Review Summary: Don’t let the fire burn out - Austin Lunn, 2023
I’ve already hammered away on this subject a few times in past reviews, but promotional descriptions of metal albums are the worst
. You’ll usually find either sweeping claims of uniqueness to promote a release which invariably turns out to be completely generic within an established subgenre, or (even more terrible) some hilariously grandiose pronouncements of either Satanist mumbo jumbo approximately 30% more cringey than the staid religious orthodoxy it rejects or half-baked occult philosophy seemingly meant to enthrall a certain kind of pseudo-intellectual edgelord.
When perusing Panopticon’s Bandcamp page in the leadup to the release of latest LP The Rime Of Memory
, however, I didn’t expect a blurb which would make me wince in any of the above all-too-common ways. After all, Panopticon mastermind Austin Lunn has tended to come across as a thoughtful and self-aware fellow - indeed, it’s these traits which have probably helped him rise to the top of the atmospheric black metal world by ensuring the tasteful and well-executed nature of his incorporations of folk/Americana/bluegrass into his music (although those absurd drumming skills probably didn’t hurt either). But I also didn’t expect to be reading a profound treatise on life, death, and the passage of time which came quite near to making me tear up.
I mention all this not because reading this album’s self-description from the artist is essential for enjoying the record. Indeed, it’s almost certainly not - The Rime Of Memory
is rather accessible, at least for extreme metal fans, without any backstory or understanding of the themes Lunn aims to present. But, it’s still worth a note, not just because I got something profound out of reading it (and perhaps the reader will as well), but because there’s some relevance in Lunn’s ability to connect with his fellow human which flows into the raw vitality which I’ve always associated with Panopticon.
In the leadup to this album’s release, I made a point of revisiting all of Panopticon’s previous full-lengths (alongside a handful of the plethora of non-LP releases), and was struck once more by this feeling’s presence throughout - the music might be raw and ferocious at times, but you can always feel the human behind it, and with it the presence of an unbreakable sliver of hope. The other key takeaway I garnered from this exercise was a renewed appreciation of the variety of this discography - while you could pigeonhole basically everything Lunn’s ever created under the Panopticon moniker as “atmospheric black metal” and leave it at that, nearly every release finds itself a different point of view, and nearly all with substantial success.
The biggest gripe one might have about The Rime Of Memory
is that Panopticon is reaching that point in which, as a veteran act, it’s basically impossible to release an album without evoking discussion of how similar this or that moment is to a previous offering somewhere in the back catalog. And it’s true that this isn’t a record which reinvents Panopticon’s place in the world, as the project is once again in the familiar territory of melding black metal with American roots music. Instead, this is an album which feels comfortable treading in the footsteps of (incredible) releases like Roads to the North
or Autumn Eternal
, while periodically also harkening back even further to the band’s earliest moments, like the self-titled or Collapse
. It’s therefore an effort which feels less like carving out a new path than a summation of what Lunn’s done up to the point. If that’s disappointing, it probably shouldn’t be, as the result is a near-masterwork, marking notable improvement of most (if not all) of his previous attempts.
From the outset, The Rime Of Memory
manages to scratch that “cold day in the North Woods” kind of vibe Panopticon has been mining so successfully in recent years. The opener, “I Erindringens Hostlige Dysterhet”, is a forlorn little instrumental, rustic to the core, immediately pulling the listener into a creaky cabin with only a blazing fire in the wood stove to keep out the howling winds and shrieking blizzard. I mention that the opener is little, but it’s the only thing on this record which merits that description. This is a six track, seventy-five minute behemoth, although it’s paced so well and that the time passes quicker than you might think.
“Winter’s Ghost” is the second track, and an absolutely sprawling composition. In just under twenty minutes, Lunn takes us on a journey - from dreary folkiness to a ritualistic choral section to full-throated blackened cacophony and back and forth again - you get the picture. It’s a very good song, but frankly most of the (relatively minor) issues I have with this record are found here, as some of the transitions are, if not quite jarring, a little tenuous in their delivery. The good news, though, is if you like “Winter’s Ghost”, it’s hard to imagine not being blown away by the rest of this record.
Yeah, the rest of this record… These remaining four songs feel essentially like a Panopticon greatest hits, if such a thing existed. “Cedar Skeletons” is absolutely massive, a ferocious jam incorporating spoken word samples of the sort which peppered the project’s early output which then slides into the kind of serene “eye of the storm” mid-section before an earth-sundering climax which reminds me a bit of Blood Fire Death
-era Bathory in its epic-ness (plus a ridiculous guitar solo). The ensuing two tracks, “An Autumn Storm” and “Enduring The Snow Drought” are comparatively straightforward, although still fairly prodigious in length, and emphasize a gazey/hazey edge to Lunn’s brand of well-executed black metal. Meanwhile, closer “The Blue Against The White” is another stunner - fusing post-rock, folk, and triumphal black metal into a memorable finale - feeling like nothing more than a gorgeous walk through a wild and snow-blanketed forest. I suspect the song’s creator would take that as high praise.
Early in this review, I wrote about how affecting I found The Rime Of Memory
’s Bandcamp writeup. Indeed, I probably expended far too many words on the subject. But the key point to Lunn’s memorable notation is the inevitability of death and the struggle to keep living a meaningful existence, even with the knowledge that we won’t be around forever. Here, I’m not
going to make some cheesy pronouncement that albums like The Rime Of Memory
are all you need to make life worth living. But, I’ll note that Lunn already had a few transcendent albums under his belt (most notably Roads to the North
and Autumn Eternal
, by my count) which will be listened to, if not forever (not gonna bet on what happens after the sun burns itself out), at least for as long as there’s any market for atmospheric black metal records. And now I’d comfortably add The Rime Of Memory
to that stack. That realization might not stop the inexorable coming of the end, but it marks a kind of immortality nonetheless. And, if the finest pieces of art can live on in that manner, maybe our connections, our deeds, our most precious moments might live on too, in some small way, hanging in the breeze on a clear day. It’s a comforting thought, at least to me, as the coming end of the year has me feeling sentimental. Anyway, while this may or may not be Panopticon’s finest effort, it’s definitely up there. Give it a listen… Freezing temperatures, snow, and wilderness backdrop are encouraged for ideal listening conditions, but are certainly not required. The music will take you there regardless.