It’s been a turbulent year so far for the black metal scene. What with a number of artists being involved in varying degrees of controversy, and the following backlash, both from people defending these artists in the name of free speech or separating art from artist, to the other end of the spectrum denouncing them in the name of human decency, with both artist and fan fighting the good fight. Whilst one would wish that the aforementioned artists would kindly fuck off and leap into the sea, recent events have redirected our attention towards the genuinely interesting and fantastic artists that roam the genre, making those artists stand out like a shining beacon of decency and comparatively well-thought-out, innovative black metal. One such band that deserves this title more than anyone else is Panopticon.

The fruits of labour of mastermind and sole member Austin Lunn, Panopticon fuse some of the most intense, frost-bitten yet melodic, atmospheric black metal outside of Scandinavia with elements of folk, bluegrass and country music. Indeed, Lunn creates a truly unique beast that’s entirely his own. On paper, it sounds like absolute madness. In reality, however, the execution across albums, ranging from paint-stripping black metal to moonshine soaked, authentic American folk, has proven otherwise. Throughout his career, Lunn has managed to use and appropriate genres as and how he pleases, all whilst paying homage and honouring them in a way like no one has before.

Returning with eighth album The Scars of Man on the Once Nameless Wilderness (I & II), Panopticon’s latest is split into two halves; one half consisting of atmospheric folk-influenced black metal, the other half being the Americana and country-based section of the record. Despite being split in two, it’s intended to be one cohesive record spanning a two-hour period. This seems to be a mammoth task at first glance, but given past excursions, you just know what breathtaking brilliance is about to unfold.

Once the gentle acoustic guitars and harmonicas ring out amongst the crackling of an open fire during album opener ‘Watch the Lights Fade’, you’re easily lost amongst the atmosphere almost instantly. This atmosphere is suddenly cranked up to eleven with the crucifying ‘En Hvlt Ravns Dod’, an absolute church inferno of atmospheric black metal, with melodies of haunting beauty. This proves a running theme across the heavier side of the record, which just doesn’t relent for one second, with blistering performances showcased across tracks like ‘Sheep in Wolves Clothing’, quite possibly one of the most intense tracks in the entire Panopticon discography.

The country and Americana side of the album is a wildly different beast, yet not lacking in the quality set up by its preceding half. Matching in atmosphere and intensity in a wholly different way, Panopticon present some of the most stunning, richest sounding tracks across the whole album. Tracks such as ‘Four Walls of Bone’, which is so enriched in emotion it makes Johnny Cash’s version of ‘Hurt’ sound uplifting, or ‘A Cross Abandoned’, which wouldn’t sound out of place soundtracking a modern Western.

“Beautiful” is the sort of term that’s thrown around rather loosely in reviews, but there’s no other word that comes close to describing how incredible both sides of this record are. The standard we’ve come to expect from a Panopticon record has been fine-tuned to top-tier perfection across the board. In a genre where it’s easy to become stagnant or stale, Panopticon have created a true masterpiece that grabs your attention by the neck and doesn’t let go throughout its lengthy duration. A definite contender for Album of the Year so far – by a huge margin.

The Scars of Man on the Once Nameless Wilderness (I & II) is out now. Purchase here.

Words: Dan Hallam

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