Panopticon — The Scars Of Man On The Once Nameless Wilderness (1 and 2)
Largely responsible for the rekindling of my interest in the black metal genre, Panopticon is back with not just a new record but a double album's worth of material. Considering how prolific the project has been throughout its existence, if you just bet on a new album each year then you would be right more often than not. After completing a trilogy of albums with 2015's Autumn Eternal, and a 2016 split release with Germany's Waldgeflüster, a year-long hiatus was almost expected. Then, without warning — as so many black metal albums are wont to be — word came out in early 2018 regarding a new full-length, and now it's finally here. The Scars Of Man On The Once Nameless Wilderness is 2 hours of music — a mixture of black metal and folk, country and bluegrass. Or, in the words of the project's sole proprietor:
This is the full two disk, 2 hour long album sequenced as one long record, as it was meant to be heard. Please don't listen to the album on your laptop speakers, it will sound like shit. Give it a shot on a long hike or by a fire with headphones. The first half of the album is atmospheric metal, the second half is more americana focused, so beware if you hate country/folk.
For those acquainted with Panopticon's past work, then this new album will feel very familiar. Each new release has seen a marked improvement in production and song composition, and The Scars Of Man On The Once Nameless Wilderness keeps the streak going. The trademarked Panopticon sound is intact, with acoustic passages sounding crisp, clean and sharp, while the black metal tracks have a rickety, rustic fury to them. The drum tones have always been the key sound component to me, giving the rhythm section a uniquely organic quality. So much metal is steeped in robotic-sounding kick drums, perfectly locked into a grid and digitally edited to death — an unceasing, staccato of clicks. I really appreciate Panopticon's take on the kvlt aesthetic, the recording quality sounds realistic — like you're hearing a good live band playing — without sacrificing audio fidelity or quality just for the sake of a low-fi gimmick.
As has been the case since Kentucky, Panopticon continues to grow the musical arsenal brought to bear on the concept of "black grass" — or "banjos and black metal" to be short and imprecise about it. Kentucky crystalised what made the project unique sonically, and also presented a compelling narrative of Kentucky coal miners and their historic struggles with labour activism. Even to this day, that is a unique and extremely novel concept for a metal album — and remains one of the genre's all-time great records. The next two albums were also extremely heavy, but managed to create an atmosphere and illustrate a narrative without spoken word sections. Now, on this new album, we get a mix of everything that defined the previous trilogy, with the sort of improvements one would expect from the iterative process.
While the musicianship feels notably improved in subtle ways, there are no huge surprises to be found on the album. If you are familiar with what Panopticon offers, then this falls squarely in line with past work. The Scars Of Man... opens with an slow, melodic, acoustic intro, and then launches into a blistering metal track in "En Hvit Ravns Død." The abum then continues on a run of black metal material until "Snow Burdened Branches" which begins the folk half of the record. Taken as a whole, this is, essentially, just one very long Panopticon track that has been carved up into sections ranging from three-and-a-half minutes to 12 minutes in length. Nothing feels tacked-on or excessive; while this is a lengthy album, nothing overstays its welcome and the lack of concern for running time allows for long builds and rewarding payoffs.
Lyrically and conceptually, the album is centred around an ambiguous, nature-centric philosophy. The direct inspiration for the album, Sigurd Olson, wrote extensively on the subjects of environmentalism and the importance of preserving the wilderness. Those themes are explored on The Scars Of Man On The Once Nameless Wilderness, but it never feels like an overwrought — or otherwise clubbing — message. This general theme has been prevalent on many previous efforts, but this new album is the most overt; Kentucky was just as much about labour strife as it was the environmental impact of coal mining, and Roads To The North and Autumn Eternal both celebrated the wilderness but did so with far more subtlety. The Scars Of Man... is much more overt in its concern and reverence for the wilderness; it's not preachy, but rather makes its case with a subtle strength.
This mix of disparate American folk influences and a unique brand of metal production and composition continues to hit all the right marks. The Scars Of Man On This Once Nameless Wilderness is another worthy addition to the Panopticon discography. It will take time to see where it stacks up against the trilogy, but my immediate impression is that this record may very well be the best Panopticon album to date. I expect to see this on a lot of end-of-year lists, The Scars Of Man... is already one of my favourite releases of 2018.
One of modern black metal's most unique and creative projects, Panopticon drops its best collection of material yet with The Scars Of Man On The Once Nameless Wilderness. The folk and bluegrass elements are expanded, without sacrificing the black metal brutality whatsoever. Some may criticise the record for splitting the folk and metal songs into their own sections, but I appreciate the change — and the material doesn't show any dip in quality. This is a sonically dense offering of the project's best work to date, this album requires — and duly rewards — a patient listener.
Release date: April 6th, 2018
Record label: Nordvis Producktion
Austin Lunn — guitars (acoustic, electric, baritone acoustic, resonator, square neck resonator), bass (acoustic, 4 and 8 string electric), 5 string banjo, lap steel,
drums and percussion, keys, mandolin, harmonica, sung and screamed voice, choirs, accordion and orchestra bells and programming.
Johan Becker — violins
A. Petterson — lead vocals on track 6
William Seay — guest vocals on track 5, 7
Jon Beres — spoken word on rack 5
Tanner Anderson — hurdygurdy, hammered dulcimer
Ben Smith — backing vocals on track 8
- Watch The Lights Fade
- En Hvit Ravns Død
- Sheep In Wolves Clothing
- A Ridge Where The Tall Pines Once Stood
- En Generell Avsky
- The Singing Wilderness
- Snow Burdened Branches
- The Moss Beneath The Snow
- The Wandering Ghost
- Four Walls Of Bone
- A Cross Abandoned
- Beast Rider
- Not Much Will Change When I'm Gone
- Echoes In The Snow
- The Itch
- (Cowering) At The Foot Of The Mountain
- The Devil Walked The Woods
Published: April 23rd, 2018.