Austin Lunn is proving to be one the most talented and prolific musicians in the modern American metal scene. Barely a year after releasing the excellent Roads to the North and contributing to Saor‘s stunning depiction of Celtic folklore, Aura, he’s returned with the seventh full-length under his primary Panopticon moniker. Slicker song-writing and shockingly melodic passages keep things fresh, but if you enjoyed his unique, bluegrass-infused melodic black metal previously then this is a sure-fire hit, as this is evolutionary rather than revolutionary. Lunn is on a run! (sorry).
The most obvious aesthetic diversion from Roads to the North is the slicker, more modern production. This may seem an unconventional place to begin but it does play a significant role in differentiating Autumn Eternal from its predecessors. The contrast in dynamic range and purity of tone from the blackened metal into the folky bluegrass were previously stark. The transitions are now far more seamless and the record is aurally more consistent, favoring modern tones and a more balanced mix. It’s less wood shed and more recording studio. While this contributes to the wholesome sound and the smoother transitions benefit the melodic guitar which I love so, it undercuts some of the earthiness which characterized Kentucky and Roads to the North.
This process of streamlining was carried across to the song-writing too. The bluegrass – the element which ventures farthest from the metal mainstream, is still here but it plays a somewhat lesser role: where Roads to the North featured entire tracks devoted to chewing tobacco and banjos, these have been phased out in favor of integration into the long songs (discounting the predictably softer introduction). This enables subtler transitions and more fluid constructions, as Lunn flexes his song-writing muscles. Indeed, Autumn Eternal is shorter than previously and the metal-bluegrass ratio leans farther to the former for minutes played. Factoring in the production choices, this is a slicker release by a man hitting his stride as one of America’s premier black metal artists.
This is the greatest success of Autumn Eternal: stripping back the reliance on the bluegrass invites embellishment of the core melodies carried through the black metal. The riffs and guitar harmonies are highly engaging, fusing blastiness and aggression with simple melodies atop the mix. There’s a subtle evocation of the post-rock influenced wave of black metal but fear not: the guitars do the heavy lifting as opposed to synths and keyboards, and it’s still very much the Panopticon you know and love. The typically warm and heartfelt atmosphere contributes to this feeling, straying far from the Norwegian scene which begat this style. This description probably isn’t doing Lunn any favors, but it really does work brilliantly as highly melodic black metal. “Into the North Woods,” “Autumn Eternal,” “Pale Ghosts” and “The Wind’s Farewell” all stand out along these lines.
Those of you observing the track-listing may have noticed that these are the encircling tracks opening and closing the record. The filling in this folk sandwich go by the names of “Oaks Ablaze,” “Sleep to the Sound of the Waves Crashing” and “A Superior Lament.” I mention these as Autumn Eternal‘s weak points are to be found in this flabby mid-section. The entire thing is still a little lengthy at over an hour so shaving the duller passages from these tracks would have ensured higher overall quality and a more digestible run-time. None are absolute throwaways by any stretch, but the first half of “Oaks Ablaze” is not so melodically engaging and “A Superior Lament” only reaches its pinnacle towards its conclusion. This is where Roads to the North and its greater predilection for bluegrass works in its favor: longer passages or entire tracks of folk music breaks down the album in a way which isn’t apparent here.
On such a criticism you may expect a lower mark with our stern scoring here at AMG. But when Lunn gets it right, and he does 90 per cent of the time, he gets it so right. Autumn Eternal makes for a magical listening experience, and I love that the percussion is so great too, consistent on all his releases. It’s a pleasure to hear black metal drumming which goes far beyond mere blast beats. There’s a very real risk that three slots in my top ten albums of the year will go to American folk metal, but when the quality is this high that almost seems inevitable.