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Fresh BM / bluegrass variation on familiar theme - 90%

NausikaDalazBlindaz, August 17th, 2009

Now I've heard a fair amount of black metal fusion music, usually in the forms of BM / post-rock, BM / doom or BM / folk, but I'm always prepared to be surprised by anything very different and this album by USBM act Panopticon caught me off-side with its own meditation on the downfall of American society and civilisation that combines BM with field recordings, pagan Norse mythology and American twangy bluegrass melodies on banjo and guitar that at once sound melancholy and sunny - and this is just the first track for starters!

Titled "The death of Baldr and the coming of war", the first track starts with a series of spoken voice recordings sampled from various American news services so it's easy to think, yeah, this could be another doom and gloom apocalyptic rant on how modern society sucks and is rapidly going down the toilet with its slave mentality and citizens turning into sheeple thanks to Christianity, relentless consumerism and addiction to electronic toys. But this turns into a long and winding track where the highlight comes more than halfway through with a winding guitar melody and then happy rollicking down-home bluegrass country tunes which round off the track.

Second track "Aptrgangr" is more downbeat with a stark post-blues meldoy and heavy percussion as survivors of the apocalypse experience shell-shock and find that to survive they must reconnect with Nature spiritually and mentally as well as physically. Black metal though is never too far away and it zaps back at hyper-speed with a wailing lead guitar in the background, a barely-there vocal and though everything is going at hyper-warpdrive, a surprisingly laid-back cymbal rhythm is present too. On "Merkstave", the struggle to survive continues as folks discover they have to learn how to get along together again amid the clash of speeding BM and an acoustic guitar melody. Something with a vaguely exotic Middle Eastern rhythm and a shrill flute intrudes briefly before it's swept aside by a fiery black metal blast which adopts the underlying winding exotic tune for its own use. Short outro "Idavoll" celebrates the return of a nature-oriented outlook on life with what may be mostly hand-operated percussion (possibly amplified), acoustic guitar, distant woodwinds and a combination of whispered lyrics and humming chorus.

For me the big surprise is that black metal still has a capacity to adopt and co-exist with a completely different genre of music - in this case, American country bluegrass music - in a way that makes the combination seem entirely natural and at ease for both genres. Much of the non-BM music here is very beautiful, virtuosic (especially on the first track) and emotionally moving while the actual BM itself is aggressive if thin in sound and teeters on the edge of derangement and chaos. The entry of Norse mythology into such a context might puzzle a lot of people but probably most Anglo-Americans and even a lot of black Americans have some northern European ancestry so for Panopticon to lay claim to Norse legends for Americans is perhaps not so strange. It would be peculiar if he laid claim to Native American mythology if most people in the US don't have any indigenous American cultural heritage. The album's concept is self-contained and follows a clear and consistent logic without glorying in post-apocalyptic Mad Max or Terminator violence: the theme seems to be that society falls because people have lost spiritual, psychological and physical contact with nature and only this reconnection can save humanity from going down with their old corrupt societies.

Above all this is a fresh and welcome variation on a familiar theme of complete social and political breakdown and its aftermath.