The Quietus - A new rock music and pop culture website

Strange World Of...

The Strange World Of... Panopticon
Kez Whelan , March 9th, 2022 10:12

Kez Whelan offers ten points of entry into the extensive and thrilling back catalogue of Austin Lunn's Panopticon and charts the hidden links between the American folk tradition, social democratic politics and Norwegian black metal

In the space of fifteen years, multi-instrumentalist Austin Lunn’s solo project Panopticon has become one of the most revered and unique names in American black metal, and has arguably incorporated the country’s folk music into the sound more successfully than any of his peers. Whilst early USBM acts like Krieg and Judas Iscariot were heavily indebted to Norway’s second wave, San Francisco’s Weakling really put America on the black metal map with their 2000 debut Dead As Dreams, an album that introduced a denser, more elaborate and organic sounding variant on the genre that formed the blueprint for late-2000s bands like Wolves In The Throne Room, Krallice and Ash Borer, among many others.

But none of these acts sounded quite as distinctly American as Panopticon, with Lunn’s unique fusion of bluegrass elements setting his project apart from his peers. Far from being a gimmick or a knowingly wry mash-up of disparate styles, there’s an earnestness and authenticity to his sound that really shines through. After all, the combination doesn’t seem too left-field when viewed in context – black metal acts from Norway and Finland frequently incorporated elements of their native folk music into their metallic din, so it doesn’t seem too bizarre that an American black metal act would do the same. Thankfully, however, Lunn has always rejected the nationalistic ethos that can often accompany such musical decisions – as if to eradicate any doubt, the first song on Panopticon’s first record finds Lunn howling “the concept of nationalism robs us of our very nature” at the top of his lungs.

In a scene plagued with crypto-fascists and outright Nazis, Panopticon’s outspokenly leftist lyrical stance was incredibly refreshing for a black metal band when the project burst into view with its incendiary self-titled debut in 2008. Explicitly detailing Lunn’s anarchist and anti-capitalist beliefs, the album was a significant influence on the so-called RABM (red/anarchist black metal) movement that’s blossoming today. Wolves In The Throne Room had certainly alluded to more tolerant, progressive ideologies in interviews, but had never been as bluntly and overtly left-wing on record, and whilst it may be easy to take the concept of anti-fascist black metal for granted these days, it certainly felt like a bold step forward at the time.

Lunn’s lyrical themes matured in tandem with his musical output, and he elegantly made the leap from simply screaming at capitalism to vividly detailing its more deleterious effects on both humanity and the natural world on rich concept albums such as Social Disservices and Kentucky. Both turned their gaze from punk sloganeering and more abstract sociological concerns to very specific and illuminating topics, the former dealing with the way social services can fail individuals in pursuit of profit and the latter taking an in-depth look at the miners strikes that took place in Kentucky in the 1930s. Lunn even donated some of the profits from this record to Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, an organisation working towards land reform and environmental justice within the state.

Whilst unorthodox instrumentation and good politics are both good selling points, neither would matter much if Panopticon’s music wasn’t up to scratch, but Lunn is perhaps one of the most gifted musicians operating in the field of solo black metal today. Whilst this murky, lo-fi strand of the genre isn’t exactly known for stellar musicianship, Lunn is a hugely skilled guitarist and drummer, both on a technical level and – more importantly – an emotive one too. The way Lunn hits his kit is, frankly, extraordinary, blasting with such a frantic intensity and palpable, infectious energy that really elevates his music above a lot of more polite atmospheric black metal. There’s plenty of similar solo projects that manage to achieve suitably gloomy, morose atmospheres with drum machines, for example, but the passion and sheer unstoppable force Lunn’s playing brings to the table is something else entirely.

Lunn has been remarkably prolific over the last fifteen years too, and his dense back catalogue, full of albums, EPs, splits and compilations, can be particularly imposing for newcomers. This swift primer will provide ten points of entry, stopping off at every one of his full-lengths, bar his latest, …And Again Into The Light – not because of any drop in quality, but more because I reviewed it for this very site not long ago. In fact, it’s a pretty decent jumping off point, demonstrating everything that makes Panopticon’s sound so unique but with a bright, pristine production and more pronounced post rock influence. If you’re only after a taster, it’s as good a place as any to start, but if you’re looking to delve deeper, here we go…

1. ‘Flag Burner, Torch Bearer’ from Panopticon (2008)

As far as opening statements go, the first track proper from Panopticon’s debut album is the equivalent of a lit Molotov, an incendiary anti-capitalist screed that leaves no doubts as to where Lunn’s allegiances lie with lines like, “Tonight all flags must burn in place of steeples/ autonomy must return into the hands of the people”. Although Lunn’s output would mature significantly over time, it’s still remarkable how much of the Panopticon sound is fully formed here, with the emotive, atmospheric riffing, blisteringly fast, passionate drumming and elaborate song structures that would define his later works all present and correct here. Where Panopticon differs from its successors is the lack of bluegrass influence, although you can hear hints of it trying to break out in the sombre, post rock indebted ‘…Speaking…’ (Lunn wouldn’t fully embrace his love of folk music until a year later, when he reworked this song into a gorgeous bluegrass piece on It’s Later Than You Think, his first split with blackened drone outfit Wheels Within Wheels). There’s also much more of a crust punk influence running through this album, from the boisterous D-beats during ‘Flag Burner, Torch Bearer’s fiery climax to the surprisingly faithful Amebix cover that rounds off the original CD release. Panopticon may suffer from a weaker production and narrower scope than the records that came after it, but it’s still a vital stepping stone for Lunn’s musical journey and a pretty thrilling black metal record in its own right, especially for fans of crustier bands like Iskra or Ancst.

2. ‘Aptrgangr’ from Collapse (2009)

Lunn’s second album was much more ambitious, with the righteous polemic of the debut evolving into a full-blown concept album about the collapse of society, and how humanity might react and adapt to the fallout. Based around three lengthy pieces (and the haunting folky outro ‘Idavoll’), Collapse is much more focussed than Panopticon, weaving audio samples and sparse, atmospheric sections in amongst scathing, venomous black metal and creating a perfect soundtrack to the album’s central theme. It’s also the first Panopticon full-length to incorporate the project’s distinctive folk influence, even though the full breadth of Lunn’s vision was yet to be fully realised. As such, there’s a certain roughness to this record that, combined with its grandiose ambitions and heady subject matter, makes for a particularly unpredictable, volatile listen. Check out the way opener ‘The Death Of Baldr And The Coming War’ builds from ominous, subtle chords strewn with various fear-mongering, apocalyptic sounding news soundbites to a storming black metal onslaught, only to abruptly and quite literally collapse, as you’d expect a particularly scratched CD to do, into an optimistic but deeply wounded bluegrass knees-up. As disjointed as the track’s skittish flow may seem, it segues perfectly into the achingly sad ‘Aptrgangr’, perhaps the first real indication of how potently atmospheric and immersive Lunn’s unique brand of blackened bluegrass could be. The moment when that long, cinematic introduction eventually erupts into one of most Lunn’s hypnotic and abrasive tremolo riffs is nothing short of explosive, as is that yearning, droning but infectiously hooky guitar swell that slices through the middle of the track. The production here is much fuller and more robust than Panopticon, but is still a far cry from his later works, with a rugged, almost home-made feel to it that nevertheless perfectly suits Collapse’s harsh, apocalyptic atmosphere. Lunn would later re-record his next two albums for 2016’s Revisions Of The Past compilation, and although Collapse could probably benefit from similar treatment, it’s perhaps telling that Lunn has left the original untouched. Collapse is the first time the full potential of Panopticon’s vibrant sound became apparent, and despite its flaws, it remains one of his most thrilling, provocative and visceral albums.

3. ‘A Message To The Missionary’ from …On The Subject Of Mortality (2010)

Despite originally being released in two halves on splits with Iowan ambient black metal project When Bitter Spring Sleeps and windswept Canadian duo Skagos, the liner notes in the double LP compilation …On The Subject Of Mortality state that this is how the album was originally intended to be heard. The original splits are well worth seeking out for completists (the Skagos tracks in particular are some of that band’s best), but this material works just as well as one long album experience as it did a pair of EPs – especially in the reworked Revisions Of The Past version currently available on Bandcamp. Following hot on the heels of Collapse, these songs find Lunn delving even further into the project’s atmospheric, melodic and introspective side, foreshadowing the direction he’d take on future albums like 2014’s Roads To The North and 2015’s Autumn Eternal. Whilst the original split versions may have been even more lo-fi than Collapse, the song-writing is tighter and more effective, with Lunn managing to portray just as much yearning splendour in much shorter, punchier songs. Take ‘A Message To The Missionary’, for example, a track that eerily juxtaposes dramatic chanting samples with dream-like but oddly unsettling post rock instrumentation, before erupting in a flurry of blistering blastbeats and soaring guitar harmonies as Lunn takes aim at Christian missionaries and the ills of colonialism – at this stage in his journey, even when indulging a more introspective sound his pointed political commentary is never far away. Additionally, the sweeping melody and slow-paced riffing in the middle of ‘…Seeing…’ hint at the direction Lunn’s doom band Seidr would take on their 2011 debut album For Winter Fire – if you’re into the sound of Panopticon’s material but wish it was slower and more meditative, you’ll want to dig that one out immediately.

4. ‘From Bergen To Jotunheim Forest’ from Wheels Within Wheels/Panopticon Split II (2010)

As much as Panopticon feels like an “album band”, you’ll only be getting half the experience if you ignore the myriad of split releases Lunn has put out over the years. Perhaps a residue of his background in punk, the split format is an integral part of Panopticon’s discography, and it’s fascinating to hear Lunn experimenting and trying out new things in between his dense, portentous full-lengths. A full breakdown of his various EPs would probably take up most of our space here, but both of his splits with Wheels Within Wheels are particularly notable, not only for how well the two bands complement each other, but for how much Lunn seems to experiment beyond his comfort zone each time, and how that then bleeds back into his own solo releases. I’ve already mentioned 2009’s It’s Later Than You Think for being Panopticon’s first steps into bluegrass territory; after that folksy introduction, ‘The Ghosts Of Haymarket Square’ is a crisp and biting slice of black metal that bridges the gap between the debut’s crustier assault and Collapse’s more expansive atmospherics, whilst both Wheels Within Wheels’ tracks are dense, swirling sonic tapestries that sound like Sunn O))) playing Thorns covers through Kevin Shields’ pedal board. The EP feels fairly scattershot, but it works; it’s like witnessing extreme metal being born out of the blues and then melting back down into a primordial ooze right before your ears in just over half an hour. Their second split feels much more realised and expands on this dynamic, whilst reversing it; Wheels Within Wheels’ hypnotic blackened drones make a very fitting introduction this time round, setting up Panopticon’s most peaceful, serene output yet. ‘The Road To Bergen’ is a rich, shoegaze influenced haze that recalls the intoxicated sprawl of Velvet Cacoon but with the earthy, organic feel of Agalloch, and even the more aggressive ‘From Bergen To Jotunheim Forest’ has an oddly tranquil atmosphere to it, sounding like a much brighter Darkthrone in the first half and a much darker Opeth in the second. Lunn would explore this calmer, more introspective approach with even more incredible results on Autumn Eternal, but the material on this split remains his most relaxed, languid and hypnotic to date.

5. ‘Resident’ from Social Disservices (2011)

In stark contrast to the preceding split material, the fourth album (or third if you’re not counting …On The Subject Of Mortality) Social Disservices is probably Panopticon’s most aggressive, vicious and punishing full-length, making little room for delicate atmospherics amidst its ferocious assault. It’s entirely fitting given the album’s subject matter, a damning and depressing look at how many of the institutions and social services designed to aid society have failed us, and instead help to dehumanise and isolate individuals. It’s certainly a more focussed and mature theme than the cartoonish notions of “evil” black metal usually concerns itself with, and in many ways feels more effective than the boisterous sloganeering of the debut or the more hypothetical scenarios and thought experiments posed by Collapse. Rather than simply barking about the flaws in the American legal system or mental health services, Social Disservices zooms in to a micro perspective and offers us an insight into the lives of individuals who find themselves let down by the system and hopelessly trapped within these bureaucratic labyrinths. It’s a harrowing listen, as you’d expect. Opener ‘Resident’ is one of the darkest and most straight-forward tracks in the whole Panopticon discography, really demonstrating Lunn’s skills as a drummer as his precise, energetic fills and wrist-shattering blasts punctuate discordant Mayhem-esque riffing. ‘Client’, meanwhile, opens with almost two solid minutes of crying infants, a passage that would feel like a typically goofy intro on a more generic black metal record but is lent a disturbing weight by virtue of Social Disservices’ thoughtful but scathing lyrical themes. The song itself does a good job of balancing melancholic lead lines with the more aggressive, dissonant vibe of the rest of the album – that riff around seven and a half minutes in is an absolute monster, deftly incorporating some nimble sweep-picking without sounding needlessly flashy or cluttered. There’s still room for beauty here (the soaring climax of ‘Subject’ stands out in particular), but if you’re looking for folk and post rock influence, this is not the Panopticon album for you – on the other hand, if you want to hear the project at its most uncompromising, intense and most traditionally black metal (sonically speaking, at least), it’s essential.

6. ‘Bodies Under The Falls’ from Kentucky (2012)

After warming up with Collapse and Social Disservices, Kentucky is arguably Lunn’s most fleshed out, cohesive and effective concept album and, to many fans, his defining work. Focussing on Kentucky’s coal miners and the strikes that shook the coal industry in the 1930s was a stroke of genius; whilst it’s clear that the topic resonates deeply with Lunn, who was raised in Kentucky, it also works as a broader metaphor for the struggle between workers and bosses at the heart of capitalism. Not only that, but Panopticon’s bluegrass side is perfectly suited to this setting, and Kentucky finds Lunn blending this influence with black metal more thoroughly, seamlessly and integrally than any of his other records. The inclusion of old protest songs like ‘Come All Ye Coal Miners’ and the perennially stirring ‘Which Side Are You On?’ not only make thematic sense and assist the album’s narrative, but they fit perfectly into Panopticon’s meticulously crafted sonic world. Kentucky isn’t just a series of black metal songs punctuated by vintage folk anthems, however; the effortless way Lunn blends the two styles on the album’s original pieces makes this album the most unique and striking in Panopticon’s oeuvre. That moment the traditional bluegrass strains of intro ‘Bernheim Forest In Spring’ transition into ‘Bodies Under The Falls’, with its frantic blastbeats and soaring tin whistles, is genuinely jaw-dropping, and the way those waves of harsh tremolo riffing bleed into the warm twang of steel guitar as the song progresses feels entirely unique. ‘Black Soot And Red Blood’ is closer to Panopticon’s usual black metal sound, but is augmented by luscious vocal harmonies, Appalachian folk style melodies and samples from Barbara Kopple’s 1976 documentary Harlan County, USA, ranging from the cheers of a union hall calling for a strike to an elderly coal worker ruminating on the poor working conditions and physical abuse he’d suffered throughput his professional life. Kentucky isn’t just a jewel in the Panopticon discography, but one of the most singular and visionary black metal records to ever come out of America.

7. ‘The Echoes Of A Dissonant Evensong’ from Roads To The North (2014)

Roads To The North marks something of a turning point for Panopticon, signalling the project’s transition towards more introspective and deeply personal themes. Having made such nuanced, thoughtful political statements on his last two albums, it’s perhaps unsurprising that Lunn wanted to explore more individual and emotional subject matter here, and the epic Roads To The North was a perfect vehicle to do so. As opposed to the more aggressive black metal sound of Social Disservices or the more overtly folky Kentucky, Roads To The North seems to draw on the sound of every previous Panopticon release whilst simultaneously bringing in both a hefty amount of prog and death metal influence. The three-part suite ‘The Long Road’ is a perfect example of how progressive and elaborate Lunn’s song-writing has become, drifting seamlessly between upbeat bluegrass fingerpicking, driving melodic black metal, intricate prog metal and shimmering post rock. With fiddles, banjos, pipes, mellotrons and violins in tow, Panopticon had never sounded as rich, vivid and full-bodied as this before. Despite the more orchestrated sound, Roads To The North is one of the hookiest and most immediately accessible Panopticon records. It doesn’t skimp on the project’s usual density and complexity at all, but the melodies here are just so crisp and infectious that the album feels like it takes much less time to fully ensnare even the most casual listener. There’s a more spacious feel here compared to previous records, that really helps the soaring guitar harmonies in tracks like the beautiful ‘Where Mountains Pierce The Sky’ worm their way under your skin. Even so, opener ‘The Echoes Of A Dissonant Evensong’ is still perhaps the album’s most memorable moment, a triumphant and unexpected barrage of melodic death metal riffage that has more in common with At The Gates or early Dark Tranquility than any of the black metal, crust punk and post rock acts that informed Lunn’s earlier records. Roads Of The North is one of the most varied and dynamic Panopticon records, and is highly recommended as an initial starting point if you just want to hear one album that encapsulates the many facets of the project’s identity in an efficient, engaging and relatively digestible way.

8. ‘A Superior Lament’ from Autumn Eternal (2015)

Following the inwards-looking Roads To The North, the gorgeous, melancholy sound of Autumn Eternal was perhaps inevitable. There had always been a subtle Agalloch and Ulver influence underpinning Lunn’s folky sound, but that’s really brought to the forefront here, resulting in his warmest and most emotive opus overall. Autumn Eternal still feels distinctly like a Panopticon record, but it’s noticeably more vulnerable and melancholy than before – the righteous anger of earlier records has given way to a world-weary longing for inner peace. The title is incredibly fitting, as there’s a whimsical, autumnal glow permeating every inch of this record, from the beautiful bluegrass of opener ‘Tamarack’s Gold Returns’ through the stormy, blustery black metal of the title track and the aching, steel guitar powered post rock of closer ‘The Wind’s Farewell’. Even the album’s most aggressive song, the swirling, riffy ‘Sleep To The Sound Of The Waves Crashing’, has a distinctly hypnotic and dream-like vibe to it, a far cry from the more abrasive climes of Panopticon and Social Disservices. ‘Pale Ghosts’ is a great example of how well this album’s Agalloch-ian influences gel with the traditional Panopticon sound, as a riotous wall of blasts and stirring, triumphant tremolo gradually gives way to a delicate, touching mid-paced pulse, with Lunn’s clean vocals sounding stronger than ever. ‘A Superior Lament’ goes even further in this direction and, were it not for the intensity of Lunn’s drumming, probably would have felt right at home on a record like The Mantle or even the first Opeth album (those heart-wrenchingly sweet vocal harmonies towards the end of the song aren’t performed by Lunn, by the way, but Petri Eskelinen of unruly Finnish grinders Feastem, if you can believe it). Whilst it may not possess the same ferocity as his early work or the immediacy of Roads To The North, Autumn Eternal is nonetheless one of Panopticon’s most successful, affecting and well-crafted records, a slow-burning mood piece that captures the tranquil beauty of nature and speaks more directly to the soul than any of Lunn’s other works.

9. ‘Beast Rider’ from The Scars Of Man On The Once Nameless Wilderness (I And II) (2018)

Panopticon’s run from 2010 to 2015 was truly spectacular, with every new album seemingly expanding or exploring fresh aspects of the project’s sound, but such a hot streak couldn’t last forever. The double-disc The Scars Of Man On The Once Nameless Wilderness is by no means a bad record, but it’s arguably the first Panopticon record that didn’t represent a big leap forward. Opposed to the seamless blend of styles demonstrated on Kentucky, The Scars Of Man separates all the black metal tracks onto disc one, and all the folk pieces onto disc two. The first disc is certainly solid, but suffers slightly from its lack of thematic focus and similarity to Lunn’s last few records. The idea of Lunn creating an entirely folk album isn’t a bad one on paper, but The Scars Of Man On The Once Nameless Wilderness II isn’t quite as strong as some of the bluegrass pieces that peppered previous albums (2019’s Scars II (The Basics), meanwhile, featuring even more stripped down, acoustic versions of these already stripped down, acoustic songs, is inessential for all but the most devoted). Lunn isn’t the most assured clean vocalist, and many of the songs here (outside of the stunning opener ‘The Moss Beneath The Snow’) are much more minimal and sparse than his usual folky fare. That said however, there’s an earnestness to this record that makes it well worth checking out, especially if you’re interested in hearing the project’s folk side at its rawest and most naked. There’s a hint of Bob Dylan to the minimal, harmonica addled anti-Trump song ‘The Itch’ (perhaps the most overtly political statement Lunn had made since Kentucky), whilst the whimsical, smoky Americana of ‘Beast Rider’ proves that, for all Panopticon’s grandiose ambitions, ten minute long suites and innovative fusion of styles, Lunn is still more than capable of crafting a great song with nothing more than his voice and an acoustic guitar.

10. ‘Capricious Miles’ from Live Migration (2020)

Live Migration, Panopticon’s only live album, is something of an outlier amidst Lunn’s discography – whilst he plays pretty much every instrument on all his studio albums, this release captures a rare performance at Pittsburgh’s Migration Fest in 2018, with Lunn on guitar and vocals backed by the likes of Obsequiae’s Tanner Anderson on keys, Circadian Ritual’s Jake Quittschreiber on guitar and Falls Of Rauros’ Ray Capizzo on drums. Whilst Lunn’s intense presence on the kit is pretty much irreplaceable, Capizzo does a fantastic job here; he’s nowhere near as frenetic a drummer, but he brings a different kind of aggression to these songs, and a more minimal, spacious approach that really works in the live setting. Given how isolated and personal Panopticon’s music is, it’s remarkable just how joyous and life-affirming it sounds played by a full band to a crowd of die-hards. The setlist is largely culled from Lunn’s more recent records, with The Scars Of Man the most heavily represented. It’s a thrill to hear those soaring, melancholy guitar harmonies from Autumn Eternal tracks like ‘Into The North Woods’ and ‘A Superior Lament’ belted out by a pair of guitarists in unison, those stirring melodies really singing out – but it’s ‘Capricious Miles’ that’s perhaps the set’s most striking moment. Originally the middle section of Roads To The North’s ambitious ‘The Long Road’ triptych, it works just as well out of context here, really demonstrating how effectively the band have translated Lunn’s layered, elaborate and progressive sound to the stage. It must have been even better being there, but Live Migration does a good job of capturing the electricity in the air that night – and when it was released in the summer of 2020, just as we’d all been plunged into lockdown and were wondering if we’d ever experience live music again, it felt like a beacon of hope. It may not be an essential part of Panopticon’s discography, but Live Migration is proof that even intensely solitary, isolationist black metal has the power to bring people together.

More Panopticon can be found here