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Have you ever watched a child sort a pile of like objects (say, crayons or building blocks)? Most adults look at their progress and feel the need to correct: "No, why don't you sort them by shape, or by color?" The hidden logic of children evades us, and in fact it almost frightens us, because to witness a child's entirely alien narration of the world around her reminds us that we used to be like that, too: free.

To the point at hand: though it certainly does violence to the rich idiosyncrasies of each artist, because of the proximity of their release and the rough similarity of their styles, it has been difficult to avoid sorting the new albums by Panopticon, Saor, and Bastard Sapling. These ones over here; those over there. The adult requires order.

Thankfully, for every sloppy heuristic and throat-clearing preamble one might throw at these albums, each one moves in its own confident orbit.

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Panopticon's Kentucky was, at least for the limited scope of extreme metal, a breakout hit. Although Austin Lunn had already made several excellent albums and splits with like-minded groups, Kentucky benefited from a host of converging factors: the increased prominence of atmospheric black metal, the continued fracturing of metal listeners into irremediably specific sub-subgenre allegiances, and a certain metal-curious slant from many traditionally non-metal media outlets. Add to all of that Kentucky's strikingly articulate engagement with its subject matter, and the result was that even outsiders to this style of music had a usual way to enter the headspace of the music.

Two years on from Kentucky, Panopticon’s latest album Roads to the North is yet another triumph, albeit on very different terms than its predecessor. Although Lunn’s patient blending of feral and atmospheric black metal with folk instrumentation continues to impress, Roads to the North coalesces nearly all of his songwriting touchstones while forging some new directions: The album follows a more careful, winding path than Kentucky; the crackling raw but pulsating, clear production from Colin Marston gives these rural elegies a more visceral weight; and most importantly, the songs benefit from a huge infusion of melodic death metal flourishes, as if Lunn had been mainlining Dark Tranquillity ca. 1996 while writing the album.

Where Kentucky felt united mostly by its righteous anger and indignant sorrow, Roads to the North feels like a single, complete journey, narrated by suggestive song titles, patient deployment of Panopticon's overflowing toolbox, and spare, intentional field recordings. As Kentucky was visited by a fellowship of ghosts, witnesses to struggles paid in blood and sweat, Roads to the North feels intimate, almost interior. Its myriad guest appearances, oddly, bolster the record's celebration of solitude, at least in how they always burn away to reveal the personal singularity at the heart of Panopticon: some steps have to be taken alone.

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Of the three acts under consideration, Bastard Sapling is the most traditionalist. In some ways, that's disappointing, given the shared membership in Inter Arma. That band's superb second album, 2013's Sky Burial, was a brilliantly composed exercise in vast stylistic diversity, careening from creaky doom rumblings to vehement black metal, and from windswept Americana to smoothly explosive Pink Floyd-isms.

Bold, confident, melodic, and yet knife-point sharp, Bastard Sapling’s second album is dense, heady, but surprisingly light on its feet. However, too often, the band seems to find a great riff or hook, only to ride it into the ground for lack of anything else to do with it. And in fact, because of its sprawl and ambition, in many ways Instinct is Forever dulls its own impact in comparison to Bastard Sapling's debut album.

Nevertheless, when the album truly hits, its impact can be staggering: The guitar soloing on "The Killer in Us All," for example, is a T-top Firebird, with the rhythm section's rockist bent massaging the blues notes into liveliness. Instinct is Forever is hardly a failure -- in fact it's quite good, on balance -- compared to the tangible emotion and fiercely restless creativity of Saor and Panopticon, it almost can't help but be overshadowed.

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Saor are also a curious case. A cynic might look at the recent resume of Andy Marshall and scoff. Saor's mainman first spent time in the underrated solo project Askival, before moving on to the unfairly dismissed Falloch. After leaving that band, Marshall strode off on his own again, forming Arsaidh. He released the album Roots under the Arsaidh name last year, but shortly thereafter announced the name change, from Arsaidh to Saor. From the skeptical outside perspective, that itinerant band history might smack of trend-chasing; after listening deeply to the albums Marshall has produced under the auspices of those various projects, however, it's difficult to interpret his restlessness as anything other than a pursuit of ever purer ways to distill his music's uniquely enrapturing sorrow.

Given Marshall's recent divagations, it would be premature to assume that Saor is a settled proposition. However, as this utterly magical album unfolds, it is undeniable that Aura is Marshall's finest work to date, across any of his projects. While Panopticon's Roads to the North may in fact be the better album, Saor's Aura is more rewarding, engaging, and heart-rendingly beautiful. And while the similarities to other such naturalistic black metal bands as Agalloch, Wolves in the Throne Room, Winterfylleth, and Wodensthrone are undeniable, Saor is actually more single-minded than any of those fellow travelers.

If you need to give Saor an easy narrative hook, the simplest thing to say is that Aura is a perfect fit alongside Northern Silence Productions' other recent releases: last year's masterful Caladan Brood debut, plus 2014 albums from Nasheim and Woods of Desolation. This means that Saor is easily identifiable as windswept, atmospheric black metal, and yet several elements set Saor apart from his labelmates. Marshall's vocals throughout Aura are delivered primarily in a distant but authoritative hoarse bellow slightly reminiscent of Drudkh. Like Panopticon, Saor's metal is graced with a variety of regionally appropriate folk instruments; however, where Panopticon's folk content is often delivered in stand-alone interludes, on Aura, Marshall pushes the rustic violin and tin whistle straight to the forefront, just as often leading the melodic charge as they are supporting the churning guitars.

But in fact, the element that truly pushes Aura over the edge into a thing of superlative beauty is the drum performance, provided by none other than Panopticon's Austin Lunn. While clearly a formidable drummer in his own work as Panopticon, with Saor, Lunn's drumming takes on a firmly commanding role. Because Saor's songs are more internally steady than Panopticon's, Lunn's drums are crucial in advancing the album's narrative thrust. Still, none of these attributes eclipses the ability that Marshall has finally mastered, which is to suspend the listener at the very precipice of emotion, and then, simply, to stay in that place. The break in album opener “Children of the Mist,” where Johan Becker’s strings roll in like a fog, is not only the most superlative moment yet put to (digital) tape in 2014; it feels like rebirth.

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And so, maybe these albums are only united by how adeptly they tap into the raw, bleeding edge of deeply felt emotion. Of course, that's one way to describe the raison d'etre of art in the first place. So, maybe these albums aren't all that alike, and in presenting them this way we run the risk of replicating those same reductive, authoritative commandments we experienced as children: "No, don't you see that these are so similar that they must be compared?"

In that sense, this is a failure. It's another attempt at imposing an artificial order on things which have their own reality. The act of criticism should be a merciless truth-telling. But when confronted with music that weaves its spell so tangibly, and so irresistibly, we can't be critics; instead, we become children -- infants, even -- drawn intuitively to forces we can't name and connections barely limned in the prelinguistic dawn. And then, we try to put it together.

Find something you love today, and put it together your damn self. Regress to wonder. Be free.

— Dan Lawrence

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