Panopticon has long been a figure on the outer limits of American black metal, a one man band with his foot on both sides of the opposing styles of contemporary black metal – the visceral nature of the genre being incredibly forthcoming on 2011s Social Disservices while the folkier elements of the scene were more present on 2012s Kentucky – both though, held much in the way of personal emotion and it’s clear that for Austin Lunn, Panopticon is an outlet for many different feelings and as such his music is a way of working through life and the odd nature of being human. Roads To The North sublimely incorporates both aspects of Panopticon but make no mistake, this record is angry, heartfelt and deeply, deeply personal.
“The Echoes of a Disharmonic Evensong” begins sweetly enough, with sounds of footsteps across the snow and the distant howls of wolves before the song bursts into furious life and Austin Lunn lays his first screams across the landscapes of sound that open up before us. It’s by far the angriest Panopticon has sounded thus far yet it is also marked as being one of strongest tracks the project has released to date. The voice still sits a little further back than the frenetic drums and soaring guitar work yet there’s no doubt that Lunn is pouring his very heart into the words that he spits forth. This is an extremely personal track and the pace is breathtaking in its execution. String sections lift the song into strangely dissonant territory and those folkier moments continue into the introduction of following track “Where Mountains Pierce The Sky,” a song so desperately wounded in its knowledge that nothing is forever that it’s a wonder Lunn is able to make it to the end.
The bulk of the record is held within the three movements of “The Long Road,” each having its own identity within the trilogy but also standing separately in its own right. “The Long Road Part 1: One Last Fire” is a folky, Kentucky like banjo piece that radiates out into uptempo scales and serves as a starting point for “The Long Road Part 2: Capricious Miles” and its fiery purpose. Guest vocals from When Bitter Spring Sleeps/Satan’s Almighty Penis’ Syntax A give rise to a headier emotion before “The Long Road Part 3: The Sigh of Summer” breaks everything apart in shimmering hues of sadness and beautiful waves of sorrow with Lunn sounding quite unlike he’s ever sounded before. Deeper roars accompany his usual register with soaring, billowing guitar solos taking flight over the latter moments of the song.
“Norwegian Nights” eschews everything heard before with an affecting and melancholy clean vocal line over simple acoustic guitar but as with each quieter moment on Roads To The North it’s soon tempered with despairing grief. “In Silence” utilises the mournful tones of Waldgeflüster’s Winterhertz, his voice adding a warmth to the otherwise cold nuances of Panopticon’s work. It’s during these later stages of Roads To The North that Austin Lunn begins to find his way through the many questions he spends his time asking. Where previous records have seemed to offer no respite from the torture and rage that Lunn has encountered through being alive, this new work sees him work through that vehemence. It’s not entirely hopeful in its outcome, but there’s certainly a sense of coming to terms with the way things have panned out and on a personal level, there’s much here that touches the soul.
Final track “Chase The Grain” is an inspiring composition that bleeds with drama and a tangible conviction that you are you own worst enemy, yet within that truth is the knowledge that that’s okay, that facing that fear is fine and overcoming it will allow you to move forward. It’s a track that burns with a frantic energy and the discordant progressions that sit at its core lead to only one outcome. A brief reprieve from the heightened pace comes midway through the song with a building, monolithic crescendo taking the song to new dimensions before wrenching an impassioned performance from Altar of Plagues’ Dave Condon. Condon’s voice is as hurt as it ever has been and it truly belongs in this song, in this moment and in the space its given by Lunn’s expansive soundscapes. It’s a fitting end to a record that seeks but never demands answers to its questions and allows both maker and listener to find their own way through the mire.