The music Austin Lunn makes as Panopticon sets itself apart from the crowded American black metal field simply by scanning as more American than its competition. His 2012 breakthrough, Kentucky, was particularly revelatory. Distorted guitars and blastbeats collided with fiddle, banjo and tin whistle. Three of the tracks were covers of coal miners’ protest songs. More than any of Lunn’s earlier folk-inflected work, Kentucky struck a blow to rigid USBM convention, and from a completely different angle than, say, Liturgy or Deafheaven.
Roads to the North, the fifth Panopticon full-length, sees Lunn honing the techniques he employed on Kentucky to devastating effect. Where a bluegrass lick may have once been placed at a safe distance from a blistering black metal riff, Lunn here ably combines his disparate musical interests within the same song — and often the same passage. “Where Mountains Pierce the Sky” lets a snaking fiddle follow the black metal action for much of its duration, even permitting it some beautifully bowed melodies while gnarled guitars churn beneath. The three-part album centerpiece “The Long Road” separates its earnest bluegrass section (“One Last Fire”) from the heavy parts, but the transition between the suite’s first two movements is as viscerally satisfying as anything in the Panopticon discography.
Panopticon’s greatest strength still lies in Lunn’s willingness to consciously orient his songs in Americana, especially Appalachia. Few of his USBM peers could do the same without drawing the scorn of purists. Roads to the North‘s lone folk song is a subversive acknowledgment of that: Its title is “Norwegian Nights,” but nowhere on the record does Panopticon stray further from the sonic blueprint of Burzum and Darkthrone. Lunn has liberated himself from the demands of black metal orthodoxy, and his music is free to gaze homeward.