I think Ansel Adams would’ve been a black metal fan. He definitely would’ve been a Panopticon fan. The famed photographer and environmentalist’s aesthetic consists exclusively of crisp black and white images of mammoth rock formations and possibly never ending landscapes. To capture these compositions, Adams traversed alone to the outer reaches of the Grand Canyon and Yosemite National Park to find the hidden places untouched by man – which is a pretty metal approach to nature photography, if you ask me. The resulting work demonstrates a profound love and respect for these wild areas that’s very much akin to black metal’s relationship with the environment. But there’s also an appreciation and wonderment that’s very American. Coupled with it’s inherent ruggedness and Adams’ politics, I can’t help but see the two as one in the same.
Austin Lunn’s one man black metal project has been steadily releasing albums and splits since 2008, but the project’s breakthrough came in the form of a trilogy consisting of 2012’s Kentucky, 2014’s Roads to the North, and, the crown jewel, 2015’s Autumn Eternal. Kentucky was intended as a love letter to the titular state, but mostly illuminated Lunn’s leftist ideology. Highlights like “Black Soot and Red Blood” and the covers of the union classics “Which Side Are You On” and “Come All Ye Coal Minors” covered the plight of the working class. “Bodies Under the Falls” focused on America’s historically racist treatment of its indigenous peoples. Roads to North and Autumn Eternal took a much more introspective route and chronicled the process of moving his family from Kentucky to Minnesota to open and operate a Bathory inspired brewery. None of the songs on these albums are specifically about any of that, but you feel it. There’s a sense of displacement running through those tracks.
What’s always set the project apart from other musicians in the U.S. scene and the black metal world at large, was the blending of bluegrass, Americana, and country into atmospheric black metal. It’s never been uncommon for Panopticon’s metal instrumentation to cut out for a deeply Southern banjo interlude or for a traditional folk song to be used as an album’s centerpiece. This hybrid of black metal and folk had been done before, but not so much with bluegrass and certainly never as masterfully. But, like any artist looking to grow and challenge themselves, Lunn had become concerned with this identity. In a 2015 interview with Decibel he said, “I don’t want to be a one-trick pony, and I certainly don’t want to exploit my own culture by parading it around to the point that my music becomes a caricature of itself”.
On the projects seventh installment, The Scars of Man On the Once Nameless Wilderness, Lunn solves this problem by crafting what is easily one of the most unique double albums ever made. Both sides of Panopticon are given equal exploration on two separate hour long parts. Part one is devoted to harsh, cascading atmospheric black metal resembling the Minnesota forests. Part two gives total focus to raw, intimate, and contemplative Americana. By separating the two genres, Lunn allows both facets of Panopticon’s personality to stand on their own and reveals himself to be master of these seemingly disparate forms.
Part one doesn’t completely do away with folk music. Like Autumn Eternal, the record’s introduction is an expansive, acoustic instrumental built on Southern twang. The difference is, the previous opener, “Tamarack’s Gold Returns”, brimmed with a certain kind of optimism directed at the beauty of the autumnal transition. “Watch the Lights Fade” is no less gorgeous, but revels in its chill. Seasonal affectedness disorder has nestled deep into the bones of Autumn Eternal’s world and the thought of Spring is either a fanciful, distant dream or a cruel joke. Fires crackle, accordions whir, and the metallic twinkle of triangle plods along until owl sounds inject the sense of awe that’s still easily found in the grey north woods.
As if energized by the signs of life, “En hvit ravns død” explodes forward with rushing blast beats and exhilaratingly clamorous and interlocking tremolo picking. What’s immediately striking about part one is how goddamn dense it is. Past Panopticon albums provided clear trail maps, but Scars drops you deep into the heart of the wilderness to fend for yourself. “En hvit ravns død” eventually welcomes in luminescent violin strings and backing choir vocals resembling rays of light cracking through oppressive cloud coverage. The track highlights Lunn’s knack for catching the catharsis present in the genre without relying on any softer instrumentals or colorful palettes. The intense tone and overwhelming beauty continues with the melodic “Blåtimen”, which Lunn describes as his tribute to the classic Norwegian band Windir. Despite the hero worship that may or may not actually be there, the track is distinctly Panopticon.
Once again, Lunn can’t stop himself from nodding to his folk roots. The dexterous and nimble riffing that provides the track’s character is actually Appalachian bluegrass disguised as something knotty and grim. From there, Scars does very little to settle into any kind of predictability. The relative straightforward writing of “Blåtimen” effortlessly flows into the black metal squall of “Sheep In Wolves Clothing”. “Sheep” offers little to latch onto aside from inhumanly fast drumming, but it’s best to just give in and let the current take you. The track speeds on through without making a whole lot of sense, until the second half kicks in and it becomes apparent that this is Lunn’s punk song. A delirious take on d-beat drumming sporadically mixes in with the blast beat insanity while tremolo picking thrashes around every which way. Underneath it all are those surprisingly inviting vocal melodies that don’t become clear until a handful of listens but are present on every track.
Part one’s monstrous first half builds to the cleansing centerpiece “A Ridge Where the Tall Pines Once Stood”. “Ridge” sounds strikingly similar to “Watch the Lights Fade”, but with a distinctly sunbaked quality to it. It is now after the thaw and the forest stirs with the activity of chirping Whippoorwills and climatic violin swells. Lunn reveals part one’s overarching theme with a quote from Sigurd F. Olson’s conservation classic The Singing Wilderness. The quote muses on the necessity of a nurturing bond between man and nature. Olson concludes with “…unless we can preserve places where the endless spiritual needs of man can be fulfilled and nourished we will destroy our culture and ourselves”. Olson’s work serves as the album’s main source of inspiration and guides its ideas like a spiritual predecessor. Given Panopticon’s past calls for environmental protection and the healing abilities of the natural world, it’s no surprise that Lunn sees a kindred spirit in the father of the American conservation movement.
From there, Lunn plunges into more menacing territories on “En Generell Avsky”. A. Patterson takes on vocal duties over a riff that’s most likely the result of Lunn violently yanking the strings right off his guitar. “The Singing Wilderness” – titled after the aforementioned Olson book – is the album’s most trad song with a higher emphasis placed on thrashy, rhythmic riffs. But, on an album bursting with black metal transcendence, the true highlight is the part one closer “Snow Burdened Branches”. Once again, Olson’s words are the foundation. Sampled from the film The Wilderness World of Sigurd F. Olson and straight from the man himself, we’re treated to an affecting monologue about saplings and “the hope for the world”. Just as Olson finishes, foreboding feedback enters the mix and drowns out that warm and comforting Midwestern accent. From there, Lunn goes big.
The stakes have never been quite so high in a Panopticon track. In the last year, national parks have been shut down, Obama error environmental regulations have been rolled back, and the EPA has become a puppet for the oil and coal industries. Lunn’s frustration comes in the form of impassioned howls rising above the pines, the best drumming of his career, and an absolute crescendo of a song. A steady ominous riff kicks in and the piece continuously builds traction. Those signature Panopticon guitar lines ascend higher than ever before as Lunn pushes the mountainous composition to a thundering final stretch. “Snow Burdened Branches” would’ve been a deeply satisfying finale on its own. Hell, he could’ve ended it all there and still have a masterpiece on his hands. But, Lunn isn’t done yet. There’s still an hour of equally impressive music to go.
“Moss Beneath the Snow” serves as the musical bridge between the two halves. Grand and weathered post rock crashes along and gradually descends the peak into a somber banjo led folk rumination. Lunn uses “Moss” to ponder his existence within the changing seasons asking “How many more glorious winters can we survive?” before admitting he doesn’t know. He does; however, take solace in the the thought that moss and the rest of land’s natural features will continue to come back long after he’s gone. There’s a comfort in that. Lunn recognizes how minor his crises and general existence is in the vastness of the world around him.
That sentiment carries on later in the ramshackle Jason Molina leaning country of “Not Much Will Change When I’m Gone”. Fires will still burn and the cranes will continue to fly home in the Spring whether he’s around or not. His only hope is that his children will remember him. Part two isn’t as ecologically focused as part one. Most of its concerns are fixated on death. Through a rustic bluegrass rave up, “Echoes In the Snow” finds poetic grace in an untimely end met after spinning out of control on an icy highway late at night. “The Wandering Ghost” takes the folk hero template, but imagines our protagonist’s lonely end in the confines of the cold, grey concrete that characterizes an indifferent modern world. All of these stories are told through an empathy and prose reminiscent of Townes Van Zandt. There’s a distinct “man of the people” authenticity that makes these stories feel like more than approximations of blue-collar tragedies. They feel achingly real. Maybe they are.
We’ve heard Lunn sing on Panopticon tracks before, but never this much. The man’s been holding out on us. His grizzled baritone perfectly embodies his characters and the pained wails of his upper registers carry the emotional weight. There’s a fascinating intimacy running throughout that black metal can’t handle. By giving up abrasive screams and blunt instrumentation, Lunn provides us with a deeper look at his world and psyche. We’re now given clear views of Lunn as a human being with a family, a life, and fears and anxieties like everyone else. Over the fragile mandolin of “Four Walls of Bone” Lunn opens up about struggles with self-doubt and whispers “It’s not that I am scared, just always unprepared/ for the failure I might be”. The melancholy continues in the reverb soaked “A Cross Abandoned In Snow” when Lunn advises to “bury your dreams”.
On “The Itch”, Lunn steps away from introspection and produces protest folk that looks to the pantheon of Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie. Over subdued yet highly tuneful acoustic guitar, Lunn takes direct shots at Donald Trump while sounding like Kris Kristofferson and loving America far more than Toby Keith ever has. Lunn provides a thorough list of the kind of transgressions the current administration has been pumping out against the American people on a daily basis with lines like “Give license to anyone for acting like an asshole and credence to every bigot in this country”. In a year where black metal’s Nazi problem continues to rear it’s ugly head, I can’t explain how satisfying it is to hear a prominent figure in the genre call out that kind of thinking in disgust. The track closes with the particularly thoughtful line “You are just a symptom of an inherited disease”. I know everyone is trying to rehabilitate George W. Bush, but we’d be facing similar bullshit if any Republican was in the White House. Granted, the language would be a hell of a lot more veiled. Lunn knows Trump is just a branch of a toxic whole and our time would be better spent digging out the roots.
The album begins to draw to a close with “At the Foot of the Mountain”. The track takes cues from “Moss Beneath the Snow”, but in reverse. This time around, Lunn builds to the rustic post rock. Despite the massive instrumentation, Lunn continues to focus on the little things and creates what is by far the album’s most positive track. Lunn bellows out “That cold wind would cut right through me if it weren’t for you” before dropping the metal hammer one more time. Guitars build walls, drums shake the Earth, and Lunn looks around to realize that love is far more powerful a force than any of the darkness running throughout these tracks. The album then concludes with the sparse “The Devil Walked Through the Woods”. With nothing but solo banjo, Lunn recites an unsettling story of destruction. A door closes, and just like that, the journey’s over.
The Scars of Man on the Once Nameless Wilderness is the kind of singular album that only Austin Lunn could’ve pulled off. And this shouldn’t work at all. Black metal bands fancying themselves as folk musicians isn’t anything new. Traditional Norwegian folk has been in the genre’s DNA for quite some time. But, that doesn’t mean it’s always a good idea. When the genre flirtation works, we get Ulver’s Kveldssanger. When it doesn’t, which is often the case, we get a monstrosity like Burzum’s Sôl Austan, Mâni Vestan. Problems arise because these intrepid and probably overconfident practitioners don’t know how to write for folk and what comes out is half baked acoustic metal. Lunn is different because of his astute understanding of how the two genres work. But after spending a month immersed in The Scars of Man, I’m one hundred percent positive that if you put Lunn on the spot and handed him a guitar, you’d get fingerpicked country before anything resembling part one. It’s that complex musical duality that allows for this kind of rare, bold, and truly bizarre work of genius to flourish.
The Scars of Man on the Once Nameless Wilderness is out now on Nordvis.