If It Ain't Got No Blastbeat, It's Not My Revolution: Panopticon
Black metal is vicious and confrontational. But it has its bad side, too. Yet, there's a black metal act out there that provides all the necessary brutality, with none of the bigotry. It's revolutionary in both spirit and substance.
"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.