Friends, I have been to the mountain.
And by “the mountain,” I mean I have seen Panopticon live. And by “I have been to,” I mean Austin Lunn and his live band transported the entire crowd via their fusion of post-rock and folk-infused black metal that evokes the Appalachian Mountains of Lunn’s home state of Kentucky so well.
Panopticon’s set at Migration Fest 2018 didn’t really delve into the folk and bluegrass side of the band, though, focusing mainly on the atmospheric black metal and post-rock. That was probably more of an expedient choice than anything else, given that they were playing a metal fest. But even without showcasing the unlikely combination of Appalachian folk and black metal that Lunn’s compositions pull off so flawlessly, Panopticon still stood way out from the pack.
The 2018 edition of the biennial Migration Fest, put on by 20 Buck Spin and Gilead Media, was heavy on bands that strictly employ guitars, bass, drums, and vocals. In fact, Panopticon and False were the only bands I saw that even added a synth to the mix (I guess I naively thought that synths were more common in metal nowadays than they really are; I mean, shit, Emperor showed us all how much a synthy atmosphere can bring to black metal two decades ago). A few instrumental bands on the bill, like Pelican and The Cancer Conspiracy, certainly brought some post-metal to the proceedings, but overall the vibe tended to be extremely blackened and death and doom with no letting up.
The fest was great, don’t get me wrong, but I live in Brooklyn – pretty much every metal band I could ever want to see will come through at some point. I can just sit back and let them come to me.
Panopticon, on the other hand, is more elusive. They’ve only ever played a small handful of live shows, so I figured this was my chance. The band more than made it worth the trip. Their set was at turns stirring, majestic, aggressive, and magisterial. The performance was layered, seeming to have the same depth as on the recordings. Few bands can pull that off so well in the live setting.
Even without playing any of the more Appalachian-folk-inspired songs in their repertoire, Panopticon still managed to sound nothing like any of the other bands they shared the stage with, which is exactly why I flew to Pittsburgh from NYC just to catch their set. Panopticon is not just a US black metal band but a project that uses black metal (and the occasional dose of death and progressive metal) as the main jumping off point for clear-eyed sonic exploration of the lives and times of modern man vis a vis the natural splendor we find ourselves living among and taking for granted. (It’s worth noting that Lunn grew up watching mountaintop removal and other environmental atrocities devastate his home state of Kentucky, and that he now lives in the backwoods of Minnesota and draws a lot of inspiration from his isolation in the wilderness.)
It’s always a roll of the dice when you see a band live for the first time when their recordings already mean a lot to you. A live set can make or break your perception of a band. Panopticon over-delivered in that sense, turning in a set that was perhaps even more captivating and moving than the music is on record.
The set pulled heavily from the excellent new double album, The Scars of Man on the Once Nameless Wilderness (I and II), which just came out in April. The second disc, i.e. part II of the album, is the more folky side, whereas I focuses more on the atmospheric metal. But that’s a nearly meaningless distinction, because bluegrass/folk and post-rock creep into the metal as much as post-rock and harsher textures can sometimes creep into the folk – it’s all one seamless mash-up of the diverse styles Lunn weaves into Panopticon’s music.
Panopticon’s set was heavy on black metal bangers from part I of The Scars of Man, with a couple choice cuts from the absolutely indispensable Kentucky Trilogy – Kentucky (2012), Roads to the North (2014), and Autumn Eternal (2015) – thrown in, as well. (Lunn told me before the Migration Fest set that he doesn’t like to do interviews anymore because so many journalists are intent on portraying him as some “barefoot redneck” playing black metal. That’s a shame, because based on the way the Kentucky Trilogy examines the plight of Appalachia’s coal miners and uses field recordings to further illustrate the political and cultural tensions of the region, it seems like Lunn probably has a lot of interesting things to say.)
When Panopticon had finished their set at Migration Fest, the crowd wouldn’t let them leave. This was no contrived encore, either (which is such a dumb convention and one I was glad Panopticon did not indulge in). When the band reemerged on the stage, they looked truly perplexed as to what they should play. Shoulder shrugs eventually seemed to indicate that, while they had settled on a song that they weren’t necessarily prepared to play, they could probably do it justice. That song turned out to be one of the most emotionally impactful moments from The Scars of Man, part II opener “The Moss Beneath The Snow.”
A slowly building epic of a tune that reaches a towering post-rock crescendo before falling back on a dirgey, folky passage, the song features some of Lunn’s most evocative and engaging lyrics, which might also serve as a neat encapsulation of everything Panopticon represents:
“How many more glorious winters will we survive? / There may only be a few / Perhaps we’ll never know / But the answer will haunt us / So ask the moss beneath the snow”