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.

Review: Saor – Aura

The history of Saor is a bit deceptive. If you’ve heard the name at all, you didn’t until last year, but the man behind it has been around for some time now. Before Scotland’s Andy Marshall chose this name for his solo project, he released Eternity as Askival in 2009. He was also a major factor in Where Distant Spirits Remain by Falloch in 2011. Neither of those albums stuck with me well enough for me to remember how they sound off the top of my head today, but I do have them. That tells me this is a musician with a good bit of experience, who managed to get his name out there well before he changed it to Saor. Aura is apparently his second release as Saor — he released Roots last year, and I’ll have to make a point to go check it out. If it sounds anything like Aura, it will be well worth the trouble.

Saor – Children of the Mist, from Aura

It does not take long for this five song, 57 minute album to convince you that it has something special going on. The opening track, “Children of the Mist”, erupts almost immediately into a graceful, distinctly Gaelic sweep of woodwind, layered atop well-mixed metal that lets the folk melody shine without much intrusion. The piano and string that follow seem to float in the air, painting a vivid landscape that seems to mirror the album’s cover art. The vibe is similar to Waylander of Northern Ireland, and it feels like it could drift on forever without losing any of its opening grandeur. Around 4:20, the metal briefly gives way to a beautiful cloud of strings and traditional drumming, soon to be met by blast beats that, much like on Kentucky by Panopticon, manage imbue the landscape with life rather than darkness. As the song continues on, you hear a wide variety of folk, pagan, and black metal techniques employed towards this same end of adding a feeling of life and spirit to the nature scenes that the traditional instrumentation invokes.

Saor – The Awakening, from Aura

This approach holds true throughout the grand bulk of the album. The melodies always arise from the folk instrumentation, with the metal serving a supplemental role of forcing you to feel directly engaged in the moment–a temporal witness to some eternal tranquility. It is a devout album, alive in reverence for the spirits of the land. From start to finish, it varies relatively little but never disappoints.

I suppose the terms “folk” and “pagan” can get thrown around rather haphazardly at times, without much of a clear distinction. One tends to conjure to mind lighter, “fun” bands like Korpiklaani and Alestorm, the other more serious bands such as Waylander and Drudkh. Sometimes this seriousness generates a sort of militarism or savagery, rendering bands like Arkona and Nokturnal Mortum far more intense than anything traditional black metal has produced on its own (and far too often, in Nokturnal Mortum’s case for instance, this gets vandalized by absurd notions of supremacy). But this does not always have to be the case. On Aura there is never a hint of desperation or brutality. The feeling is purely of peace and reverence boldly denying that the tradition it embraces has been in any way weakened by the modern world. “Folk” and “pagan” both denote music focused on ways of life that are no longer socially acceptable or possible in a modern, technologically advanced, monotheistic world. If folk suggests people, pagan suggests religion, and the religions of old were not based upon some highborn Greek notion of divinity. Their gods took hearth in wood and water and earth. Saor feels like pagan metal in that sort of sense to me. Its folk instrumentation paints the landscape, and the metal imbues it with supernatural life.

Aura is undeniably one of the most beautiful recordings of 2014. Don’t let it pass you by.