Album Review: Panopticon – The Scars of Man on the Once Nameless Wilderness

My wife (the Empress) recently had me listen to an episode of her favorite podcast “Last Podcast on the Left”, because they did a deep dive into the storied and sordid history of Norwegian Black Metal. I knew a fair amount of the backstory (Dead’s suicide, Euronymous taking pictures of his dead body, Varg Vikernes being a pseudo-Nazi and killing Euronymous), but I learned a lot about how absurd the attitude around black metal was around the time of its formation. After all, these were just a bunch of moody teenagers who got into a game of one ups-manship that escalated to the point of church burnings and murder. But once the evil ball got rolling, bands just keep falling in line, and pretty soon you had a genre wholly reliant on Satanism (or at the very least, anti-Christianity) and the desire to commit “evil”.

While the story was fascinating, I still have to admit that I’ve never really liked Mayhem, or Burzum, or Emperor, or any of the other “pioneers” of Black Metal in Europe. The whole “evil” motif always seemed so forced and artificial. I would much rather the darkness of the artist come through in their music than in how they may portray themselves. Which, if you’ve managed to stick with this intro long enough without abandoning to go watch porn or something (Thanks!), is my long-winded way of saying that America’s own Austin Lund, the driving force and sole member of Panopticon, is everything I’ve ever wanted in a Black Metal musician. Leaving behind all the pretension and posturing that seems ever-present in the European Black Metal Scene (and if thinking that makes me not True KVLT, then so-fucking be it), Lund has created yet another American Black Metal classic with his most recent release, The Scars of Man on the Once Nameless Wilderness.

I’m don’t believe I’d ever run across an album with instructions before, but I discovered this snippet from Lund on the band’s Bandcamp page right before my first listen:

This is the full two disk, 2 hour long album sequenced as one long record, as it was meant to be heard. Please don’t listen to the album on your laptop speakers, it will sound like shit. Give it a shot on a long hike or by a fire with headphones. The first half of the album is atmospheric metal, the second half is more americana focused, so beware if you hate country/folk. 
cheers 
-A 

For such a vivid, complex, insanely layered work, this succinct description sums it up rather nicely. First off, under no circumstances listen to this on your laptop, or on shittyPanopticon car speakers, or on an antiquated boom box on the subway while people are just trying to get to work in solitude. Panopticon, after all, as an extreme black metal band, and as such are throwing literally all the notes possible at you all at once. Listening to this record in anything other than ideal conditions will be like listening to TV static for an hour, followed by a country record. And that doesn’t sound fun, does it?

(Speaking of which, for the purpose of this review I’m only considering the first album. For a folk/country album the second disk is fantastic, but I don’t, and won’t pretend to, know country and/or folk nearly well enough to pass judgment on the quality)

As far as giving it a listen on a long hike or by a fire? FUCKING DO IT!!! I hate nature. I grew up in the suburbs, I’m allergic to grass, I have an irrational fear of horses, anything with more than four legs terrifies me, and yet this album made me want to venture out into the wild depths of New Jersey’s wilderness on a journey to find both myself and a level of peace that only isolation in nature can provide. I would never, under any circumstances, do that, but this album makes me want to! Lund’s passion and love for nature is omnipresent in not only this record, but in all of his works. He does this not only through the lyrics, but through the ambient noise throughout the album. In both the softer, more contemplative moments, and the balls-to-the-wall hysteria of the most vicious black metal sections, there always seems to be the call of nature somewhere in the background. It’s an amazing achievement by Lund, and one that show how passionate he is not only about his music, but about the land he writes about.

Even if you’re not open to a new appreciation of nature through the lyrical and melodic content of the record (and fuck you if you’re not, try to be open minded next time), Lund is second-to-none when it comes to crafting atmospherically rich but insanely layered black metal, the likes I’ve never heard from this or the other side of the pond. Whereas I typically feel comfortable writing a review of a record after 2-3, listens, I’m up to 8 now on The Scars of Man on the Once Nameless Wilderness, and I’m still not sure even as I’m writing this whether I’m truly ready to pass any sort of judgment on this work. Lund explores every available inch of the black metal on this album, with a sound that bounces between nightmarish and serene with ease, but never settles into anything repetitive (and for Black Metal, that’s saying something).

With a vocal delivery that (fittingly) falls somewhere in line with a Grizzly Bear devouring a small woodland critter, Lund manages to incorporate a fair amount of melodic elements on the record, be it through the small, folk-laden intros to “A Ridge Where the Tall Pines Once Stood” and “Snow Burdened Branches” or some or the guitar parts in “Blatimen” and “The Singing Wilderness”. For every ounce of aggression and menace (and don’t be confused, this record is one of the heaviest albums I’ve ever dug into), there is an equal and opposite measure of tenderness, perhaps even designed to represent the duality of the wilderness that he so openly cherishes.

Perhaps the only thing holding this record back is the fact that Lund, and therefore Panopticon, are possible too good at making music. As much as I’ve loved diving deep into the album, it still hasn’t, and probably never will, quite reach the level of his finest work, Kentucky. And that is no slight to Lund himself, as with The Scars of Man on the Once Nameless Wilderness he is now responsible for the three greatest albums in American Black Metal, and possibly in the genre throughout the world. His previous success doesn’t sully the fact that this record is an amazing achievement, full of not only wonderfully crafted music, but full of obvious passion by the creator.

GRADE: A-

HIGHLIGHT TRACKS

“Sheep in Wolves Clothing”, “En hvit ravns dod”

Jumping to Conclusions: The Faceless – In Becoming a Ghost

I’ve never really listened to The Faceless, and all that I really know about them is that The Facelessthey don’t subscribe to the Black Eyed Peas’ beliefs on drama (no no drama, no no no no drama). So I delved into In Becoming a Ghost with a clear mind and a full heart, not knowing what to expect.

Part prog and part tech death, the Faceless manage to do both genres pretty well, but leave a little bit to be desired on both accounts. Newcomer Ken Sorceron (of Abigail Williams fame) nails the growls, bringing a harsh counterpoint to the sterile precision of the music. Founding member Michael Keene, however, doesn’t deliver to the same degree with his clean vocals, which occasionally come across as thin and nasally.

The music is very interesting, but I feel like the weakest points are when the band tries too hard to be “proggy”. The flute solo on “Digging the Grave”, for example, feels wildly out of place and only detracts from the phenomenal musicianship of the track. While I’m sure the band wanted to experiment, they are more than creative enough with their songwriting that the additional bells and whistles are just unnecessary (except for the organ part on “Shake the Disease”, which is absolutely fantastic).

That being said, hot damn can these guys write a fun metal track. They never fall too far into full on guitar wankery (a common failing of many prog records), instead keeping their writing tight and furious while still experimenting with odd time signatures and uncommon sounds.

The album intrigues me enough that I will definitely spend some time going back through their discography to see what I’ve been missing, but it falls short in a few easy to fix areas (points also taken off for “(Instru)Mental Illness”, which may be the worst song title I’ve ever seen).

GRADE: B-

HIGHLIGHT TRACKS

“Digging the Grave”, “Shake the Disease”, “The Terminal Breath”