Skagos/Panopticon - Split
Black Metal
5 songs (52:16)
Release year: 2010
Reviewed by Charles
The digipack finally arrives from across the Atlantic from Flenser, and the characteristic mountain-and-forest landscape artwork is completely unadorned by any kind of written expression. That is, until you hold it up to the light and you can make out the glistening shapes of the band logos, Panopticon and Skagos printed across the front. This is the long awaited (by some of us) split between two of North America’s most distinctive black metal bands. And there is common ground not just ideologically but also musically. Both have an esoteric but earthy approach to black metal that makes heavy use of folksy acoustic elements. But it’s also fair to say that one of these bands is far more… challenging… than the other.

Skagos’s two contributions here largely pick up from where Ást (as well as more recent split material) left off, pushing its ideas a little further with careful ambition. The clean sections, if anything, seem to be expanded again, with large swaths of their 25 minutes taken up by intensely evocative, whisper-quiet passages of proggy clean guitar and softly pattering hand percussion. But even when it assumes raging black metal form, the band’s sound is deeply infused with melody. The doomy chords that wallow through Smoldering Embers’s opening moments feel almost gothic, but shortly we accelerate into a blast that is typical of the band’s increasingly distinctive version of black metal. The drums pound as if they were hardened Norse Satan-worshippers, but there always seems to be cleaner elements bleeding in from the sides, giving it an irresistible sense of tuneful melancholy. Anamnesis II… is harsher, allowing a growling, almost crusty sensibility to give its riffs crushing power. But it too collapses into a sweet campfire sing-song (with vocals that sound almost like Muse).

Whilst Skagos are mastering their own sound, Panopticon gets more perplexing with each release. Lundr’s half of the split is labelled as the second part of On the Subject of Mortality (the first isn’t out yet). A Message to the Missionary opens with a sample, which is something of a staple for the project. But rather than the apocalyptic political references of previous works, this is an unnerving choral chant that sets a decidedly eerie tone. (If you can shed light on where it’s from, answers on a postcard). But this is expunged by the chaos of the track in earnest, a crackling tirade of shaky, sickly tremolo blasting, which is submerged by rusty clean guitars and even wavering strings, like a thin stream of dirty water poured on a blaze.

Frankly, this is an act I’ve never known quite what to make of. Sometimes it just sounds a little amateurish, or else simply too introspective to appeal to anyone but the composer. But occasionally- as with the Collapse full length- Lundr produces profound music that really seems to say something. …Seeing…, here, is actually very poignant, building from murky electronic ambiance into a rattling slab of rain-sodden black metal melancholy. Finally, we enter Watching You, the anarchic closer, with dense zigzag riffing that has an almost death metal feel to it, then jerking back into the mournful tones of the preceding song, this time overlaid by dissonant string noise.

You will not find a black metal release this year more filled with character and intrigue. Both bands are undoubtedly an acquired taste, though with one you have to put in considerably more effort than with the other. The first half is rich and beautiful, the second half is uncompromising and difficult, but as it fades out you realise that this is 50 minutes that leaves the black metal world a more interesting place.

Killing Songs :
...Seeing, Smoldering Embers, Anamnesis II
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