Black metal has an identity crisis.
Every black metal band worth talking about is pushing the bounds of a genre formerly known for its militancy and purism, from Myrkur's mix of Danish hymns and Norwegian hatred, to Liturgy's brash hodge-podge of noise rock, black metal and trap, to blackgaze stalwarts Deafheaven, whose recent followup to the highly polarizing Sunbather wowed critics once again.
Panopticon’s Autumn Eternal, black metal innovator Austin Lunn’s answer to provocative albums like Liturgy's The Ark Work and Deafheaven's Sunbather, could shape the next decade of American atmospheric black metal.
A little history: Panopticon first won widespread acclaim in the black metal world with Kentucky, a tribute to the wilderness of Lunn's home state indebted just as much to the Dillards as to Darkthrone. While folk metal is no novelty in the North American black metal scene, most bands take after the viking and medieval metal of their European cousins.
Lunn's incorporation of fiddles, mandolins and banjos alongside blastbeats and death growls in Kentucky and its excellent followup Roads to the North took black metal in an exciting new direction, and Autumn Eternal, the conclusion to the trilogy, was consequently one of the most anticipated black metal albums of the year.
Autumn Eternal begins in much the same way that Kentucky did: “Tamarack's Gold Returns” is a haunting folk piece that perfectly sets the album's sorrowful tone. Yet beyond the opening track, acoustic instrumentation is surprisingly sparse.
The fiddle riffs so prominent in Roads to the North are all but completely absent in Autumn Eternal, with the exception of the string arrangements on “Sleep to the Sound of Waves Crashing.” The album also dispenses with the folk interludes that appear on nearly every track of Roads to the North—perhaps the most disappointing change.
The influence of post-black metal and blackgaze groups like Deafheaven and Ghost Bath on the album is undeniable. The soaring, synth-infused atmospheres of tracks like “Into the North Woods” and “Autumn Eternal” are a new direction for Panopticon, albeit one still grounded in the loneliness of the Appalachian backwoods. Songs like “The Wind's Farewell” revolve around slow, haunting melodies played with little distortion, adding welcome variety to Panopticon's usually aggressive style.
Yet the core of the Panopticon sound remains: frantic, cacophonous drumming, tremolo-picked riffs and death metal chugging, Lunn's guttural shouts, and the feeling that the listener is walking in an Appalachian forest on a cold winter night, completely alone. Tracks like “Oaks Ablaze” and “Pale Ghosts” perfectly capture the feeling of isolation Lunn has, in an ironic twist, decided to share with the listener.
The addition of soaring synths and riffs simply reinforces the vast beauty of the wilderness Lunn has lost himself in. Lunn's drumming remains a highlight of the band—refreshingly varied in a genre usually obsessed with speed and repetition.
For fans of Lunn's previous works, Autumn Eternal, like autumn itself, is a bittersweet affair. Lunn's decision to distance himself from the blackgrass sound he invented on Kentucky and perfected in Roads to the North almost certainly doesn't spell the end of fiddles and mandolins in black metal, but Lunn's perfect balance of Norwegian bleakness and the spirit of the American backwoods will probably never be recaptured by anyone else.
On the other hand, Autumn Eternal is a brilliant, modern black metal album: emotional, inventive, and a triumphant conclusion of Lunn's three-album romance with the solitude of the Kentucky wilderness and rural life. As an answer to the many experiments in the black metal scene in recent years, Autumn Eternal is clear: innovation is all well and good, but the isolation and mourning at the heart of black metal ever since Burzum's Filosofem and Ulver's Bergtatt are beautiful and worth preserving. Autumn Eternal indeed.