Panopticon - Autumn Eternal
Bindrune Recordings
Atmospheric Black Metal
8 songs (1:04:41)
Release year: 2015
Official Bandcamp
Reviewed by Goat

It's easy to feel trepidation when bands become too prolific, especially in the more extreme of the subgenres, where a lot can easily become too much. Thank heaven (or hell) then, for Austin Lunn's Panopticon, which barely a year after 2014's excellent Roads to the North (my review called it “a great black metal album”) has released an astonishingly good follow-up in the form of Autumn Eternal, which is less folksy and experimental but more intense and powerful. It's good enough to make it onto my year-end best-of list immediately. That title is very Drudkh-y, and although the Ukrainians made a real comeback with this year's A Furrow Cut Short, Autumn Eternal is the better atmospheric black metal album even with its hefty dose of post-rock influence. It helps that Panopticon's forays into nature are still very much new and exciting, while Drudkh have been ploughing that particular furrow for their entire career; ironically, a band that once started as a left-wing, 'Red/Anarchist Black Metal' standard-bearer seems to have become a little more conservative with age, and that (dare I say) maturity has been reflected in the music.

Each to their own, of course; I'm sure Lunn retains his views, but to me the focus on his rural homelife on Roads to the North and Autumn Eternal has made his music even better, and the atmospheric ride that this album takes you on is very much a dark-room-and-headphones experience than something for shared cathartic rage. Black metal is capable of excellence whether earthy and grounded or fantastical and escapist, and at its very best when combining the two, as here. Inspirational hikes through forests like the one on the cover art are a shared cultural meme between most black metal fans, yet few of us often get the chance to escape our urbane, concrete lifestyles and walk the forests. Us city-dwellers might as well be hearing about the surface of the moon, yet bands like Panopticon tap into something personal and sacred because unlike the surface of the moon we have all walked through ancient forests, and have all felt something profound while doing so.

Autumn Eternal taps into that, revives that subtle, sacred memory of becoming at one with a forest as the trees turn from green to that beautiful orange-red, of discovering a river, of stumbling over roots and ducking under branches – the same ancient cultural shared experience of the likes of early Ulver, which is another reason that I think Panopticon has crossed into traditional black metal territory so completely. Any experiments here are secondary to the atmospheric tug, any original bursts of personality are put to work rather than allowed to flourish in little bursts of their own. The result is an album that you embrace as a whole rather than enjoying a moment here or there. Sure, there are many moments to enjoy; not least opening track Tamarack's Gold Returns, a delicate acoustic folk piece. Yet the ensuing rush of Into the North Woods is where the album truly begins, beautiful melodies dominating the usual black elements of blastbeats and harsh vocals – Lunn has become a terrific musician, and his guitar work is as good as the undeniably epic moment of Summoning-esque keyboard grandeur towards the end of the track. The way songs flow in and out of each other seamlessly, the powerful yet unflashy drumming in the likes of the title track, it's all evidence of a well-crafted album, if not quite a perfect one.

One of my main reservations is the production, which isn't a bad one, but which puts the drums far too upfront in the mix for my liking – this isn't Crytopsy! A little more rawness would have helped the music too; although this is very nitpicky, as moments like the sample of what sounds like walking through leaves partway through Oaks Ablaze with almost proggy percussive trills sound great. It would be very unfair to mark Autumn Eternal down for these points alone, particularly when Lunn has avoided a major pitfall by making the songwriting good enough that the album doesn't feel repetitive despite the similar-styled songs. The sudden burst of aggression at the start of Sleep to the Sound of the Waves Crashing contrasts well with the bursts of melody further in the track, a maelstrom of prog-touched riffing complete with a pause for crashing waves and violin. It's completely different in effect to the following Pale Ghosts, which is equally aggressive and powerful, yet driven in a different direction with the technical drumming, almost cinematic in tone, flying above ancient forests with that note of triumph that the best black metal can have. Even the post-rock breakdown at the midpoint and echoing male choir vocals are stunning, an effect repeated with Katatonian clean vocals on the following A Superior Lament, which is a little more blackgaze-y than the rest of the album. Perhaps it's to signal a winding-down, as the following album closer The Winds Farewell opens with relatively calm post-rock strums, building into something more Isis than Immortal. That Lunn has so expertly weaved the varying elements into one fantastic whole shows his skill above all, and if he releases an album half as good as this in 2016 I won't be disappointed.

Killing Songs :
Into the North Woods, Oaks Ablaze, Sleep to the Sound of the Waves Crashing, Pale Ghosts
Goat quoted 90 / 100
Other albums by Panopticon that we have reviewed:
Panopticon - The Scars of Man on the Once Nameless Wilderness reviewed by Goat and quoted 70 / 100
Panopticon - Roads to the North reviewed by Goat and quoted 84 / 100
Panopticon - Kentucky reviewed by Koeppe and quoted 75 / 100
Panopticon - Collapse reviewed by Charles and quoted 80 / 100
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