Panopticon: A Band Where the Epic Riffs Still Play

Theodore Roosevelt, that Presidential champion of America’s natural wonders, once remarked after camping at Yosemite National Park that “It was like lying in a great solemn cathedral, far vaster and more beautiful than any built by the hand of man.” This sentiment positions nature at the level of a great, universal spirit, a metaphorical representation of the divine  and Yosemite as one of its finest houses of worship. It’s a bold statement, one that touches on the great debt that we owe to our natural world, which has the power to both nurture and obliterate us.

Austin Lunn has always been bold. His use of banjo and other non-metal instruments in black metal has set Panopticon apart from many other USBM acts, and from orthodox black metal in general. But Panopticon’s sound cannot simply be reduced to “black metal with Americana stuff mixed in.” There’s shades of shoegaze and post-rock that creep in as well, as the riffs to a song like “Into the North Woods” clearly show.

But Lunn’s also a bold advocate for nature and the environment as well, in a way that goes beyond just ripping off Bergtatt, slapping some pines on the album cover, and stringing lyrics together about “like, trees and lakes, yo.” On his latest release, The Scars of Man on the Once Nameless Wilderness (I and II), he takes perhaps his boldest and yet most practical move ever. He uses a double album format to dedicate an entire album’s worth of material each to black metal and to country/folk (with some post-rock there too). In this way, he lets his passions truly spread their wings and soar: the black metal is heavy, packed with awesome riffs, and rich with the atmosphere the style demands; the Americana music is soulful, enthralling and earnest.

In short, the album is meant to make the listener reflect on how critical the embrace of nature is to us individually, and as a civilization. Just as there’s two different styles on display here, Lunn’s messaging serves a dual purpose. We need to take time to enjoy, explore and be rejuvenated by a walk in the woods or a quiet moment by the sea. It’s what allows us to thrive and stay in touch with our place in the world (or even the universe). However, we cannot take the forests, lakes and open fields for granted or be so present in nature that we spoil it.

Engaging with this double-album is very thought-provoking indeed. It suggests the need to stay in touch with nature and not allow our cities of concrete to lead us to despair (particularly on the haunting “The Wandering Ghost”), or the maintenance of them to require so many resources that we destroy our natural inheritance. But it cannot mean a complete disavowal of modern civilization altogether. After all, recorded music requires guitars, drums, microphones, and studio equipment or at least a computer. If we think these things should be made widely available, this requires mass production, which requires a plant to exist somewhere, places for people to live near that plant, hospitals to treat them when they get sick, and so on. And of course, all of this requires electricity.

I don’t bring this up to contradict Lunn’s message here, but to try and add another dimension to it. A sort of careful separation from nature may be the key to allowing it to survive. As an article in CityLab describes, “by concentrating their populations in smaller areas, cities and metros decrease human encroachment on natural habitats,” and “Denser settlement patterns yield energy savings; apartment buildings, for example, are more efficient to heat and cool than detached suburban houses.” But the character of that settlement still matters, as is how we maintain it. To that very point, the inspiration for this album, Sigurd Olson, helped to draft the 1964 Wilderness Act, which states that “A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” The act even seeks to establish the wilderness as an “enduring resource” and to preserve “outstanding opportunities for solitude or a primitive and un-confined type of recreation.”

I highly recommend you take this album with you on your next outstanding opportunity for solitude.