Shadow of the Horns: Black metal healing through Panopticon’s ‘The Scars of Man’

Jeff Terich
Panopticon Scars of Man

Last week, Austin Lunn released The Scars of Man on the Once Nameless Wilderness (I and II), his long-awaited new double-album as Panopticon. And outside of the release of “Sheep in Wolves Clothing” on a Decibel flexi-disc last year, it was the first that anyone had heard a single note of it. Lunn didn’t allow any pre-release promos to go out to magazines or blogs, and on the Bandcamp page for the album, Lunn says it pretty clearly: “NOT ONE SINGLE PERSON WAS ASKED TO REVIEW THIS ALBUM.”

Now, I’m sure Lunn expects that it’ll happen anyway (and based on my Google search, within a couple days of its release there are a few reviews out there), but this is likely intended as more a statement about how his intent isn’t to seek the attention via press. It goes along with his decision to forgo any interviews, which ties into much of what those of us who have been following him know about the man and his work. His music has long merged black metal with bluegrass, and though the themes of his albums often show a great compassion for humanity, there’s also a longing for solitude and oneness with the natural world. (That and he’s generally been skeptical of the judgmental nature of Internet metal communities.)

For the sake of argument, I’ll say this isn’t a review of the album. But I find myself awed by what Lunn has created. I’m also impressed with his decision to drop the album and simply leave it at that. I get to hear a lot of metal albums before the general public does, and I also end up hearing a lot of stuff much later on once I realized I missed a potentially great record. But it’s been interesting to be discovering each nuance in real time and to have the opportunity to participate in discussions with people about them without sitting on a promo or a review. This isn’t an album that’s going to be heard by hundreds of thousands of people, but those of us who are spinning the record are tuned into something special. It’s perhaps like being part of a book club, but obviously a lot more metal.

As indicated in the title, The Scars of Man is presented in two parts, and while I’m already highly tempted to call it the best metal album I’ve heard this year, it’s also only about half metal. The other half (or about 40 percent or so, mixed with some drone and post-rock sounds) is folk and bluegrass, which continues a hybrid of sounds that Lunn’s been innovating for quite a few years now through albums such as Autumn Eternal and Kentucky. But this is the first time he’s filled two full sides of vinyl with acoustic, folky and bluesy sounds, and they’re ragged, soulful anthems. Some of it’s kind of punk rock (“Echoes in the Snow”), some of it’s kind of shoegaze (“A Cross Abandoned”), and the breathtaking “The Moss Beneath the Snow” is an instrumental saga on the level of Godspeed You! Black Emperor. But it’s an interesting counterpoint to the actual metal portion of the album, which is uniformly fantastic. In fact, I included one of those tracks in my picks this month, which you can check out below. But if I’m to be honest here, I could have blindly chosen any of the tracks on Part I and they would have been worth highlighting.

The music on The Scars of Man is breathtaking—this much shouldn’t be that much of a surprise. But at the heart of the album is a dire warning of the destructive nature of man, and how even though we’re responsible for the slow destruction of the earth, we’re also the only ones capable of doing anything about it. To say this is a political album is both entirely accurate and something of a misnomer—this isn’t about endorsing candidates, but about facing a very real crisis of our own making, and understanding the importance of taking care of our own resources. Joe Beres reads a passage from author and environmentalist Sigurd Olson on “A Ridge Where the Tall Pines Once Stood,” concluding with this chilling statement: “There is no hiding it: unless we can preserve places where the endless spiritual needs of man can be fulfilled and nourished, we will destroy our culture and ourselves.”

Lunn’s concerns about the destruction of the environment echo a lot of what many of us have been worrying about for a long time, but given a sense of poetry and beauty that sometimes gets lost in the crosstalk on 24-hour cable news. It’s a simple message, really: This is our home, and it nourishes us and gives us everything we need, and in not returning the favor we’re only harming ourselves. Yet there is still a message of hope, and one that once again comes from Sigurd Olson, whose voice appears at the beginning of “Snow Burdened Branches”: “A great many people —young people—come to see me, and they ask me, ‘What is your hope for the world?’ And I always answer them that the hope for the world is in you.”

The album isn’t just a lot to process because it’s a lot of music; it’s a lot to process because how much it says about the world, about us. My thoughts still aren’t fully formed, and I imagine I’ll only discover things and have new revelations the longer I listen to it, which will most certainly be for a long time. But I have no doubt about the importance of this album, in that it represents something many of us have been yearning for in metal. I get frustrated when people on the Internet defend racism or misogyny in metal because somebody made something that sounds kind of cool. That’s a shaky hill to die on, and I’m simply not going to make that climb. But Panopticon speaks to something universal, something more spiritual and profound. Here’s a musician who’s really putting himself out there and taking some great risks with his music, and in the process is conveying a message that’s not only important, but one that too often falls on deaf ears.

On the Bandcamp description of the album, Lunn writes, “Give it a shot on a long hike or by a fire with headphones.” And in listening to the album as I write this, I regret (on a rare occasion) that I don’t live somewhere snowy. This is the kind of album that deserves solitude and personal attention, and will absolutely sound magnificent in headphones on a walk in the woods. And if I were to write a proper “review,” however one might define that, that’d probably be a good prerequisite before the final draft. But I’m simply sharing some personal thoughts about the gift that Panopticon has shared with us, and I’m merely grateful that he has.

The best metal tracks of April 2018

Eagle Twin – “Elk Wolfv Hymn”

Eagle Twin have existed for more than a decade, though the Salt Lake City stoner/doom duo generally take their time to put out new music, their latest The Thundering Heard arriving six years after their last album, 2012’s The Feather Tipped the Serpent’s Scale. You can’t rush great metal, however, and it’s not like epic, eight-minute dirges of psychedelic doom write themselves overnight. “Elk Wolfv Hymn” is a lengthy journey of a track, building up slowly from spacious, gentle guitar chords and erupting into a wall of fuzz that sounds burly, filthy, rugged and impenetrable. It kind of just gets more gnarly from there, which is by all means a positive thing—Eagle Twin do gnar well. Once the track returns to its misty origins toward the end, with growls of “The circle unbroken,” it becomes robed in fog, shrouded in mystery again, its hulked-out midsection returned to hibernation. And for the time being, at least, the beast resumes its slumber.

[from The Thundering Heard, out now; Southern Lord]

Grave Upheaval – “II-II”

Mystery doesn’t always make metal better, but it can be pretty effective at making it more interesting. That’s probably what death metal outfit Grave Upheaval were counting on when releasing their music without much information about who made it, no press photos that show anyone’s face all that clearly, an album called (Untitled) and a series of song titles that are named with Roman numerals. So going into “II-II,” it’s not like I have much to go on, but I’m already intrigued, and the fact that their brand of death metal is powerful, guttural and ominous makes everything else seem trivial. It’s a four-minute rush of cavernous, almost supernatural death metal with the overbearing depth of doom. It’s utterly monstrous in its sound, but the effort that Grave Upheaval puts into their anonymity goes double for the richness of their sonic approach. So it’s refreshing to know that, as impressive as the sonic world they live inside is, there’s actually a strong songwriting component to go with it.

[from (Untitled), out April 15, Nuclear War Now!]

Uada – “Cult of a Dying Sun”

Whatever stereotypes of Portland exist as a result of, well, decades of being a hub for D.I.Y. and not-so-D.I.Y. indie music—as well as the eventual home for musicians that don’t end up settling in Los Angeles—it’s become a reliable source of incredible metal on the regular. Uada is one such band, having made a strong debut in 2016 with Devoid of Light. Though if their name doesn’t quite ring a bell to readers, their former drummer, Trevor Matthews, might, as he’s now a member of Pillorian with ex-Agalloch vocalist John Haughm. Enough with the biography, though; “Cult of a Dying Sun” is all about reveling in the glory of the band’s towering, melodic black metal sound. It’s a song that starts out strong, with some spectacular riffs that usher in a rush of black metal blast-beats and soul-shattering growls. By that description, it probably sounds like a lot of black metal, and technically speaking, it features pretty much the same elements as most black metal bands. But the group’s much better with melody, structure and finding a climactic resolution than most. Black metal sometimes benefits by sticking to simple and raw sounds. That’s not what Uada’s about, however, and though they haven’t abandoned that primal rawness, they use it as a backbone for a more interesting and intricate approach to black metal songwriting. The final two minutes are proof enough of their chops.

[from Cult of a Dying Sun, out May 25; Eisenwald]

Abjection Ritual – “Body of Filth”

If anyone’s first reaction to hearing “Body of Filth” is to immediately think of Neurosis, that’s by no means surprising. The vocals are a dead ringer for that band’s Scott Kelly at times, and there’s a sense of apocalyptic, ritual mayhem that recalls the band at their most ’90s-era intense. Still, Abjection Ritual are very much their own band, less of a metal band per se as a doomy industrial outfit, made in large part through samples and synths rather than big, meaty guitars. To that end, they’re far from a conventional metal band, and their makeup actually looks very little like that of Neurosis (though perhaps more like Godflesh, in a sense). Yet however one categorizes them, Abjection Ritual have more than their share of power and sheer, unholy menace coursing through the sound of their music to make up for whatever perceived absence of traditional metal sounds they wield. “Body of Filth” is tension and terror that scrapes its way into your nightmares.

[from Soul of Ruin, Body of Filth, out now; Malignant]

Panopticon – “Sheep in Wolves’ Clothing”

I offered a lot of my thoughts on Panopticon’s new double album this month (that big essay above), but I thought it appropriate to highlight one of my favorite tracks from the album. “Sheep in Wolves’ Clothing,” one of the highlights from the metal half of his new double album, is emblematic of Panopticon’s growth over the years. Austin Lunn’s music has always been very good—and unconventional, considering his hybridization of genres, but with some better dialed-in production, the material benefits greatly. “Sheep In Wolves’ Clothing” is soaring and emotional, defined as much by its melodic beauty as it is by its intensity. And the track takes on a number of different climaxes and compelling transitions, always reaching higher and toward something more transcendent. While Lunn’s vocals are as abrasive and indecipherable as ever here, it’s hard not to be moved by this.

[from The Scars of the Man on the Once Nameless Wilderness, out now; Bindrune/Nordvis]

Piece by Piece

The best metal albums of the past month.

Chaos EchoesMouvement: I’ll have a proper review of this album up (along with the band’s collaboration with Mats Gustafsson) soon, but in the meantime, I’ve been blown away by the French band’s ability to fuse experimental tendencies with the intensity of death metal, at times entering a cosmic realm similar to the one occupied by Oranssi Pazuzu. It’s fantastic stuff, employing improvisational techniques and unconventional sonic palettes, and it’s unpredictable at that. It also rules. (Nuclear War Now!)

Judas Priest‘s Firepower: It’s Judas FUCKING Priest, and it’s awesome. Listen to it and remove any doubts. (Epic)

Mournful Congregation‘s The Incubus of Karma: The Australian funeral/death-doom outfit’s latest album is simply massive. Four gigantic compositions that showcase the depth and breadth of their capabilities, with some truly gorgeous instrumental moments within their colossal sound. The album is a bit like the new Panopticon record in that it will likely be one where I hear new things every time I listen, but even in the early goings, I love what I hear. (20 Buck Spin/Osmose)

***

I’d like to close this month’s column by giving a special shout-out to metal journalist Cat Jones, who last week prompted a simple question on Twitter for people to name the things they love about being a metalhead. The responses were overwhelming, including how many people have met their best friends or even spouses through metal, how it motivates them to keep going, and about finding joy when everything else is frustrating or rotten. It’s a simple thing, but it was a highly cathartic group therapy session for all involved, and it’s more of what we need in this community. Hails!

View Comments (4)
  • Agreed about Panopticon – Scars has made a good companion album during this unending Minnesota winter (don’t feel too bad about living nowhere snowy). I haven’t quite figured out what it means to me personally, but I look forward to braving its sonic wilderness for years to come.

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