Panopticon – Roads to the North
It was difficult for me to conceive, in the lead-up to Panopticon's latest effort Roads to the North, that this new album could live up to the towering bar set by Kentucky. For me, Kentucky was the rare album containing not just musical prowess but also personal and spiritual relevance. It was magical and lyrical and spoke to me in ways which went beyond "this is beautiful" and became "this is real and potent." So, naturally, I approached Roads with hesitancy. Granted, I didn't expect it to be a Cold Lake-style disaster; Panopticon mastermind Austin Lunn is too creative and has too much integrity to simply phone one in. I just worried that it would be only good, a satisfying album disappointing only in that it was not as personally meaningful as I found Kentucky to be.
And yet, here Lunn has managed another album I relate to entirely, once again linking music and atmosphere to tell stories of home. However, Roads succeeds by using a similar musical template as Kentucky to tell a new story. If Kentucky was about the love of home, Roads is about travel and forging a new life in another place. To go deeper, one is the memories of a life spent in the bluegrass, the other is what happens when you leave those memories behind.
Lunn's inspiration for this album was his recent relocation from Kentucky to Minnesota. I too have recently relocated from the bluegrass, having traded the hills of Kentucky for the mountains of North Carolina. Roads, then, has a sense of bittersweet longing, of the heartache of leaving coupled with the rush of adventure. Conceptually, this is a logical response to the down-home feel of Kentucky.
Of course, Lunn has not faltered at all on the musicianship front. The music here remains distinctly Panopticon, and uses much the same folk/metal (not folk-metal) foundation as Kentucky. But Roads is a different album, so there are different sounds: rather than bluegrass, Lunn incorporates elements of Americana and European folk. Again, there's banjo, dobro, flute, and fiddle, but it's a more winsome combination, more of a melancholy rushing sensation than the familiar strains of home.
Still, this is a metal album, and Lunn loves his metal. In particular, Roads brings a more viking metal approach to the traditionally crust/black metal Panopticon sound. There are parts on the first two tracks that sound downright Enslaved-like, and I'm sure I'm not the only one who can hear elements of Galar on the final track, "Chase the Grain." (Those strings! How did he do that?) That these disparate threads are woven together into a cohesive work is, as always, entirely impressive.
In short, this is a different album than Kentucky, and cannot be considered in the same way. This is a story about a journey, not a story about a static place; a travelogue rather than a still life. Like travel, it is sometimes vigorous and sometimes sorrowful, but always in motion. There's a vitality in Roads to the North. I will be very, very interested to see where down this lonesome road the future leads.