Last week US Black Metal underground hero Panopticon celebrated the five year anniversary of their massive and poignant third album Social Disservices. One of the darker points in the band’s discography, Social Disservices stands out among the often right-wing leaning political black metal and is an album whose message is still as vital now as it was when first released. Today, we look back on this piece of history.
Panopticon are a band that I’ve had an up-and-down relationship with. My introduction to them came when I heard the album Kentucky, since just about everyone I know was hurling praises at it. While I could certainly appreciate the many unique aspects of the music contained within Kentucky, something about it just didn’t sit well with me, and I put my interest in them on the back burner. It wasn’t until some time after the release of Roads to the North, the follow-up to Kentucky, that I re-investigated the band, and upon hearing the majestic and moving “Where Mountains Pierce the Sky” for the first time, I was a completely changed man. Seeing the band in a new light made me decide to see what I had dismissed in their previous albums, and one of the first albums in the band’s back catalog I visited was Social Disservices.
Originally released on November 2nd, 2011 on bay area label The Flenser, Social Disservices stood as a testament to the the myriad ways in which society fails some of its most vulnerable members: those institutionalized due to mental illness. Through four tracks of long-form black metal, Panopticon delivered a scathing critique on the psychiatric industrial complex and the ways in which it lines the pockets of the most wealthy at the expense of those in need of the most compassion. Rather than the sun-dappled, natural themes the band has since become known for, the album has a harsh and industrial feel to it that serves to set the mood of the stories it tells. Through Austin Lunn’s always impeccable drumming, chaotic guitars, and the melancholy of contributor John Becker’s violin, Social Disservices captures a frightening picture of the imbalance of power found within The System and deeply humanizes the stories of those who are all too often lost within it. Though the album suffered from production issues, the message contained was heard loud and clear: “Broken beaten and scarred / You sleep under the watchful eye of strangers / Profit off of your tiny back / Paying the bills of philanthropists”.
Since the album’s release, Panopticon have evolved from being a reclusive one-man project to playing their first live show ever earlier this year at Migration Fest. During that time, Social Disservices, along with an earlier compilation album On the Subject of Mortality, got the deluxe reissue treatment. Painstakingly re-recorded and remixed by Spencer Morris and mastered by none other than Colin Marston, the album finally achieves the sound it was initially supposed to convey according to Panopticon main man Austin Lunn. The added polish helps to clean up the fuzziness of the guitar tracks and bring clarity and balance to the instrumentation, especially in tracks such as “Subject”, where the additional bass frequencies and breathy touches of reverb give the added emotional depth to the midsection of the song that were desperately missing from the original version.
There is still much we as a society can learn from stories like those presented in Social Disservices. In much of society, mental illness is either met with profound misunderstanding at best or contempt at worst. The only way to move past this is to see the humanity in those who suffer, and this starts by knowing their stories. Social Disservices is not meant to be pretty; it is a challenging listen, but coming out the other side you will hopefully find the understanding necessary to make a difference in the world.
Never give in, never give up