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What do we know about these two bands? Both of them, Skagos and Panopticon are reckoned as two of the most promising and prosperous bands of contemporary black metal. Probably, it is attributed to the appearance of such a subgenre as cascadian black, which is almost as popular as norwegian true BM or shoegazing black from France (that doesn't mean the membership from Cascads write shit, it's just the fact that they are very popular nowadays). Both plays exactly the cascadian style, exactly this soft kind of BM. Though Skagos and Panopticon have not too much releases, metal society can appretiate them for their outstanding services. And on my own opinion they do it better than anybody else (even better than the trendsetter of the style - Wolves In The Throne Room).
Before this split Skagos and Panopticon already were rather successful and well-known. So, the idea of making the joint album was dictated by the desire of proving their professionalism and show who is the leader of the newest BM. Also, as we can see, this split made them even much more famous than before.
Probably, while making the album, musicians had entered their heads that the split won't refrain the comparison between both bands. So, there was some kind of emulative implication too.
Also, as I noticed, cascadian black has a special feature. Almost all of the songs of this style could be sorted out in two categories. The first is if the song is really good, it becomes a true hit. If the song is not the hit, it is just an average and mediocre bullshit. Thank God, neither Skagos nor Panopticon don't even have the examples of bad and average tracks (especially on this amazing split).
I said a few paragraphs ago that the split of Skagos and Panopticon has a competitive nature to a considerable degree. So, who won?
Total playing time: 27:48 min.
The number of songs: 2.
I'll start with Skagos. To my mind, this band deserves a little bit more attention than their american neighbours. As I said above, there can be two types of cascadian BM songs. Actually, Skagos has no bad ones, so we can understand that they have only hits.
Skagos continues to "stick to their guns", started with the full-length called "Ást". Very tuneful, melodic black with many various interesting insets; it also has some folk and post-black influences. The drums and guitars are magnetic. Though they seem to be some kind of anxious, they cast the quiet mood together with the delight.
Both of the songs have roughly the same structure. I don't say that they do not differ from each other - they just have close structure of the songwriting. Anyway, these tracks penetrate you to the core. If they touched you from the beginning, they won't release you to the very end.
Skagos' part - 100/100.
To highlight: both tracks.
Total playing time: 24:28 min.
The number of songs: 3.
To tell the truth, Panopticon touched me less than Skagos. More likely, it is connected with the features of Panopticon's sounding. As opposed to the canadians, the music of A. Lundr really sows the apprehension and concern. Nevertheless, it doesn't make the music less beautiful and interesting.
Unfortunately, there are some negative features of Panopticon's musical component. It just sounds rather disharmonic sometimes (especially in the track "Watching You") or too pop ("Seeing"). But, properly, I don't mind so much. I only need the music to bring the pleasure. Panopticon did it successfully. No questions.
Panopticon's part - 90/100.
To highlight: every song.
Here is the example of what every band need to be reputed as great one. This split consists of only true hits. I wish they would continue in the same lines. Both.
Today, while walking to my house, I chose to take the scenic route and took a path through the woods that ran along a river. This spit proved to be the perfect companion. These bands are highly influenced by the wilderness. Being surrounded by nature, this was even more evident. The sheer intensity of these band's works was drawn out. Both bands gave this split their all, and the result is a breathtaking piece of art. Both Skagos and Panopticon push the boundaries of what it means to be a metal band. With both bands featuring harsh vocals, it would be absurd to deny their metal roots but they have so many outside influences that shine through, that it would almost be unfair to lump them together with all the orthodox black metal bands that conform to a preconceived sound. Just as they don't conform to the traditional black metal sound, they don't conform to the traditional black metal image. Skagos doesn't dress up in corpsepaint and ramble on about how Lucifer and his minions are about to take over and enslave humanity. Their imagery is heavily drenched in the natural world, with album art often featuring beautiful Cascadian landscapes. Panopticon's image has much more in common with the crust punk than black metal. Bands feeling the need to conform their lyrics and aesthetic to fit the (sub)genre they play always bothered me; without diversity a genre will grow stagnant. Thankfully, there are quite a few bands, including Skagos and Panopticon, that are keeping black metal interesting.
Skagos set a very high standard for themselves with the release of their first full length. This split proves that Ást was no fluke. I don't want to say this is better than Ást, because both releases are so unique and original. This split certainly is as good, just in a completely different way. With their side of this split, Skagos delves even deeper into their creative energy, finding new ways to add original ideas into black metal. "Smoldering Embers" is a perfect example of this. While their roots are undeniably in black metal, this song is no typical black metal affair. Early on, clean vocals that would not be out of place on an Indie album make an appearance. Yes, I am fully aware of how utterly horrible that must sound. And for good reason - it would be a train wreck. But not in this instance. Skagos has an uncanny ability to make things that shouldn't work sound great. While on the topic of things that shouldn't work in a black metal song, I should mention, this song features a section that almost reminds me of ska or reggae. Yes, again, this should be laughably bad. But Skagos manage to make it sound completely natural.
Skagos ends their side with "Anamnesis II: A Dry, Sterile Thunder, Without Rain", which is, without a doubt, one of the most original black metal songs ever recorded. Before breaking out into a ferocious section of black metal, they start this song off with a mournful atmospheric section. Brimming with emotion, this is one of the best moments on the split. After their bout of black metal, things quiet down again. This next section completely blew me away. A beautiful haunting voice is introduced to the song. This is definitely the best part of the split. After this goes on for a while, a really cool hand held percussive instrument is added, making this section even more unique. Skagos gets full marks for their wildly successful efforts in adding something new to black metal.
Panopticon is quite a unique concept. Anarchist black metal bands are rare. Anarchist black metal bands like Panopticon are even rarer. While most other anarchist black metal bands (and to be honest, a lot of crust bands) have very obvious lyrics and put the message before the quality of the music, Panopticon's lyrics have deep philosophical meaning and the quality of music is always high. Did I mention that Panopticon only has one member? On this release, Panopticon blends black metal with post-rock and ambient music. The atmospheric sections are perfect, featuring an ethereal mood that brings the listener into a trance. The atmosphere is not shed for the black metal parts, with the vocals being very low in the mix, acting as another instrument. The drums have a very different feel to them, sometimes seeming a bit irregular. At first I didn't like them, but they slowly grew on me.
"A Message to the Missionary", Panopticon's first song, starts with a sample of a male operatic vocal. It goes on for over two minutes, fortunately it is intriguing enough to maintain interest. This atmospheric black metal song ends in a magnificent post-rock passage. Next up is "..Seeing..", which starts with a soothing ambient track complimented by interesting drum patterns. After a while this breaks into a melodic black metal song. The outro to this song is especially worthwhile, featuring the best of both Panopticon's aggressive and atmospheric sides.
Panopticon ends the split with the song "Watching You". While I'm not sure if I'd call this the best song on their side of the split, as all the songs are equally good, it certainly is the most interesting song. Being just over nine minutes, this song features many sections, and ends up being very diverse. It starts out in a chaotic blur, which subsides as a prominent melody takes over. The song progresses once again as a Mogwai sounding post-rock interlude replaces Lundr's tortured rasps. Later in the song a new type of vocal is added, a truly bizarre high pitched yell. At times it doesn't even seem distorted so it can't exactly be categorized as a black metal rasp. Just like the drums, at first I didn't like it, but it grew on me. "Watching You" ends in in a similar way as Agalloch's magnificent "The Hawthorne Passage". A fascinating sample, which I believe is in Spanish, ends this split. Panopticon receives 98 out of 100. Austin Lundr, or A., as he likes to be called, deserves respect for doing what most bands with four or more members can't.
Both Skagos and Panopticon put the same effort into this split as they would a full length album. That is very respectable, seeing as many bands are not in the same boat. Both bands give it their all, and their efforts are not in vain. Both of these bands feature more originally on this split than most bands do in their entire careers. I look forward to future releases by Skagos and Panopticon, only the future will tell of what original new ideas these bands will think of next.
After hearing Panopticon's "Collapse" album, I was curious to know if A Lundr would continue with the fusion black metal / bluegrass music that was such a major highlight on that album. On this split recording with a Canadian BM act Skagos, Panopticon has indeed ditched the banjo which depending on your taste may be fortunate or unfortunate. Myself, I was in two minds about not having the banjo as I did like the black metal / bluegrass combination but I can see that it has the potential to overpower everything else Lundr may want to do in Panopticon and turn the band into something twee and kitschy. What Lundr has done instead is substitute other instruments such as cello, synthesiser and acoustic instruments and opt for a dramatic post-rock style to go with the more aggressive BM aspects. Together with lyrics about rejecting institutional monotheistic religion that brainwashes and terrifies people into a psychological slave mentality, and turning towards faith in yourself and your potential and discovering the universal creative force within your own being, the result is a strong melodic trilogy collectively titled "On the Subject of Mortality II" featuring songs with sweeping riffs and melodies that come close to tragic yet hopeful majesty.
The lyrics generate much of the emotion and passion that drive the music so it's a bit unfortunate that the vocals are thin and set far back in the mix. Otherwise the music has a lot to commend it. "A Message to the Missionary" is an angry song that breaks with the old self-defeating ways; as it progresses, it winds down to a calmer mood which is extended on the second song "...Seeing ...". This one takes you on a real rollercoaster ride of intense emotion and agony by alternating the soothing parts with sudden bursts of emphatic black metal fury. Plaintive repetitive piano-like notes near the end heighten the anguished mood. "Watching You", co-written with Jack Hannert who also contributes to the screeching voices, is a complex piece that switches from inspired riffing and hard driving percussion rhythms to a passage of soothing acoustic serenity with softly strumming guitar and back again.
Like Panopticon, Skagos trades in a nature-orieneted black metal but the singing is more up-front and easier to follow. The style is raw and harsh but the sound is very clear with the bass even being audible under the blurry guitar and thumping drums. "Smoldering Embers", the first of two songs, features BM-styled and pure-voiced singing over surging riffs that finish in a long quiet and thoughtful coda of solo guitar. The second song "Anamnesis II: A Dry, Sterile Thunder without Rain" starts with a melancholy acoustic guitar instrumental that together with a violin-like drone builds into an angry thrashy tirade against unnatural weather conditions created by unthinking activity and invokes the spirits of thunder and war to make the rain come down. There are passages of suspense, drama and sorrow and there are also musical touches such as gently rocking or clacking handheld percussion during the quiet bits that indicate a sense of craft and attention to detail on Skagos's part.
Normally you'd think that split albums are merely opportunities for bands to showcase their style and the songs that are most typical of what they do. Here Panopticon and Skagos treat the split album format with as much care and serious attention as they would with their own self-contained releases, with Panopticon offering what's virtually a minor concept album that could stand alone as an EP. Skagos contributes two long and intricate songs, each with varied moods and vocal styles. The only negative criticism I have of this album is that Panopticon comes off slightly worse than Skagos with a blunted-sounding production that dampens the aggression and the rough edge, and puts the singing some distance away in the mix; and Skagos's tracks come before Panopticon so the contrast in clarity between the two acts favours Skagos even more. Apart from this, the split serves as a good introduction to the two bands and demonstrates some if not all of what they're capable of.