With 2012’s Kentucky, Panopticon became among the most interesting black metal projects operating in the U.S. Unlike many USBM lynchpins that stubbornly ape the sound and ethos of their Scandinavian influences, Austin Lunn’s one-man black metal project took a full-fledged approach to the genre as tied to his own home and hearth of Kentucky as that of his Scandinavian forefathers. For those out of the loop, the result was an ambitious, politically-charged concept album centered around Kentucky’s blood-soaked history of coal mining, soundtracked by an unprecedented mix of black metal and bluegrass music.
Despite its ambitions, Kentucky was an imperfect rendering of this blackenend bluegrass vision. As a folk music counterpoint to Lunn’s harsh, blast-heavy metal sections, Kentucky’s bluegrass elements were awkward and ramshackle when compared to the more fluid compositions of the European school of black metal/folk integration. Without precedence or a frame of reference, it felt lost, unfocused, incomplete – yet, exhilarating all the same. Kentucky’s execution was arguably flawed, but it plainly clear that Lunn was on to something.
After a series of subsequent splits with Vestiges and Falls of Rauros, Panopticon has continued its vision of homegrown American black metal with a 74 minute long marathon of an LP, Roads to the North. Like the rest of Panopticon’s discography, Roads… is ambitious and brimming with personality, but never before has the project so seamlessly married intention and execution.
Lunn indeed summons every trick up his sleeve on Roads to the North, and even introduces a new one in the form of pure Gothenburg melodeath riffing that switches in and out of the black metal frenzy. It practically ambushes the listener on opening track “The Echoes of a Disharmonic Evensong” among the fiddles and post-rock garnish, but it hardly feels out of place. Instead, it’s groovy and it rocks hard. “Where Mountains Pierce the Sky” similarly invokes In Flames and At the Gates with commanding – and catchy – riffing alongside gorgeous folk arrangements. The stylistic counterpoint is just as fluid and sublime as it is disparate and strange.
I could spend the rest of this review picking apart the truly motley complex of moving parts that Lunn has stuffed into this record’s 74 minutes, but what really makes Roads to the North work so well is how inconspicuous these disparate parts are in fleshing out its emotional core. The music is simply so arresting that it’s only after “Chase the Grain” wraps things up and your heart rate resumes a normal rhythm that you might think it a miracle the record didn’t derail itself into a trainwreck. Instead, it makes Kentucky feel like a mere curiosity.
Beyond simply being fantastic heavy metal, Roads to the North importantly succeeds in its fusion of bluegrass elements into the already opulent songwriting. The aching, plaintive Americana laced in “Where Mountains Pierce the Sky” and the two pure bluegrass numbers “The Long Road Part 1: One Last Fire” and “Norwegian Nights” sport loose, lively performances that become sort of miraculous considering Lunn presumably performs these stomping jams by himself, track-by-track. More importantly, the presence of bluegrass counterpoint to the unusually lively metal compositions clashes only negligibly; by and large, the integration is executed splendidly.
Panopticon has always been interesting, but Roads to the North is flat-out incredible. It’s undeniably Lunn’s finest work and the closest he has ever come to a perfect rendering of his vision of a homegrown American black metal. It deserves to be heard not only by those who liked the project’s previous material, but anyone who can appreciate ambitious, honest, and emotionally resonant metal.