Review: Panopticon – Roads to the North


Two years removed, Kentucky has left a unique long-term impression in my mind. For all of the excitement over an authentic and well-crafted mingling of traditional Appalachian folk and black metal–the term “blackgrass” got tossed around a lot–I honestly don’t remember how most of the songs went. This is because Kentucky‘s message managed to trump its sound. I remember the old man talking about organizing strikes against the coal company. I remember Sarah Ogan Gunning’s boldly defiant calls to overthrow capitalism. I think of settlers slaughtering Indians, mountains blown into dust, rivers running black with pollution, grim-faced miners broken in body but never in spirit, a modern generation abandoning everything their ancestors worked so hard to accomplish… That is my memory of Kentucky.

Chase the Grain

I can’t detach myself from Kentucky enough to appreciate Roads to the North as an independent entity. That’s probably fine. I had never heard of Panopticon before Austin Lunn nailed his bloody heart to his sleeve in 2012, and that identity will persist through my perception so long as it remains true. Roads to the North has no explicit message, no lyrics sheet, no spoken tracks or American folk covers. But it has Kentucky, and because of that every song takes on a deeper, more robust meaning than it might have otherwise.

It would be interesting to know what a folk/black metal fan unfamiliar with Panopticon takes from this album. Does the music alone stand far above and beyond the norm? I like to think it does. The album incorporates some entirely unexpected but highly effective melodic death metal moments, especially in the opening track “The Echoes of a Disharmonic Evensong”. This track also gives us perhaps Lunn’s best incorporation of fiddle directly into black metal to date. “The Long Road Part 2: Capricious Miles” transitions out with a long and enthralling jazzy progressive rock chill reminiscent of mid-era Opeth. The whistle in “Where Mountains Pierce the Sky” sounds nothing like what we’re used to out of the European scenes, harkening instead to a western indigenous sound I have only heard from some obscure Mexican folk metal bands. “The Long Road Part 1: One Last Fire” is an unconventional six minute acoustic bluegrass piece that feels more like something straight out of Lunn’s imagination than Appalachia.

The intensity hops around so suddenly that Roads to the North may feel disjointed at first, but the stark contrasts are never forced. Because you don’t always see them coming, they are striking rather than cliche. Lunn performs each of the album’s myriad instruments better than a lot of people who specialize in only one, and there aren’t many producers on the black metal market that can compare to Colin Marston. He has a knack for subtlety that is hard to come by in the scene. I absolutely love the way the tremolo emerges around 30 seconds into “Chase the Grain”, for instance. It’s so soft that you feel its effect on the song as a whole long before your brain consciously recognizes it.

Norwegian Nights

But I suppose I don’t really care about the finer musical details of Roads to the North, and that is why I found this album so difficult to review. This music is only a gateway. Like an engaging book, you never notice that it is well written. Roads to the North is not the guided tour we found on Kentucky. It leaves us be to explore where the feelings take us within the context of the world Lunn has already shown us. Those paths can be rocky. It’s not the glorified past of so many European pagan metallers. The should-be eternal is tainted. The land is marred. It’s the introspective melancholy Americana of Bob Dylan and Tom Waits, and your heart goes out to so many things that you can never hope to save.

Lie beneath a cold blanket and watch the mountains sleep. The train rolls by every hour, as I wake and dream. The woods and the hills–faces so dear to me. Frozen lakes, flatland snow, where I’m called I’ll go. Such still quiet, then the whistle echoes. My fragile sleep torn from me, as many other things will be.

Song of the Day: Oats In The Water (by Ben Howard)


TheBurghIslandEP

The Walking Dead may not be what some critics as great television. Hell, it’s been called boring, pandering and badly-written. It’s popularity has eluded detractors and supporters alike. There’s one thing the show has consistently done well and that’s pick licensed songs to help highlight particular episodes.

Tonight’s episode, “Internment”, is another such episode with a perfectly picked song. This time around the song is “Oats In The Water” by British singer-songwriter Ben Howard.

The song enters the episode as part of the calm which followed one of the most tense and terrifying sequences of the season. Whoever is in charge of licensing songs for this song needs to get a raise because it’s definitely been a highlight of each season.

Oats In The Water

Go your way,
I’ll take the long way ’round,
I’ll find my own way down,
As I should.

And hold your gates
There’s coke in the midas touch
A joke in the way that we rust,
And breathe again.

And you’ll find loss
And you’ll fear what you found
When weather comes
Tear him down

There’ll be oats in the water
There’ll be birds on the ground
There’ll be things you never asked her
Oh how they tear at you now

Go your way,
I’ll take the long way ’round,
I’ll find my own way down,
As I should.

And hold your gates
As coke in the midas touch
A joke in the way that we rust,
And breathe again.

And you’ll find loss
And you’ll fear what you found
When weather comes
Tear him down

There’ll be oats in the water
There’ll be birds on the ground
There’ll be things you never asked her
Oh how they tear at you now

Ten Years #22: Стары Ольса


Decade of last.fm scrobbling countdown:
22. Стары Ольса (Stary Olsa, 1,257 plays)
Top track (111 plays): Танцы (Dances), from Келіх кола (Loving Cup, 2000)
Featured track: Дрыгула, from Дрыгула (2009)

I don’t know of too many bands from Belarus, but the one I’m most familiar with is amazing. It’s a bit fitting that Stary Olsa should be my first entry in this on-going series to appear within the fall season, because I actually featured both “Dances” and “Drygula” this time last year. Of course it has nothing to do with horror, but it’s firmly rooted in the traditions from which our Halloween has derived–those of a misty past dominated by perceptions and beliefs not yet subsumed by European Christian standards. I don’t know whether the songs Stary Olsa play are themselves of ancient origin, but their instrumentation certainly is, and the songs they have crafted, whether traditional or original, are convincingly and memorably medieval. You’ll hear none of that western adherence to formula here; playing slightly out of tune or hitting a wrong note is a positive property of the music I like best. It comes to life with an earthiness that strives not for order and rationality, but for a taste of those unpredictable, wild-eyed expressions that highlight the more authentic human experiences of joy and sorrow. A lot of the best folk music abandons modern society’s notions of how these feelings ought to be expressed in exchange for a more direct connection. Stary Olsa certainly aren’t unique in this regard, but they do it better than most any other ensemble I’ve heard.

Ten Years #23: The Tossers


Decade of last.fm scrobbling countdown:
23. The Tossers (1,222 plays)
Top track (57 plays): The Crock of Gold, from The Valley of the Shadow of Death (2005)

My introduction to Irish punk was about as random as they come. I had “Come On Eileen” by Dexys Midnight Runners stuck in my head, and I could not for the life of me remember what it was called or who wrote it. I made a forum post asking “who wrote that song that goes too-ra-loo-rai-a?”, and someone–much to my persistent bewilderment today–responded with “Aye Sir” by The Tossers. It was through this cluttered back door that I first came to discover legends like The Pogues, The Dubliners, Dropkick Murphys, and Flogging Molly, and I owe a world of thanks to that forgotten forum poster for it.

A lot of my love for The Tossers is definitely nostalgia, because they introduced me to a world of music that has influenced my life tremendously ever since. But more significantly, I love The Tossers because they manifest an earthy side of Irish folk that bigger and brighter rock stars can never, by consequence of their fame, present quite so intimately. The drunken camaraderie, the sense of belonging, the singing and the dancing, all of the glory that one of the most persistently vibrant folk traditions in the world can bring–you certainly feel them all at a Dropkick concert, but with The Tossers it comes before an audience of a few hundred, most of whom know the songs by heart. They’re probably the best punk-minded Irish folk band drifting around America to have never made it big, and their live show is a blast every time.

Ten Years #32: Elliott Smith


Decade of last.fm scrobbling countdown:
32. Elliott Smith (946 plays)
Top track (95 plays): Southern Belle, from Elliott Smith (1995)
Featured track: St. Ides Heaven, from Elliott Smith

This October will mark ten years since Elliott Smith’s tragic death. I remember hearing the news only a few months after I started listening to him. The Royal Tenenbaums was my favorite movie at the time, and I picked up his self-titled album after hearing Needle in the Hay in the suicide scene. As if the album’s lyrics weren’t bleak enough already, the relevance of my first experience of Elliott Smith to his death added a whole new weight. It’s a pleasant if odd coincidence that the album soon became intimately tied with one of the most positive experiences of my life.

Smith died in October, and I shipped off to basic training the following month. Music deprivation–the only really challenging aspect of the whole three month process–came to an end when I was marched out of my barracks with my confiscated cd collection back in tow and shipped off to my year-long advanced training. I hopped on a plane in a bitter sub-zero St. Louis February and fell back off in the palm-tree coastal paradise of Monterey, California. Elliott Smith was spinning all the while, and it kept on playing until I left that strange and beautiful place for good. Something about the juxtaposition of Smith’s depressing lyrics and ethereal performance perfectly captured the simultaneous homesickness and bewilderment that I experienced as a rural 19 year old alone and out of his element with an enormous Army pay check, left to roam the hills of one of America’s most affluent coastal cities every night. That otherworldly vision of a serene Pacific bay surrounded by city lights will always go hand-in-hand with this album for me, and I can’t bring myself to listen to any other Elliott Smith recording without being overcome by a desire to put his self-titled back on, close my eyes, and relive the experience. It might not be exactly what Smith had in mind when he recorded it, but I would rather like to remember him for the beauty lying beneath his depression than for his death.