Panopticon – Autumn Eternal

Autumn Eternal is Panopticon’s third album in his bluegrass/black metal trilogy. I’ve reviewed them all so far, and I’m always pretty disappointed while remaining optimistic for the next one. I feel like a broken record, so this will probably be the last time I do one of these reviews unless the next album totally blows me away.

I love the concept. He takes black metal and tries to combine it with American folk. From an instrumental standpoint, this is a great idea. Instruments like banjo have a very harsh, metallic sound, but can also portray a deep sadness. Lots of folk songs are about tragic events like coal miners doing backbreaking work only to die in a cave in. This is the essence of black metal.

Unfortunately, when you pull the two ideas apart and merely shift back and forth between folk instruments and black metal it creates an uneven and partitioned album.

I don’t think the songwriting has evolved as much as some people say. As usual, the folk parts are excellent. The opening track has multiple melodies played in counterpoint, a beautiful blend of instruments, and interesting rhythm section. It is complex yet simple in the right ways.

The black metal sections remain a mystery to me. For example, take the end to “Into the North Woods.” It is an extended and repetitive fully synthesized outro. Nothing about this makes sense in the context of the song. The synthetic sound is cringe inducing and completely changes the aesthetic. It goes against all that the album stands for in its nature themes. The repetition makes me want to hit skip after almost a minute. What is the point of this outro? The album is long enough that there is no need for the filler. This same type of thing happens on future tracks as well like “Sleep to the Sound of Waves Crashing.”

He also introduces a very clean melodic lead guitar on most of the metal tracks. This also feels out of place and is again the wrong aesthetic. It is most noticeable in “Autumn Eternal” and is pretty much the only thing I can think about during that track. The prominence might just be a mixing issue.

In the next track, the melodic clean guitar works a lot better, because it gets integrated into the overall sound. And this basically sums up how I feel about it. The album is a highly inconsistent collection of ideas and aesthetic choices. This is disappointing because of how promising the ideas are.

There are some great moments to be sure. But there are also some Deafheaven-esque post-metal poppy progressions that ruin those moments. Overall, I give this a 6.5/10. Here’s a sample:

Thoughts on Panopticon’s Roads to the North

Now that I’ve written my thoughts, I looked back at what I said in 2012 about Panopticon’s previous album, Kentucky. I find it interesting that my reaction to that album was almost exactly the same as this one.

If you haven’t kept track, recall that Panopticon is Austin Lunn, a one-man Kentucky (or Minnesota, I can’t quite track this down) based black metal/bluegrass fusion band. Honestly, I’m still fascinated by the idea that this might work. I had a lukewarm impression of his last album, but I thought this one would blow me away with its perfect unity of these two distinct styles.

This album doesn’t hold up for me. First, they’ve moved away from the black metal aesthetic quite a bit as the first track shows. The song is all over the place. It has black metal influenced parts, but shifts to some standard rock beats with almost metalcore style riffs and even some power metal sounding parts.

The bluegrass influence on the track comes from fiddle riffs (?) during the black metal parts. I sort of like the metal part, because it creates this deep, static atmosphere. The fiddle is a novelty that doesn’t add the correct feeling to the song. It is playing an arpeggiated, moving part which contrasts awkwardly with the static guitars. If the fiddle were doing tremolos here, I think it would add a nice texture that actually fits with the sound.

The next track is one of the best. It starts with acoustic guitar accompaniment to a tin whistle (?) and fiddle duet. It then goes into the metal part. This time I’m not sure how to classify it. Maybe post-rock? The fusion with the traditional instruments actually works here. Despite this, I don’t find the song itself that interesting. It is incredibly repetitive, and the content on repeat is pretty standard stuff.

The next three tracks are three parts of one epic song. It starts with banjo accompaniment to fiddle, and turns into a traditional bluegrass stringband piece. Sadly, I think this is where the band shines. Their pure bluegrass material is excellent. The rest of the epic is post-metal. There’s lots of atmosphere with droning, shoegaze guitar. The bass work is really good. It sounds like something that you might expect from a prog band.

Overall, my impression is that Panopticon really know their bluegrass, but the novelty of fusing that with metal hasn’t been ironed out yet. The metal itself is all over the place. I still feel the project has tons of potential, but right now I’m just not feeling it (and apparently I’m the only one as I’ve seen something like 6 stellar reviews and no criticism). What I think other reviews confuse is the difference between the idea of this album (excellent!) and the actual execution.

I even feel a little bad writing harshly about a one-man project, because it feels like a much more personal attack than to criticize a large band. Don’t take my word for it. Form your own opinion. Here’s a sample:

Rapid Reviews Part 1

I’ve been hunting through all the various best of the year lists to find some things that are common to the ones that seem good to me. I’ll do a few of these “rapid reviews” every time I get through three new albums found on these lists. In a sense, I’m reviewing your favorites. Of course, I’ve barely digested these albums, so my opinion will without a doubt change a ton as they settle in. These are more just initial impressions.

First, Panopticon’s Kentucky. Um, how did I miss this? This album takes the bizarre idea that Kentucky Bluegrass and Black Metal are cut from the same cloth. This idea fascinates me as a banjo player. The banjo is a very raw instrument that has the ability to add a deep sadness to any genre of music if used properly (see Copeland’s Beneath Medicine Tree or Sufjan Stevens for how indie rockers have succeeded in this). This seems a perfect combination.

I think there are songs on this album that really make this work. These are absolutely fantastic. Sometimes there are huge stretches of just standard BM that kind of turn me off. My favorite stuff on this album is actually their bluegrass writing where no metal appears. There seems to be this weird pro-mining union theme to the album which I also found quite strange. It unifies the songs, but serves as distraction to me otherwise.

Overall I think the idea is brilliant and lots of the album executes well. There is enough that I don’t like (right now) that I can’t bring myself to give it higher than a 6.5/10. I want more of this type of thing, so I hope some other bands try to experiment in this direction. My favorite on the album:

Next, Exotic Animal Petting Zoo’s Tree of Tongues is quite the experience. I’m not sure what to call them. There is a bit of mathcore, a bit of post-hardcore, a bit (can I really bring myself to say this?) Nu-metal. If you want to really rock out to something the first few tracks give you the chance. This might disappoint people looking for really abstract metal. There’s actually grooves without being djenty and fascinating harmonies underneath melodic singing.

On the one hand, I want to criticize the overly commercial formula of starting quiet and slow building to a huge emotional climax, but it is just so darned effective. I have goosebumps through the whole ending of Arcology every time I listen to the angry shouting “Left with no decision/ My body falls to the floor” as the narrator commits suicide thinking it is the absolute only option. Then after it is too late to back out (took pills maybe?) he realizes a way out. Maybe I’ve been too close to people in the past in this exact situation justifying their act with the phrase “I will suffer no more.”

I’m giving them a pass for having just enough mathcore thrown in periodically that it somehow negates any thoughts of commercialism. I’ll probably keep coming back to this one anytime time I’m in the mood for straightforward awesome rock that toys with my emotions. I’m giving it a 9/10 right now, but I could see that number dropping as the initial excitement wears off. Here’s a (not very representative) sample of the song I referred to earlier:

Lastly, I’ll end with Spawn of Possession’s Incurso. I’m not sure what I can say about this. They play something akin to blackened technical death metal. This is just way, way too complicated for me to make any sensible comments for a few more weeks. I’ll try just for giggles.

My initial reaction is that playing “technical music” should enhance the songs in a few ways. One is that it develops and embellishes musical ideas. Another is that there are tons of different ways to be technical (tonally, speed, articulation, time, rhythm, etc) and using these keeps things interesting. Spawn of Possesion does seems to understand this for a huge majority of the album, but…

My initial critique is that there are several parts that cause my eyes to glaze over because it seems to just be about playing super fast scales. That’s cool and all, but is the masturbatory aspect of tech-death that turns me off. It is technique that isn’t very interesting and doesn’t seem to enhance the music at all.

One critique is more of the genre than of this particular album. The double pedal for the bass drum has killed a lot of good drumming in the genre. Now, one great thing about this album is that Henrik Schönström actually avoids excessive use of this technique, and the overall sound of the bass drum seems to be dampened so that when it happens it doesn’t drown out everything the rest of the band is working hard to achieve (cough, freaking Born of Osiris, cough).

Overall, I’m not super excited about this album because of the aforementioned lack of variety in parts. On the other hand, every single listen I pick up tons and tons of new interesting things that contradict my initial view of there being too much fast scale playing. As of right now, I’m only going with a 7.5/10, but I fully intend to keep listening and my guess is this number will go way up. Here’s a song that without a doubt does not lack in variety: