Thursday, November 26, 2015

album review: 'autumn eternal' by panopticon

So one of the things I've discovered in my expanding exploration of atmospheric black metal is that while there's a pitch-black core of explosive tremolo picking and blast beat drumming to complement the the howled vocals, there have always been efforts to mutate or expand the sound. By now most people know how Deafheaven drew on shoegaze and emo, but they weren't the first to draw forth more atmospheric textures, like the ambient sounds of Wolves In The Throne Room or the more blatantly pagan and progressive touches of In The Woods... So what if I were to tell you about an American black metal project that didn't just blend in folk, but bluegrass as well?

Because in theory it's not as far removed as you might think. After all, the fast-picked tremolo melodies aren't that far from the quick picks of a banjo - the key would be finding the right subject matter. And like most, when I heard about the one-man black metal project of American musician Austin Lunn called Panopticon, I decided to dive in at the 2012 album Kentucky... and wow, I was glad I did, because this is something special. What immediately struck me about Kentucky was on a conceptual and lyrical level how much it worked - a ramshackle presentation delving into the desperate poverty and bleak devastation of backwater rural Appalachia, ravaged by a flailing and heartless coal industry, damn near perfect themes for a black metal project. Now in execution it didn't quite land as well - as much as I dug the bluegrass and country touches, especially with the vocal snippets, the transitions always felt a little clumsy and I found myself underwhelmed by some of the black metal compositions themselves. Thankfully, much of this was cleaned up two years later for the frigid and excellent Roads To The North, which brought in some symphonic touches with strings, great drumwork, and great atmosphere. What was also interesting was the shift in mood - where Kentucky was more immediately abrasive and confrontational, Roads To The North was more contemplative and wild, finding a certain tranquillity in the frozen heart of the wild. Where bands like Immortal and Satyricon wrote about Scandinavia, Austin Lunn was writing about the rugged American wilderness, with the more eclectic instrumentation only adding to the authenticity. I'll be straight with you - if I had covered Roads To The North last year when it was released - it might have had a very real shot at making my year end list.

So you can bet I was going to be checking out his newest record Autumn Eternal, apparently intended as the conclusion of a trilogy with Kentucky and Roads To The North and with more straightforward black metal - what did we get?

Honestly, I think I might have found a black metal album this year that really stuck the landing for me - as in not just one of the best metal records of this year, but one of the best albums of this year period. And the funny thing is that for a relative outsider to the genre, this might be Austin Lunn's most conventional 'metal' album of his trilogy, at least in terms of the genre crossovers - and yet there's still so much dynamic colour and soaring power to the album that it feels like only now we hit that climax point. In other words, while I cannot and will not say that Autumn Eternal is entirely accessible for non-metal fans, it's one hell of an experience.

So let's start with the production and instrumentation - and you know, I'm so happy I covered Vallendusk right before this record, because if I was looking for an example of how to nail this brand of atmospheric black metal production with folk tinges right, it'd be here. Not only are the melodies prominent amidst the cacophonous drumming, but they cut right through the feedback of the riffs like crystal light through the clouds, harsh and occasionally shrill in their passage but nearly always clear. I only found moments where they felt a bit stifled, but that's more in service of the groove, which is driven by a welcome and prominent bassline that alternates between a hollow rattle and a smoky gallop. And while there are points where the blast beats pile up to a frankly insane degree, there's also enough variance in the drum progressions and textures to stand out, from the circular hollow kickdrum on 'Oaks Ablaze' to the huge booming gallop on the title track to the ragged crunch of the cymbals all across this album. And all the while the guitars scream, from soaring melodies buoyed by reverb-touched symphonic swell to the whirling solos of 'Into The North Woods' and 'The Superior Lament'. And there are so many little touches in the production that are absolutely wonderful beyond just the intense atmosphere that opens many of these tracks - windswept hills, the crunch of boots on stone, the crashing of waves and streams on the rocks. This is music of wild lands, but the sort of wildness that comes from hiking in the untamed mountains, alone with your thoughts as the chill of the wind tugs against your jacket. Not good or evil, just inevitable - rarely has an album's title so aptly encapsulated the the sound so damn well.

And while this album is easily the most 'metal' of the trilogy, those elements of folk, alt-country and bluegrass are still around the edges - the opening track in particular balances the dobro against a mournful and gorgeously textured violin, perfectly content to fade into ambient sound for a full minute before the album really explodes. That's one thing I admire about this record: the sense of time and scale. Despite some fairly long songs, there's enough going on in the melodies and gorgeously executed transitions that keeps the songs from feeling long, yet never so much that it feels cluttered or indulgent - and for an album that opts to bring in as much symphonic, borderline-cinematic swell as this one does, that's saying something. Take 'Into The North Woods': it could easily be considered kitschy how the song transitions from the explosive guitar solo into the outro of bells and the drums of a march, but the production maintains that huge presence so damn effectively that it feels damn near seamless. Similar case for 'Sleep To The Sound Of The Waves Crashing' - even though I'm not entirely wild about the hollowed lo-fi shift at the ninety second mark or the odd tone that layers over the melody at the three minute mark, the ambient fade into the violin and how it gradually builds aching swell with the rest of the strings is breathtaking. And then we have the ending track 'The Winds Farewell', that brings in those alt-country and folk elements with a progressive touch and an absolutely beautiful guitar line that maintains strident all the way through the massive riffs, especially how the deeper dobro tone takes up the melody so perfectly that you have to wonder it wasn't used more often like that! I will say the transitions are a tad shakier when this album touches against post-rock, like the faded howls on the title track or the wind-touched growl of the grooves of 'Oaks Ablaze' or especially on the Muse-esque melody of 'Pale Ghosts', but in the last case I'd argue that's more that track not really evolving its melody - solid, but it could have been great.

But now we've got to talk about vocals and lyrics... most notably the fact that I couldn't find a copy of them anywhere, mostly because they aren't included in any of the CD packaging because Austin Lunn considers them too personal to publish. Now on the one hand for me that's frustrating - I'm still not the best at deciphering growled or screamed vocals, and Lunn's full-throated howls booming across the mix only give me fragments to work with. And here's the thing: he's such a powerful presence on these songs that I really do wish I could get more of his message, because previous albums like Kentucky showed exactly how strong his writing was. Of course, there are places where he's not screaming or utilizing some impressive death metal growls, most notably in a Matt Berninger-esque timbre that feels even more swamped in reverb than ever on 'Pale Ghosts'. It's telling that the one place I can definitely understand the vocals is courtesy of guest singer Petri Eskilinen on 'A Superior Lament', singing about the encroaching winter and how we should 'empty out our souls'. It's a telling line that when pieced together with the lyrical fragments does manage to pull together a pretty striking picture - the coming of winter, endings and death, screaming out our grievances in the empty wastes, confronting the pale ghosts of the past that we do not wish to see again but must put to rest regardless. And in a certain way you don't need to know which inner demons Lunn is facing - he's such a huge presence behind the microphone that he can convey his trials without it, and by the end, you know he's found his peace.

In other words... you know, I think this might be one of the first times I've ever gotten behind an album so strongly without having a tight grip on everything said, but that itself says volumes for how incredibly powerful Autumn Eternal is. The compositions are dynamic and soaring, the musicianship is stellar, the production is awe-inspiring, and the presence and cohesion is damn near spectacular. Again, if you're not familiar with black metal this isn't an easy place to jump on-board, but Austin Lunn manages to nail the ending of this Americana-touched trilogy so damn well that I'm inclined to tell you to try it regardless. For me, it's a 9/10, easily one of the best of the year, and all the more proof that any time of music can lead to unique beauty and tranquillity.

1 comment:

  1. Please don't forget to cover Julia Holter's latest album. theneedledrop gave it a 9, but I want to know your take on it. Thank you!