Panopticon – Roads To The North

a1750879016_10For an album ostensibly taking as its lodestar such traditionally-expected-in-black-metal concepts as winter and the general direction of North, Roads To The North could be a remarkably surprising album to a listener unfamiliar with the steadily growing artistic output of Austin Lunn. Not at first though: the first sounds one hears on this release are samples of a foreboding wind, the distant and trembling howls of wolves, and the trudge, soon to break into a run, of a solitary walker through the snow, and they’re quickly followed by Lunn’s frantic, blasting drum-work, and a pair of interwoven tremolo melodies vying for space with a triumphant fiddle (courtesy of Johan Becker), in a style you might expect to hear on a Forteresse album. So far so conventional, although excellently composed either way, but Lunn quickly makes it clear that the Norwegian tribute of the split with Fall of Rauros began and ended there, and he does this with something that’s both new to Panopticon’s sound and relatively absent from the current “underground” metal landscape: a complex, punchy, melodic riff in the vein of At The Gates’ Slaughter of the Soul and other associated melodic death metal albums (Hypocrite frequently came to mind during my own listens of the album).

Now, you might be raising your proverbial eyebrows if you haven’t read the many other reviews written long before this one that have already made a point of noticing and praising this element of Roads To The North (at least, when they aren’t drawing comparisons as ridiculous and ill-informed as Earth Crisis or Shai Hulud). This may seem a little odd, as the Gothenburg sound is a horse that died near instantaneously after birth, and it’s been beaten into an unrecognizable pulp of sugary hooks and metalcore appropriation long since then. Its presence in the sound of a band associated with black metal would usually amass ridicule at best, even for a band with an appeal as far ranging as Panopticon. I think it’s significant that it doesn’t in this case, and I’d like to suggest a few reasons why:

  • Not all melodic death metal is the sort of pre-packaged Wacken drivel locked to the barren teats of Slaughter of the Soul or In Flames’ later output, and Lunn, to my ears, is drawing from a lot of the more vibrant and creative history of the sound (see: Eucharist, Ablaze My Sorrow, A Canorous Quintet, or the aforementioned Hypocrite, and keep in mind that this style of riff writing isn’t exclusive to melodic death metal either. Also, as much as I’d rather not admit it, there’s almost certainly some Reinkaos in there as well).
  • The saturation of this particular genre is long over, and I imagine that for those who are tired of retro thrash and old-school death metal and whatever other else the metal world has been gorging itself on for the last few years are likely ready for something different by now.
  • It doesn’t really matter.

I’ll clarify that last statement, because it gets to the heart of why I love this album so much, as well as why I find a lot of the discussion about it I’ve encountered online to be fairly tiresome. As with just about every Panopticon release, Roads to the North draws from an eclectic pool of techniques: bluegrass and Appalachian folk, black metal, melodic death metal, post metal (translation: I don’t really know!), post rock, and other arbitrary terms you may as well draw at random from a hat. What makes all this significant isn’t the novelty factor, though that’s perhaps what catches attention most easily, it’s the relentless force of passion and knowledge of musical craft that melds and forges all of these elements into a cohesive whole, and Roads To The North, more so than any previous release by Lunn, does this with unbelievable adeptness.

Lasting over an hour, the real secret to this album is masterful pacing: blasting tremolo sections that reach deep down to the bones with their intensity; soaring, sky-piercing melodies; ominous dirges of malevolent arpeggios and earth-shaking bass lines; invigorating bluegrass picking and pastoral Appalachian folk; softly lush instrumental passages; spirit-stirring violin lines; even a dramatic orchestral arrangement; everything is in its right place for the fullest emotional effect on this journey of an album. It’s done so well that, since I received the promo a few weeks ago, I’ve listened to it nearly every day, often multiple times, and often consecutively. If I had the time, I would love to write so much more about this album, to be able to express how incredible and moving it is, how refreshing it is to listen to an album that defines its own sound without needing to rely on the tag of a genre, or how impressive it is to see Lunn really coming into his full ability as an artist. But I don’t have to, you can hear it for yourself now and watch these paltry and faint paragraphs disappear in the shadow of Roads To The North. -Jake

Bindrune Recordings / Nordvis

~ by jakemoran on August 13, 2014.

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