In summer of 2012, When Panopticon dropped the incredibly moving love letter to sole member Austin Lunn’s home state, Kentucky, it marked a notable shift in Austin Lunn’s music. Previously, works under the Panopticon banner had been politically-driven and deeply influenced by crust punk. Kentucky, on the other hand, saw Lunn shed his overt political trappings, beginning a three-part musical journey that was far more personal than anything he had written prior. That journey continued with last year’s Roads to the North, an ode to Lunn’s time in Norway, and finally comes to a close with Autumn Eternal, which is perhaps Lunn’s most cohesive and effective release yet.
Over the course of this trilogy, Panopticon has evolved. While Lunn’s music has always been a blend of American folk and atmospheric black metal, the lyrical themes and tertiary influences have morphed and shifted between each release. Panopticon might be a black metal band at first blush, but there is a complex pastiche of influences beneath the surface. This unique blend of genres made Panopticon into one of the most interesting and well-respected acts in black metal, but it’s drawn its fair share of detractors as well.
A common complaint leveled against Lunn was the sometimes inarticulate nature of the bluegrass and black metal melding. It’s been argued by some that these two sides of Panopticon’s stylistic coin clash, each vying for the listeners attention, yet neither winning. While I personally never understood nor identified with this complaint, it’s a common enough concern that it bears mentioning when discussing Panopticon’s music. To a certain extent, I can see where those feeling arise. For those who decried past Panopticon releases for that reason, you will be pleased to know that on Autumn Eternal, Lunn has once again shifted his style, removing much of the idiosyncratic bluegrass/black metal juxtaposition that some were never too keen on.
With the sole exception of the album opener, “Tamarack’s Gold Returns,” there exist no other purely “folk” tracks on the album. Even when a fiddle or cello appear Autumn it is subtle, serving in cooperation to the rest of the music. Prime examples of this is the lone violin supporting the melodic riffs of “Into the North Woods,” or the brief string interlude on “Sleep to the Sound of the Waves Crashing.” However, most of Autumn Eternal’s music is uncharacteristically devoid of folk elements, with passages of post-metal emerging to take their place.
Lunn changing up his style is nothing new. Earlier recordings had a distinct anarcho/crust punk influence, while Kentucky was just as much an American folk record as it was a black metal record. Perhaps the most notable shift up until now was Roads to the North, which was defined by a decidedly more death metal-inspired sound. Sure, it was the same epic atmospheric black metal we’ve come to expect from Panopticon, but there were moments that felt far more Gorguts than Wolves in the Throne Room, to be reductive. To apply the same sort of comparison, portions of Autumn Eternal bear a significant emotional and auditory similarities to bands like God Is An Astronaut and Isis. “Pale Ghosts” and “A Superior Lament” in particular have prolonged post-rock interludes that cascade into climactic and cinematic crescendos.
Obviously, much of the shift here is due to Lunn being the sole mind behind Panopticon; every note of every song of every album is a reflection of Lunn’s internal and external surroundings at that time. Autumn Eternal expresses Lunn’s feelings on the bespoke season, and the metaphors for change, impermanence, and hope that Autumn conjures. This is felt in the powerful, emotional riffs on the album. Titular song “Autumn Eternal” and the aforementioned tracks “Into the Woods” and “Pale Ghosts” shine with majestically moving melodies. This is something characteristic to Panopticon, and one of the many reasons the project has managed to stand out and endure in a genre that has seen its fair share of acts over the past decade. With regards to Autumn in particular, the music is memorable, but doesn’t feel hooky; it’s the conjured emotions that stick with you as much as the riffs themselves.
While Panopticon is Lunn (and visa versa), I would be remiss not to discuss the presence of Colin Marston on Autumn Eternal, whom mixed and mastered the album. Perhaps the most noteworthy aspect of Autumn’s mix is the bass tone. It’s here the iconic and unique touch of producer’s Colin Marston’s hand becomes evident. A prolific bassist himself, Marston takes the densely layered sound of Panopticon and gives it a sense of weight and space. “Oaks Ablaze,” one of the highlights of the album, has a rumbling, austere bass solo against the backdrop of a rolling timpani drum line that underlines Autumn’s post-metal touches and Marston’s mixing and mastering talents. Similarly, “Sleep To The Sound of the Waves Crashing” features a skronky bass line amid clawing guitar riffs that recall the more urgent moments of Marston’s band, Krallice. The production is effective and serves Lunn’s compositions.
In a strange way, the deviations taken on Autumn Eternal are in keeping with the nature of Panopticon; an ever-changing, growing, evolving beast. It’s hard to qualify this album against the albums that preceded it. Each on is different from the last, and brings with it its own strengths and ideas. Autumn Eternal is a beautiful and striking record that captures the fleeting joys of the season. Luckily, while Autumn only comes around once per year, we’re free to put Autumn Eternal on repeat whenever we wish.