“Whoever puts a hand on me to govern me is a usurper and a tyrant. I declare him my enemy.”
— Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, Les Confessions d’un Révolutionnaire, 1849.
“I will surrender my heart to no one but me/ There are only a few things that I believe: that people are born free and slavery is murder/ property is theft and government is tyranny: anarchy is liberty.”
— Austin L Lunn, Flag Burner, Torch Bearer, 2008
At the ugliest end of the black metal spectrum you’ll find a cankerous carbuncle of über-hostile hatemongering. It doesn’t matter who you are, or what your situation in life is, there’s a black metal artist who hates you with a brimstone-reeking passion for having the temerity to exist. For black metal fans of a tolerant and broad-minded disposition, those invidiously prejudiced philosophies can make the genre an ethical minefield. Listening to it often requires reconciling the genre’s misanthropy with your own moral compass.
Black metal’s malicious and challenging temperament is what makes it so enjoyable. It’s the perfect forum in which to indulge the more abhorrent side of your nature, rage against the hypocrisy and stale values of the modern world, and revel in some good old blasphemy. I love black metal; I love old school, second wave, avant, post, experimental and bile-ridden black metal. But there’s a point at which the cathartic enters the realm of the offensive — that point being different for every listener.
There are as many reasons to enjoy black metal as there are controversial black metal bands. To assuage ethical dilemmas, you can draw a line between those bands you’ll listen to and those you deem too offensive, and there are plenty of less conscience-troubling bands to choose from. However, doing so disregards many provocative artists and a raft of seminal and classic albums, whose influence has been fundamental to the genre’s very existence. Many black metal fans rationalize incendiary choices by separating the artist from the art, while others argue whether that’s even possible. It’s a hotly debated ethical position, as are the ‘I just dig the music’ and ‘you can’t hear the lyrics anyway’ arguments. Enjoying controversial work in any form clearly validates the artistry involved; whether that in turn gives tacit approval to inflammatory beliefs is the larger question.
That said, black metal is not, by any means, a homogeneous genre — ideologies of every hue, modulation, cadence and tone battle it out. There are myriad forms of Satanism, nihilism and nationalism, and many bands focus their gaze on honoring the stylistic and theatrical influence of the genre’s forbears. However, plenty of other acts are more ideologically open-minded and musically progressive, tackling issues around self-identity, ecology, religion and politics. They may also share a deep appreciation of the importance of black metal’s heritage, but are not bound by the ligatures of its history.
On The Subject of Morality
In the more accommodating spheres of black metal you find artists like Austin Lunn, creating music that is as barbaric and brutal as the very best, but also heartening and inspirational. Lunn is a multi-instrumentalist who records with a number of different bands (Kólga, Seidr, Agnosis, and Throndt), but his solo work with Panopticon has drawn much acclaim, offering a vastly different ethical platform to many of the genre’s frostier bands.
Panopticon falls roughly under the banner of atmospheric black metal, blending its shrieking pitch-black tumult with field recordings, bluegrass, blues, post-rock, folk, doom and sampled dialogue. Panopticon is aligned with black metal stylistically, but a diverse range of inspirations appears in its work. Artists as varied as Mono, Weakling, Neurosis, Townes Van Zandt, Earl Scruggs, and Amebix all leave a mark.
Although ‘black’ is the most obvious tag to affix to Panopticon’s strain of metal, Lunn swears allegiance to no form or style: “I am out to find my own voice and do my own thing.” If that sounds like an artist willing to explore unprejudiced alternatives, there’s an important reason for that. Lunn is an anarchist, and Panopticon is an expression of his ideology–he critiques society’s failings within a framework of black metal.
Anarchist black metal’s orientation is distinctly different to that of the genre’s orthodox side, serving as a riposte to some of the most odious agendas. Bands from the anarchist black metal scene are commonly grouped together with their Marxist, eco-anarchist and left-wing comrades under the Red and Anarchist Black Metal (RABM) banner. RABM was born from the intersection of anarcho-crust political theories and black metal, although, like any multifaceted collective, the tale contains many differing threads of thought and action. Many of the scene’s bands are overtly political, with clear manifestos (Iskra, Panopticon and Skagos, among others), while others are only tangentially linked and would not necessarily endorse or acknowledge an affiliation with RABM (for example, some Cascadian black metal acts, and the eco-heavy Wolves in the Throne Room).
As you’d expect, RABM encompasses a broad range of ideas. However, its primary focus is on the need to reconnect and engage — be that with each other, our communities, issues of social justice, or the environment. This is in stark contrast to the bitterest orthodox black metal, which suggests the annihilation of the bulk of humanity is required to bring about its end goals (whatever they may be).
Panopticon’s counter argument to the issues it sees plaguing black metal and the wider community is not swathed in hate — anger yes, and astronomical amounts of it, but not hate, per se. Rather, Lunn spells out an alternative view of society without resorting to the pitilessness of black metal, which is a crucial difference in Panopticon’s approach. Many of the ideas that Panopticon exposes its fans to are new, completely foreign to the black metal scene ’till it arrived to discuss them so explicitly.
To adapt the old adage: the issue with presenting radically new ideas in black metal is that, for all the genre’s nonconformity, it’s not averse to spitting reactionary tacks when artists step outside the prevailing standards of its nonconformity. For this reason, it’s always been crucial that Panopticon balances its ideological stance with enough pugnacious metal to keep the music enticing.
Over the course of four full-length and four split LP releases, Panopticon’s works have grown exponentially more ambitious in scope. Early split releases with Lake of Blood in 2009, Wheels Within Wheels in 2009, and When Bitter Spring Sleeps in 2010, were all sublime works, disgorging detonating tirades. Then, Panopticon’s contributions to 2011’s Skagos and Wheels Within Wheels splits took its buzzsaw blur and blast into more picturesque territories. But it’s on Panopticon’s full-length releases that Lunn has been able to articulate his vision with the most lucidity.
“Worship false idols/Currency in our veins / The bow breaks in this ship of fools. Capitalism enslaves.”
— Panopticon, “Flag Burner, Torch Bearer”
There was no chance of misinterpreting Lunn’s political accent on Panopticon’s self-titled debut. First track “Intro” set out the manifesto explicitly, mixing tribal percussion and sampled protest dialogue. Over a pitch-black abyss of crusty metal Lunn’s clear-cut lyrical slant reflected an artist with a remarkably open heart. Although Panopticon was bleak, it was also expansive and mottled with differing textures; its gloom lit by a torch of hope.
Incorporating themes of greed, subjugation and ecological destruction, the conflict between orthodox and progressive values played out over the album’s epic tracks. A fractious blend of harsh tonality and more gentile arches made for a mercurial LP. Blastbeats and hollowed-out cyclical riffing roared throughout, but acoustic and post-rock drones provided calmer moments in which to reflect on the emotionality of Pantopticon‘s soundscapes. The album’s raw efflux of argumentativeness illuminated an artist setting out an unambiguous sonic and thematic agenda.
“Take up arms brothers and sisters. Now is the time to make the streets ours/ as we’ve tried for years to find freedom/ we call it the struggle, they call it crime: NOW IS OUR TIME!”
— Panopticon, “The Death of Baldr and the Coming War”
Panopticon’s debut wrapped ferocious anarchism around tenebrous might. Sophomore full-length, 2009s Collapse, tweaked that arrangement, with a leap in compositional insight. Where Panopticon‘s premise set the template for Lunn’s political narrative, Collapse plotted the nature of our demise over a cinematic backdrop. Its thesis was the collective will to survive among the ruin of societal disintegration. Manifesting deeply held pagan beliefs, Lunn wove a conceptual tale over the album’s four tracks.
“The Death of Baldr and the Coming War”, a sample-heavy riot, romped home with an upbeat bluegrass twang. “Aptrgangr”, “Merkstave” and “Idavoll” also showed a startling level of musical diversity. Among the turmoil of black metal’s familiar aesthetic, alt-country, indie rock and doom-laden Appalachian folk were prevalent. Black metal provided the structure and the finish to Collapse, but the experimentation within aligned perfectly with the unconventional tale being told.
Lunn held nothing back. It was a finely calibrated response to real-world concerns. Yet, while it was apocalyptic, optimism could be found. Even if you chose to disagree with Lunn’s fervent odes, the album’s coalescence of turbulent black metal with atmospheric and non-metal instrumentation made for an enthralling brew.
Social Disservices (2011)
“So many hands eager to hold you down, often until your breathing will cease. Your cries heard by deaf ears/ just as the walls of concrete.”
— Panopticon, “Resident”
Divided into four distinct tracks, “Resident”, “Client”, “Subject” and “Patient”, Social Disservices was a masterpiece of black metal. An impassioned plea to realize the failings of mental health and state services to deal adequately with children left in their care, it was an intensely moving album. A call for a radical rethink on how ‘the system’ should deal with those who fall through the gaps, and a larger examination on how we ‘treat’ the most vulnerable in society, it was utterly harrowing.
Again, Panopticon displayed a diverse range of musical influences. However, what drove the stake into the heart of Social Disservices‘s poignancy, was that the crushing of youth by indifference and abuse was so perfectly rendered in musical form. Few albums, metal or otherwise, have delivered such an exposition in such a forthright manner.
I have been both a client and worker in the metal health sector, and Lunn’s fusion of stygian riffing, folk, post-rock and pitch-black shoegaze metal perfectly captured the cruel reality of the system. The album’s inexorable withering tones seethed with the frustrations of those least able to defend themselves. Samples of weeping children, and surging melancholic riffing laced with harmony and hiss, built to haunting crescendos. “Subject” evoked clinical indifference, mixing distorting, desolate riffing with melodic indie rock lines, and finale “Patient” was a gargantuan dirge, roaming the halls of psychedelia, doom and experimental rock.
Unlike more traditional black metal releases, the power of Social Disservices came not from its vitriolic might (although that was substantial) but from pain. Cries of hopelessness and a sense of utter loss made Social Disservices such a thought-provoking and compassionate release. Ultimately, attempting to describe the emotional weight of such an album is doomed to failure. No metal album has ever come close to portraying the uncomfortable truths it exposed—it was a gut-punch, a brutal tragedy.
“A nation left to weep, like spilling water over the falls.”
— Panopticon, “Bodies Under the Falls”
Panopticon’s latest album, Kentucky, leaves you scrambling for superlatives to describe its blend of heartache, defiance and weather-beaten courage. Following up the anguished vernacular of Social Disservices, the new album takes a contrasting musical pathway. Although the jarring brogue of black metal scaffolds the album, it’s filled with melancholic and often joyful Appalachian folk and bluegrass. However, it’s no less of a diatribe against injustice.
Lunn looks to his own backyard for inspiration, grappling with the costs of the coal mining industry in Kentucky. Over the album’s three serpentine tracks, Lunn honors the workers and the landscape of Kentucky’s back hills, while simultaneously telling a tale of environmental destruction and corporate gluttony.
Traditional folk instrumentals bookend the album’s three ten-minute-plus rallying cries, with the muted folk of “Black Water” and the banjo pluck and slide guitar of “Kentucky” serving as a tranquil finale. Interview samples and protest sound bites bolster the album’s ambience. “Black Soot and Red Blood” ends with the call of a 91-year-old woman on a picket line, asking police if they’re willing to die, because she is. A hugely powerful moment, made all the more potent as her cry transitions into protest classic “Which Side Are You On?” This appears in raw folk form, underscoring the album’s historic appreciation for miners’ struggles for autonomy and rights.
The album’s three main tracks fuse relentless riffing and percussion, stirring post-rock, flute, acoustic guitar, and the purity of bluegrass. On past albums Lunn’s disparate sounds were blended with more sympathy. However, on Kentucky Lunn unceremoniously cuts between cascading torrents of black metal and folk. In theory that shouldn’t work, but while the transitions may be violent, there’s no chance of you being a victim. Faith in Lunn’s steadfast vision ensures it all makes perfect sense.
Bluegrass has been described as “creativity at 100 miles”, which describes Panopticon’s speed/inventiveness ratio perfectly. With mires of grimness, forbidding skies parted by shimmering rays, and acidic riff storms dissolving into upbeat folksy jams, one thing is for certain: Kentucky is one of the finest black metal albums ever. There’s no disputing it’s a belligerent work, and Lunn has not simply crafted a jeremiad. The album tells a woeful tale, but it is filled with tenacity, solidarity, and a devotion to kin and land. If you ever felt black metal was waning in its extremity, then Kentucky sets that to rights, because love has never played such a pivotal role on a black metal album before–such subversiveness is undeniably extreme.
This Blastbeat Kills Fascists
“The world is filled with people who are no longer needed, and who try to make slaves of all of us–and they have their music and we have ours.”
— Woody Guthrie
It’s fitting to be writing about Panopticon so close to the anniversary of Woody Guthrie’s passing. Parallels can be drawn between his work and Lunn’s—both have written songs that speak of those left wounded by the charge of capitalism and societal indifference. Admittedly, Woody didn’t channel his work via the splintering glacial havoc of Norway’s finest, but Panopticon’s artistry is just as authentic and, most importantly, as honest. Were metal not so woefully underappreciated in terms of poetic significance, Lunn’s place on the roll of rabble-rousing American poets would be recognized.
Observing Lunn’s impact on black metal through an anarchist prism is the best way to appreciate Panopticon’s significance. Lunn is an agitator. His themes of empathy and solidarity sit in opposition to the elitism and individualism so often promoted by the black metal scene. His propositions are radical, but shaking things up is the raison d’être of RABM, and there’s no doubt Lunn rattles cages. There’s also nothing covert about Panopticon, no oblique commentary. This is direct action. Lunn’s rearrangement of black metal’s parameters is resoundingly intransigent; hierarchies and doctrines are swept aside. His work challenges orthodox black metal philosophies, but it also challenges his own artistry — it’s revolutionary in spirit and substance.
Lunn’s material rises from a deep well of dissatisfaction. His commitment to songwriting renders the boundaries of black metal extremely permeable. Big ideas require a big canvas, and Panopticon’s releases have been mammoth works of dissent. Lunn has constantly reassessed his own relationship with black metal, acknowledging that his work uses a similar methodology but refusing to accept the restraints of genre. This evolving sense of insurrection is writ large upon all of Panopticon’s releases.
Over a jagged and often haunting landscape, the tension between what black metal is and what form it will take in the future is played out in Panopticon’s work. The contemporary black metal scene contains countless expressions and stances, and although Panopticon is one of many innovative artists reshaping terrain, no one else comes remotely close to giving voice to the victims of modernity.
Black metal has always sought to transgress the normative, and numerous bands, both orthodox and avant-garde, continue to produce gripping and commanding works. But Lunn’s ability to capture the quintessence of suffering, and meld that with astringent metal and adventurous influences, has seen his work become increasingly more powerful and compelling –i n terms of both its emotional gravity and musical dexterity.
Battering at strictures and structures is what black metal has always claimed to do, and Panopticon wields a colossal hammer of contempt at those who would oppress or enslave. However, he doesn’t want to just tear it all down and watch it burn like so many black metal artists do, he wants to rebuild, under a more humane banner. Lunn doesn’t regurgitate narrow-minded tirades; he crafts songs about new possibilities. It’s his defiance of many of the conventions of the black metal scene that marks him as a genuine renegade. Disobedient, rebellious and disruptive — Panopticon has all the hallmarks of the very best metal.