One-man black metal artist Panopticon (aka Austin Lunn) turned a corner with his 2012 album, Kentucky. Kentucky was inspired not just by his experiences growing up in Louisville, but also looked directly to the instruments and traditional melodies of his home state's Appalachian folk tradition, melding the burning blastbeats and demonic growled vocals black metal is known for with woodsy fiddles, lamenting banjos, and spare woodwinds. Though possibly not the first time in the history of recorded music that Darkthrone-informed metal tunes had foggy mountain folk breakdowns, the combination was certainly uncommon, and even more surprising was how well it worked. Joined by earnestness, sorrow, and yearning for communication in Lunn's songwriting core, the disparate styles managed to express unified sentiments of loss, wonderment, and regret as lightning-fast riffs wove in and out of acoustic passages. Roads to the North follows Kentucky and continues Lunn's exploration of the wild combinations he set in motion on that album. Where Kentucky reflected on the politics of coal-mining unions, the despair of a fading natural environment, and other themes of the bluegrass state, Roads to the North feels more universal. The eight movements included here stretch out for over an hour, with the centerpiece of the album coming in the form of three-part suite "The Long Road." These three tracks move from banjo-plucking bluegrass instrumentals into black metal fire before settling into spacy post-hardcore ambience. The suite ends with lonely pan pipes and field recordings as a din of dark metal fades out. Themes of life-altering journeys are implied throughout, though Lunn's devil-moan vocals are usually kept indiscernible and low in the mix. The multifaceted nature of Roads to the North could come off as gimmicky or pretentious if the compositions didn't feel so inarguably genuine. The softly sung acoustic folk of "Norwegian Nights" or the rustic introduction of "Where Mountains Pierce the Sky" might feel out of place on a mix of early black metal bands, but in the context of Panopticon's stunningly heartfelt approach, this wildly diverse spectrum of sounds feels almost necessary. Roads to the North, much like its predecessor, probably won't win over purists of either the black metal or Appalachian folk genres, but listeners open to Lunn's unconventional vision will find a painfully honest and often breathtaking reflection on natural beauty, solitude, and the lengthy journey of life.
Roads to the North Review
by Fred Thomas