Despite their colorful names, it’s hard to think of two genres that are further apart stylistically than black metal and bluegrass.
Black metal is known for its stark, barren brutality — tremolo-picked guitars and blast beat drums are topped off with shrieked vocals howled like the winds of a cold, cold world. Bluegrass, by contrast, is sunny and warm — banjos, fiddles and folk singing welcomes the listener around a fire.
These styles shouldn’t work together. But apparently no one ever told Kentucky-based act Panopticon that, because it just released an incredible record blending the sounds.
The Louisville one-man-band, comprised solely of Austin Lunn, released its two-part “The Scars of Man on the Once Nameless Wilderness” last Friday, and its hard for me to stress how engrossing this record is.
The two halves of the record fall pretty neatly into two sides of a line. The first half is comprised mostly of atmospheric black metal, while the second half is bluegrass and country. There are moments on each half that either foreshadow or call back to the sounds of the other half, but for the most part, the separation is fairly absolute.
And while I admit my description makes it sound like you’ll essentially be listening to just two separate albums, I would argue there’s a far deeper concept here that makes the album much more cohesive than two albums of opposite genres slapped together.
Despite the stark contrast in sound between black metal and bluegrass, I would argue they’re linked by one thing: The two genres are deeply rooted in the natural world.
Going back to the genre’s roots in Norway, black metal musicians have always been obsessed with the darkness of Norwegian woods, and the music they produced always struck me as what nature would sound like if it were made into music.
Black metal doesn’t represent the peace of nature; it represents the wolves that stalk their prey in the night. The screeched vocals are as animalistic as can be.
Bluegrass, though, represents nature harnessed; it’s the story of the farms, the hill people, the people whose hands are caked with mud from work.
And when you consider this record’s title, “The Scars of Man on the Once Nameless Wilderness,” the connection seems clear: The two halves of the record are the two halves of history, before man took over nature and after.
On Lunn’s Bandcamp page, he dedicates the album to Sigurd Olson, an American environmentalist dedicated to wilderness preservation. On the record, Lunn seems to mimic the slow rise of humanity in that wilderness.
The first half is fairly traditional Norwegian-inspired atmospheric black metal. The emphasis, though, is on the atmosphere.
Lunn’s music under the Panopticon name has never been as brutal as other black metal acts, even when held up to the somewhat more peaceful standard used by American bands in the genre. But here, his black metal sounds positively lush.
His guitar playing sounds like a force of nature. Unlike many other black metal acts, his guitar work practically soars above the mix with triumphant swells, but, like an owl plunging after its catch, its brought plummeting back to earth by the darkness of the pummeling drums and Lunn’s growly, screamed vocals.
There’s no getting around the darkness of the first half of the record. It follows the true meaning of the word sublime, where the wonder of nature inspires horror, not amazement. However, Lunn does this in true black metal fashion: Guitar parts frequently loop back onto themselves, creating music that’s contemplative in its repetitious ferocity, like a mantra for vikings.
Things become far more subdued on the record’s second half. Its opening track, “The Moss Beneath the Snow,” acts as a transitional piece. Starting off with some of the same black metal trappings of the first half of the record, the song slowly transitions into a piece dominated by banjos and fiddles.
Then, after nearly 10 minutes of this track (and an hour of screaming on the first half), we hear the first traditionally sung vocals. Lunn begins singing about the falling of the last of the snow.
To me, this track represents the rise of humanity in nature. After the bulk of the album’s runtime being dominated by the brutality of nature, it slowly transitions into man’s relationship with it.
However, Lunn’s relationship with mankind seems to be a mournful one. Lunn’s bluegrass is never of the foot-stomping variety; this is music that is chiefly about loss.
Lunn’s pain seems to be stemming from the loss of nature. After spending numerous hours listening to this record, something shocking occurred to me: The bluegrass half is far more depressing than the black metal half.
Lunn’s experimentation with Americana is longing to return to a previous state of nature, which is obvious when considering the album’s dedication to Olson. Meanwhile, despite the brutality of the black metal, there’s never a negative judgment call on the brutality of nature — the owl catching the rabbit is neither good nor bad; it just is.
The music on “The Scars of Man on the Once Nameless Wilderness” is beautifully punctuated by nature sounds, like the hoots of owls, the calls of whip-poor-wills, the running of waterfalls. Lunn seems keen on giving his music a sense of place, and the album’s production beautifully accomplishes that, with the music being given room to breathe in a remarkable way.
On Panopticon’s Bandcamp page, Lunn gives instructions on how best to enjoy the record:
“This is the full two disk, 2 hour long album sequenced as one long record, as it was meant to be heard,” he writes. “Please don’t listen to the album on your laptop speakers, it will sound like sh*t. Give it a shot on a long hike or by a fire with headphones.”
And while I have to admit, I didn’t get the chance to listen in the way he suggested, I eagerly look forward to the opportunity, because it’s about the only thing that will make this beautiful record more beautiful.