Released: 2014, Bindrune Recordings
Reviewer: Peter Atkinson
Black metal and bluegrass/Appalachian folk music would seem unlikely companions – although Norway's Taake did employ a banjo solo on “Myr” from 2011's Noregs Vaapen album. But that was certainly meant more as a novelty – or for shock value. Over the last few years, however, the one-man “band” Panopticon – hailing, fittingly, from the “Bluegrass state” of Kentucky, before a recent move to Minnesota - has gone much further to prove that they are not mutually exclusive styles.
After experimenting with folk/bluegrass accents on earlier work – along with other divergent styles and atypical socially aware lyrics, notably on 2011's Social Disservices - Austin Lunn, the mastermind and sole proprietor of Panopticon, went pretty much all in with the Appalachian vibe on 2012's mesmerizing Kentucky, a sort of Aaron Copland meets Bathory-like tribute to/condemnation of his home state's coal-mining heritage. With the fifth and latest Panopticon full-length, Lunn – this time assisted by a bevy guest musicians and vocalists, though still handing most of the instrumentation and singing himself - essentially inverts the equation, accentuating old school Scandinavian-influenced black metal and flavoring it, albeit quite liberally, with Americana.
The one genuine “folk song” here is the ironically titled “Norwegian Nights,” a sparse three-minute steel/acoustic guitar, fiddle and clean vocal arrangement that sounds more like it might be sung around a campfire during the Civil War than by some icy Nordic fjord. Elsewhere, folk/bluegrass breaks serve mostly as interludes, as in the bucolic about-face about two-thirds of the way through the otherwise calamitous “In Silence,” bookends for the front and back of “Where Mountains Pierce The Sky,” or the full-on hoe-down of “One Last Fire,” part one of the 20-some minute “The Long Road” trilogy.
It makes for an incredible contrast, yet in the hands of someone with the genius and versatility of Lunn, this “blackgrass” treatment works brilliantly, especially since his black metal chops are so well-hewn. He demonstrates that right out of the gate with the mammoth opener “The Echoes of a Disharmonic Evensong,” a nine-plus minute whirlwind punctuated by brief, sweeping leads and an avalanche of drums. “Where Mountains Pierce The Sky” has a more symphonic air, yet boasts an uncharacteristic surging groove that is a nice surprise on an album teaming with surprises. “The Sigh of Summer” deftly blends atmosphere and bombast, not to mention some awesome buzz-sawing bass lines, to provide a monumental conclusion to “The Long Road.”
The richer, though still somewhat raw, production on Roads To The North gives the album a grander sound without ever approaching the “overblownedness” of Dimmu Borgir, Cradle of Filth, etc. It's somewhat reminiscent of early Enslaved, opulent yet with plenty of rough edges - but none of the Viking imagery – allowing the myriad elements to mesh seamlessly when they need to, and stand apart when they don't, especially on the spectacular closing track “Chase The Grain.”
An amazing, occasionally awe-inspiring and always captivating album from start to finish, Roads To The North is something you are unlikely to hear again – until, perhaps, the next Panopticon release.