Panopticon Returns to The Light (Review + Interview)
Growth is not linear. It cascades and plummets and courses—and the same hurdles rise again and again after being conquered. ...and Again into the Light is a portrait of the perseverance necessary in order to bloom on such a convoluted path. Panopticon, Austin Lunn's solo black metal project, chronicles his self-development journey from the unsightly bayous to the fleeting peaks of self-acceptance on his tenth studio album. He, by good will or by example, imparts hope. He promises that there is a reason to strive and suffer. He was also gracious enough to answer some of our questions regarding the importance of the environment on his music, folk musician and songwriter John Prine's passing, and using music to facilitate recovery.
...and Again into the Light is Lunn’s return to a conventional structure in terms of a Panopticon release. Lunn separated his scalding metal offerings and bluegrass-inspired americana into two distinct halves on his previous album, 2018’s The Scars of Man on the Once Nameless Wilderness. Here he reassembles them, and in the process himself, along with an elevated indulgence in ambient and post-rock and their inherent crescendos, spoken word samples, and patience.
The Scars of Man on the Once Nameless Wilderness’ splendor was Lunn’s verbosity in the wide spreading spores of country music with the anguish nascent to black metal. He displayed a literacy in folk, twangy bluegrass, Denver sound grit, and backwoods hospitality. His gruff voice was as weighty as his charred black metal howls. He maintained the melancholy and delicacy found in the long shadow cast by the likes of John Prine.
Even though Lunn revisits many Panopticon tentpoles, he’s more adept at conveying jarringly different segregations with the same sentiments. ...and Again into the Light is Panopticon’s most mature record in that it’s his most cohesive. Each tangent deepens a larger thematic coherence -- everything is anchored in the same mire. The consistency draws from Lunn’s re-examination of every facet of his craft through congealing them again. The somber mid-album track "As Golden Laughter Echoes" reflects the same fragility he rages against in the four preceding metallic landslides. It’s a moment to inhale and admire Lunn’s progress, and that it sits in the middle of the album before the two most journeyman tracks indicates that the mountain of recovery is gargantuan but not without its gorgeous vantage points.
Lunn draws more from post-rock here if not just in presentation, but in underlying prowess. Post-rock’s latent cinematic structure lends itself to Lunn’s exploration of his own growth. The violins and mandolins that formerly dashed about in chaos now accentuate Lunn’s emotional odyssey through swelling and sustaining notes. They provide shape to pieces, freeing the guitars and drums to indulge in the murky waters of black metal. ...and Again into the Light has a rounder sound as the strings operate as an atmospheric cradle.
Along with this heightened interest in airiness is Lunn’s vocals -- they’ve always been a highlight due to Lunn favouring grounded throatiness over wretched scowls. His howls on ...and Again into the Light are more jagged, more human. Sadly, his gruff Americana delivery from The Scars of Man on the Once Nameless Wilderness is abandoned, but its spirit is repurposed. Lunn is weathered, ripping the soul from his body and barring it for all to study.
For all the record's beauty, Lunn is equally as destructive. He reaches not just lofty peaks -- like the cathartic closer "Know Hope" -- but dirties his fingers as he claws his way out of the subterranean. "Moth Eaten Soul" finds Lunn thrashing in some of the heaviest moments of the album. It’s him at his most depraved; he bellows in a register closer to death metal as guitars sludge through the mix. Through the admittance of his failings, ...and Again into the Light is that much more inspirational. The album's bulk is a black metal rampage, but Lunn’s take has always been more tangible. His earthiness is more tangible than the genre’s sometimes otherworldly qualities. A cleaner production adds punch to his tapping guitars and impressive kit work. Despite its post-rock influence's floatiness and the swelling of the violins, there’s a thick slack line to grasp onto, following Lunn out of the pit.
Lunn succeeds by inspiring humanity -- at the end of ...and Again into the Light he stands panting, coated with sweat, up on the mountain, promising that the climb isn’t over. Not only is this record Panopticon’s purest vision to date, it’s his most mature because Panopticon isn’t growing for himself. He realizes to better take care of those around him, he has to better take care of himself and become a better man. He imparts the desire to grow, to hope, and to love—to find joy in whatever you can.
In a new interview below, Austin Lunn discusses his new album's personal nature, his desire to be a better person, and Panopticon's growth.
How did the double album, more focused yet segregated halves of The Scars of Man on the Once Nameless Wilderness affect the way you reintegrated your influences into one sound on ...and Again Into the Light?
The double album was a chance to isolate and explore things I had wanted to spend more time in. Sure, Panopticon is a novelty band to a lot of folks and they just want me to toss some banjo on a song and move on… but it’s not a gimmick to me. So when I write, I think about the feeling I want to convey and choose an appropriate voicing to convey that emotion. The music often comes before or separately from the lyrics.
With ...and Again Into the Light there was a lot of darkness and internal struggle I wanted to convey, so I chose a deeper, darker tone for the music overall… and production wise, I wanted a heavier, clearer and more polished sound.I felt like that was the best way to show the introspection and cumbersome contemplation of the album.
You mention John Prine in the album’s liner notes; what did he mean to you and to ...and Again Into the Light?
John Prine’s music has had a profound influence on me over the past several years. I didn’t start listening to him until about eight years ago or so, but his stories, his characters, his lyrical devices are so profound… say so much about the human experience and condition.
In dark times, over the years, his levity and wisdom has been a tremendous source of relief for me… it helped soothe my anxiety and frustration about a world that is just hard to understand sometimes, and when it is understood it is often disappointing.
His death from COVID-19 was a really hard blow to music fans all over the world. At a time when his voice would have provided comfort and rest from all the uncertainty and strife, he passed away.
I obviously didn’t know John Prine. But I felt his loss in the same way I would an old friend. And I know many others felt the exact same way. It’s a testament to just how powerful his heart and his music were.
...and Again into the Light’s exploration of mental health recalls your past album Social Disservices. How did the disillusionment in mental health care (discussed on Social Disservices) interplay with the personal narrative of ...and Again Into the Light?
…and Again Into the Light is not a political album or social critique in the way that previous albums I have done are. There are certainly moments that I talk about emotional issues in a broader, more “general critique of human behavior and society” kind of way, but for the most part the album was literally me processing my own feelings, disappointments and failures. Lyrically the concept of the album is kind of related to the song “The Pit” from my split with Aerial Ruin… it was written in the pit. Written in dark places and trying to get out. Trying like hell to do what’s right but not being sure what right IS and how to get there. Like being so deep underwater and disoriented that you don’t know which way to swim to get to the surface. So I used the album to write my way out of it… to find my way back to the light again after being lost in the dark and disoriented for a few years.
You’ve mentioned before about how important nature is to your music. Having lived in Norway and the States how do you think the differing nature of each informs their brand of black metal?
My friend Tanner [Anderson, Obsequiae] has always said that Panopticon is "regional metal" because I tend to write about and be inspired by where I live. The music has always reflected the places I have been spending my time. I think that’s a pretty common thread in this music… so many bands I know sound more like the places they live than they do the albums that influence them. I know my music changed profoundly when I moved away from Kentucky to Minnesota… and I am sure that if I were to move from Minnesota there’d be another big change in the sound again, too.
You've also mentioned the bogs on the cover of ...and Again Into the Light as being central to the album’s concept of growth. Most natural influence isn’t drawn from the earthy muck in metal. Usually it’s drawn from the mountains and the trees. Did you take more inspiration from the bogs and swamps this time around?
Absolutely…this album has a lot of struggle and strife in it. Like treading through a bog, being absolutely harassed by mosquitoes and black flies…as some call it, summer vacation in Minnesota. Jokes aside, bog plants are some of the most beautiful and fascinating in Minnesota. The tamarack trees, the black spruce, the pitcher plants, arctic cotton grass (featured on the cover along with the tamaracks) , the Peat moss, many species of carnivorous plants and many bog flowers, it’s astoundingly beautiful… there’s such deep metaphor in it… if you tread upon it, your footprints will remain in the moss for many many years…our very presence is damaging to its beauty… so we mustn’t try to possess it, but rather admire it from afar… I feel like so much in life is like that. In our struggle to take hold of this life, we damage it.
There’s an inherent optimism in ...and Again Into the Light, an urgency to thrive. You mention wanting to fill the hearts of others with hope. In some way is this you giving yourself the guidance you want to hear?
Without hope, why get up in the morning? I feel that there is so much darkness in the world… and as I have said many times before in my albums and in interviews…I have no interest in being a purveyor of darkness and gloom… I think those things have their purpose, but in the end, there has to be a reason to keep on striving for the dawn… to keep on pushing through.
You’ve said you don’t publish lyrics because of how personal the subject matter is. How do you maintain a healthy veil between listener and expression?
I am selective about my lyrics… I have published many… some I keep to myself because they are very personal to me. Some of the best lyrics I have written were too personal to publish. Maybe after I am dead and gone, someone will share them. Who knows.
A lot of the time my lyrics are veiled in so much metaphor that if people read them, they’d think I was a crazy person anyways.
How do you feel about putting out such personal music and knowing others will hear it and be granted a window into your experiences?
That’s always a weird thing to deal with, but honestly I don’t know any other way to be. Music is a very personal expression for me, so I write about what I feel whether it be personal or political. As Guy Clark so famously sang in a song his wife, Susanna Clark, wrote: “It’s gotta come from the heart if you want it to work.”
I get a lot of emails and letters from people, as well as meeting people in person, that share the stories of their lives and experiences and oftentimes how the music has contributed to their lives in a positive way. I try my best to respond to them all..I certainly want to express my gratitude for being given a chance to be an ear for the people who have been one to me. There have been times that I have been ready to throw in the towel on this project and letters like these give me a push I need to keep going…the validation I need to push forward.
You’ve said before certain bands (like Blood of the Black Owl) have specific instances and circumstances where you’re supposed to listen to their music. What would be the optimal way to experience the new Panopticon record?
I would say the best way to hear it is on a long hike or walk with headphones on. Or by a fire… but of course, playing the LP creates some difficulty for those scenarios. But it's a bit of a dramatic and emotional album… not really a "drinking beers with your buddies" record.
You’ve spoken of being a very southern person moving to the North. Now that you’ve got a full, firm life up North how does that geography influence Panopticon differently?
Well, as I’m writing this, I am visiting my family in Bowling Green, Kentucky. My wife and sons and I drove down from Minnesota to reunite with my family now that we have all been vaccinated. We stayed a night in Louisville, where I lived for a decade and on the drive from there to Bowling Green, it occurred to me how profoundly this landscape affected me… and how much my music and artwork has changed since moving to Minnesota. Bekah’s photography has changed so much…I feel like living up north has changed us as PEOPLE. In many ways for the better but in many ways for the worse. I think my musical perspective has certainly become more atmospheric, colder sounding… less about frantic moments and busy riffs and solos… more about mood and feeling…. also a lot more keyboards.
What led to the use of loon imagery and samples on ...and Again into the Light?
The last couple of albums and our live shows have had lots of loon samples on them… to me they are the iconic bird of the North woods, and a bird whose haunting call and beautiful appearance is something I really treasure. I very much associate loons with some of the most beautiful places I have ever been.
You’ve mentioned the Nieztsche quote on the inside of Death's The Sound of Perseverance a few times: “And if you gaze for long into an abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.” That album was Chuck Schuldiner’s way of working through his own demons. With that perspective what does that quote mean to you?
All of life’s lessons come with a price…
We may learn a lesson, and things may get better in the end…
So that’s the trade off…life experience for exhaustion… wisdom for innocence.
There may be a happy ending to our stories…
but we paid for that with little pieces of our souls and we will never get those back.