Panopticon - The Scars of Man on the Once Nameless Wilderness
Bindrune Recordings
Black Metal, Folk
Disc 1: 8 songs (58:07) Disc 2: 10 songs (1:00:30)
Release year: 2018
Official Bandcamp
Reviewed by Goat

After impressing many with his previous two albums, Panopticon mastermind Austin Lunn has done what many good-to-great artists do when they're looking for ways to push themselves and their music; make a double album. And like many double albums, it's not quite as good as what came before, despite being a more than respectable effort. The trailed expectation for The Scars of Man on the Once Nameless Wilderness was two albums split between the atmospheric black metal we'd grown used to and American pastoral folk, which I'll admit I was concerned by - what made Panopticon's sound stand out from strong opposition like Drudkh was that unique mix of American folk and black metal, so would separating them mean we'd be left with an average attempt at each genre? Well, yes and no, not least because the first disc (part I, as it's called here) retains something of that folk influence so capably woven into the black metal. Intro Watch the Lights Fade is gripping despite being nearly four minutes long, acoustic strum and soft accordion hum setting you up for an evening's camping in the woods, relaxing by the crackling campfire as friends slowly play to the accompaniment of hooting owls...

Yet all is not well in the woods for as you may have guessed from the title, this isn't the same theme of before, of man living in harmony in nature and marvelling at its beauty, but about the destructive effect of humanity on the planet. This theme comes up several times and is at its most heavy-handed with spoken word sections, particularly on A Ridge Where the Tall Pines Once Stood; spoken word in metal is never really a good sign, and here it suggests the message is in danger of taking over the medium. Fortunately it's soon over, and easily ignorable on a near hour-long album that otherwise doesn't drag. En Hvit Ravns Dod is probably the best track on either album, rolling in majestically with its atmospheric blackened rumble, an almost orchestral tide of beauty backed by violins that bring the track to a close perfectly, nine minutes just flying by. It's definitely one of the better examples of this sort of black metal, arranged for the wonder of nature rather than the worship of Satan, a sea of trees coming to your mind's eye as you share the author's love for the earth. The following Blatimen and Sheep in Wolves' Clothing continue this with a little less folk, allowing the guitars to take the helm with more of a post-rock feel in places, an extra dose of rage in the latter giving the song extra bite without reducing the melodic impact of the guitars.

En General Avsky is a little more thrashy at first, Snow Burdened Branches a little more wistful, but nothing much else stands out making the first part of The Scars of Man... a competent yet not terrific showing from Panopticon. (I've heard complaints about the production, but it's fine as far as black metal goes.) The second disc is the folk album, as mentioned, making it harder to immediately recommend to black metal fans but not without its own charms if you're open to exploring the genre more. It's not pure acoustic guitar, as twelve-minute opener The Moss Beneath the Snow makes clear with its ambience and sloshing water effects, electric guitar soon wailing like some lost Pink Floyd track. Vocals don't start until the nine minute mark and although I've heard criticism about Lunn's singing here I really don't understand it; they're not strident or particularly aggressive but for folk are more than fitting and full of character. Whether gruffly speaking over strummed banjo as on The Wandering Ghost, telling spooky Springsteen-esque fireside tales, or the slow, almost droning mutterings of Four Walls of Bone, Lunn is a compelling folk voice as he preaches - and make no mistake, there's little here other than preaching, which can make for something of a dry listen given it's over an hour long. The message comes across clearer when sung rather than screeched however, Lunn's anger at nature's despoilment clear, and there's even lyrical potshots taken at President Trump in The Itch.

Yet as an accompaniment to a slow, relaxed evening this is spectacular, American folk music focused through a prism and given weight and heft thanks to not just the artist's metal experience, but the depressive vocal performance and feel overall. Obviously your take on this second album will rely as much on your political views as anything, but it's worth a go for those who like this kind of thing, and environmentalism is easier to swallow than the Red/Anarchist Black Metal of Panopticon's earlier years. As as package, then, The Scars of Man... offers a lot but only those familiar with the band will really enjoy it as much as they should – newcomers should listen to earlier material and come back to a double-album that will doubtlessly grow on me and be appreciated far more with a bourbon or two on a cold night. For now, this is good for what it is, but Lunn has done better; his black metal side is definitely superior and as much as I enjoyed The Scars of Man... for what it is, I'd prefer he sticks to what he's best at.

Killing Songs :
En Hvit Ravns Dod
Goat quoted 70 / 100
Other albums by Panopticon that we have reviewed:
Panopticon - Autumn Eternal reviewed by Goat and quoted 90 / 100
Panopticon - Roads to the North reviewed by Goat and quoted 84 / 100
Panopticon - Kentucky reviewed by Koeppe and quoted 75 / 100
Panopticon - Collapse reviewed by Charles and quoted 80 / 100
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