personal expression, a reflection of a pivotal time in its creator’s life and a form of therapy as well. Its principal theme or message, as Austin Lunn told us in the interview that accompanied our announcement of the album in mid-January, “is atoning for wrongdoings and failures, growing and changing, casting off darkness and returning to hope again… returning to and improving on a better version of myself”.
In that same interview, Austin described the message in another way, with reference to the photographs of his partner and aesthetic collaborator Bekah that accompany the record: “All of the photography Bek took for the album are of places within a couple hours’ drive from our house, either in Minnesota or Wisconsin. The places aren’t as meaningful as the plants that grow there are… a metaphor for regrowth, healing, and survival. The photography is mostly taken in bogs… so the plants grow top towards the sun from the murky waters and moss below. That’s essentially the concept of the album”.
It’s undoubtedly true of all great works of art (and this really is a great record), that the art is inseparable from the inner life of the artist — the turmoils, the regrets, the striving for something better, the remembrance of joy and the hope for more of it — because that’s what inspires the art, and (as here) the art in turn often becomes a form of treatment for what ails the artist.
But it’s also undoubtedly true that the art is inseparable from the outsider who absorbs it. As listeners (in the case of music), what we take away from what we hear is a function of our own experiences and moods. To some extent, the sounds can be objectively described, the ingredients dissected and analyzed, but the emotional impact is a different thing. The feelings we experience in listening and reflecting on what we’ve heard are at least in part a product of our own inner lives. Those feelings may line up with those of the artist that inspired the creation, or they may not. What matters more is the power and the depth of the reactions and how long they stay with us.
In the case of this album and the impact on this writer, the dominant impression is one of stunning immersive power. There are some well-placed and varied moments of softness in the album, and other ways in which the music ebbs, flows, and changes direction, but I have found it for the most part incredibly intense, both in the near-overwhelming force of the sound and in the ravaging nature of its emotional impact. In fact, a lot of the intensity, both instrumentally and vocally, is so fierce and unchained that it’s frightening.
Many of the songs reach crescendos of vast, panoramic sweep, but even in the most spectacular zeniths there’s a darkness in the music, with feelings that seem like despair mingled with heart-breaking grief. The album may represent an effort to cast off darkness and return to hope again, but there’s also a sense that the abyss is still there. It has already made its mark and is waiting to make it again. It haunts the future, and determined efforts will be required to keep it at bay. Battles may be won, but the war goes on.
Well, that’s a big part of what this writer takes away from the album, but it’s not all. The songs do channel raw emotion through dense storms of ravaging and instrumentally multi-faceted black metal, but they also include moments of haunting poignancy. At times the music is massive, heavy, and obliterating, at others tumultuous and scarring, but (as noted above) at other times the music also blazes in towering splendor. And these descriptions don’t exhaust all the sensations — this is, after all, a 70-minute record, and none of those minutes is wasted.
The storms in the album don’t break open immediately. The opening track, which is the title track, is a country song, one that unfolds through acoustic guitar against a backdrop of quivering, gleaming fiddle tones and a moaning cello. Singing in deep subdued tones, Lunn also accompanies himself on steel guitar, but those shrill, searing tones periodically rise up, magnifying the intensity of this sad, mesmerizing song.
Three songs on the album exceed 12 minutes in length, and another one tops 11. That one, “Dead Loons“, is the album’s first storm-front — but not immediately. It flows naturally from the opening track, with a similar shining backdrop and a tapestry of ringing and wailing guitar and violin that translate a slow, haunting melody which reverberates in the mind, and entrances it.
And so what happens just past the three-minute mark is a shock. Massive, heavy, and obliterating, the music methodically pounds, scars, and screams. You can feel the bass in your bones and the drums in your neck. The music rises in glistening waves of soaring sound, as a prelude to an onslaught of pummeling blast-beats, roiling riffs, flickering leads, and harrowing harsh vocals. The combined effect is remarkably intense, a dense tumult that strikes like an amalgam of pain, defiance, and frightening grandeur. The song builds to towering heights, becoming vast in its sweep and heart-wrenching in its moods, but also strikingly vibrant. At the end, a mournful fiddle brings it back to earth — but not completely.
The folk fiddle tune that begins the next song, “Rope Burn Exit“, creates a fitting transition from “Dead Loons“, but it doesn’t take long before the music roars in a typhoon-like explosion of hurtling bass, battering drums, searing guitar vibrations, and throat-splitting howls. The penetrating tones of the violin spear through these ravaging textures, slowly cascading and also lending its own feverishness to the torrent. Somber singing also combines with livid screaming and savage growls. When the drumming becomes more measured and less thunderous, the music becomes even more emotionally shattering. Like “Dead Loons”, the song becomes panoramic, but never peaceful. It builds to heights of breathtaking intensity, and the violin is simply heartbreaking.
In the first of those three longest songs, “A Snowless Winter“, the opening rhythmic gallop, pulsing low-frequency heaviness, and gale-force riffing kicks the intensity up again. The riffing flashes to a boil as the harsh vocals begin with spine-tingling ferocity. The violin and lead guitar unite to create vibrations of wild incandescence, spinning above bullet-spitting drums and febrile bass tones. As if knowing that a listener needs to catch a breath at some point, the rhythm section briefly vanishes, making way for a blazing spectacle of shining sonic textures. The bass returns in musing, introspective tones, completely surrounded by those meteor showers of sound. (It turns out that this interlude doesn’t really allow any deep breaths after all.) And the song then rushes and flies again.
The vocals rend the throat raw, and the layered violin melodies straddle a line between grieving tears and desolating anguish in the midst of wholly immersive swaths of sound. Near the end, scissoring fretwork and cataclysmic percussive pounding provide a break before one final breathtaking maelstrom, in which the violin becomes a creature of flame and the vocals seem to tear the vocalist inside-out.
There’s no break in the intensity as “Moth Eaten Soul” (the second track to be revealed from the album so far) explodes in yet another sonic hurricane, led by a riveting, swirling riff and jaw-dropping drumwork. The music towers, but its grandeur is a frightening thing to behold. Agony seems to erupt in the low end, and derangement flares in the frantic violin bowing and vicious growls. When the light-speed drumming abates, the music rolls in long heaving waves of despair, the violin wails like mothers at a mass grave of their children, and Lunn’s choral vocals seem to be wailing as well, like voices raised in expressions of heart-rending bereavement. Bells might be heard to toll with increasing urgency… a recorded voice utters controlled announcements… and around that the music is an unremitting warzone.
It takes a long time to come, but “As Golden Laughter Echoes” (a song dedicated to Reva Myers Shemanski) finally provides a reprieve in the slaughtering ferocity and jaw-dropping wonder of the preceding songs, furnishing an acoustic country-folk instrumental, a beautiful ensemble of dual guitars and mandolin. You might wish it lasted longer, but the opening of “The Embers of Dawn” carries the slow and soft acoustic music forward, albeit in a more subdued and dolorous way. Austin sings again, amplifying the music’s haunting effect.
The music gradually builds as the other instruments join in, suffusing the senses, but it remains measured in its pacing and melancholy in its mood. The beautiful singing of Aerial Ruin’s Erik Moggridge adds to the song’s entrancing effect. It pulls at the heart-strings, but then really gives them a good twang as the strings contribute layers of penetrating harmony, converting the atmosphere of the music into dark shades of splendor.
More than six minutes in, the song pounds the listener’s pulse, leaping ahead like a stampeding stallion herd, drums blasting and guitars generating a searing froth, like white water in a canyon. The violin crests in blazing rays, the music becomes a sonic vista of far-reaching proportions and symphonic power, and the screamed vocals (which include the contributions of Waldgeflüster’s Jan Van Berlekom) reveal a crazed presence in the midst of such awe-inspiring wonder. It is a gift that at the end the music provides a time for breath and reflection as it moves into shimmering, astral ambient tones.
And finally we come to “Know Hope“, the song we premiered when assisting in the announcement of the album in January. It begins in full-blown intensity, once again delivering cascades of monumental sound above tumultuous bass upheavals, bullet-spitting drumwork, and ferocious roaring vocals. The glistening brilliance and celestial sweep of the sounds, coupled with the turbocharged barrage in the low end, is near-overwhelming. If this is an expression of hope, it’s not a timid yearning we hear, but extreme fervor and defiance.
Yet darkness is never far away. The momentum ebbs, yielding to enormous, heaving chords and knee-capping snare beats. But the music also brightens, thanks to a syncopated drum beat and a transfixing, reverb-ed guitar motif that seems otherworldly. A woman speaks in conversational tones (an excerpt from an interview by Gee Vaucher from Crass talking about what inspires her artistically). The drumming becomes more vibrant; the music begins to soar and flare again; and then we’re off to the races once more in a fierce gallop propelled by piston-driven drums, a big thrusting and pulsing riff, and surround-sound textures of flame, fury, and glory. The song might have ended there, but it closes instead with the sounds of a classically influenced string ensemble… and the twittering sound of bird song.
The liner notes include these words from Austin Lunn:
This record is dedicated to all who refuse to give up and continue to struggle for light and beauty in this world and is in memory of John Prine, who gave us so much in his lifetime, and to Reva Myers Shemanski who lives on in our cherished memories of her radiant personailty, brilliant art and infectious laughter.
Fill your heart with hope… a hope that we will return again into the light.
Don’t let the fire burn out.
There are a lot of instrumental textures throughout the album only some of which I’ve picked out in the descriptions above. Austin Lunn himself performs guitar (electric and acoustic), drums, bass (4-, 8-, and 12-string bass), keys, lap steel, pedal steel, banjo, square neck resonator, and mandolin. Charlie Anderson and Patrick Urban played vital roles, performing violin and cello, respectively.
The album was mixed by Spenser Morris and mastered by Collin Marston.
Bindrune Recordings will be releasing the album digitally on May 15th and in physical editions on May 31st. The physical edition is exclusively a 2LP vinyl record which comes with a CD, a download code, and a ten-inch booklet of photography by Bekah Lunn. It is being distributed in the UK and Europe by Season of Mist. HOWEVER, the last time I checked, all the physical editions were sold out — even the ones that were reserved for a three-album Bindrune bundle that includes forthcoming albums by Nemorous and Tvaer. However, I’m told that there will be a second pressing — so keep an eye on the links below to see when that happens.
PANOPTICON – FACEBOOK:
God I am SO EXCITED for this. I’ve managed to hold out on listening to any advance tracks until it’s released and I can listen to it all at once, but I couldn’t *not* read your review, and now I’m even more excited. I was fortunate enough to snag an LP pre-order, but I think by the time it gets here the infant will be in his own room and I can perhaps venture outside for a fire, a libation, and a bluetooth speaker.
Fuck I can’t wait.
I don’t blame you for waiting to hear the album at once, straight through. And I think maybe the perfect way to do it is what you have in mind — outside in front of a fire with a favored libation in hand, and maybe at twilight or with stars overhead. 🙂