In the year 2014, a lot was going downhill in my life personally. Between family matters, a near-death in the family, having to move around a lot, a relationship that was struggling daily, and working two jobs that felt very dead-end – life was rather bleak and not much felt good for me. I’ve found myself in mildly similar funks here and there since then, but none quite at the abysmal mental low as that and the year that followed brought me to. Even still, during this time, my music discovery was still going strong. It was that year, 2014, that I would stumble upon who I still consider to be among the greatest musical minds I’ve ever heard: Panopticon.
Songwriter and project main-brain, Austin Lunn, began the project as a solo studio endeavor in 2007, characterized as black metal crossed over with influences of bluegrass and Appalachian folk music. While earlier material featured a much more metallic sound on the forefront, the atmosphere still touched into his trademarked usage of instruments such as fiddle, banjo, acoustic guitar, and others not normally heard within the traditional timbre of the genre. Across his first 5 albums, Lunn would cover quite the esoteric territory lyrically, but would expand further and further sonically and atmospherically as well – leading up to what was probably his most recognized release in 2012, Kentucky.
Kentucky was a swift turning point for Panopticon, as multiple publications would catch wind of the Louisville native’s work and praise it for its use of Kentucky musical traditions, as well as covering the injustices and struggles faced by residents of the state brought about by the power of the coal industry. More over, Lunn’s lyrics tap into a myriad of relatable and real-life issues, ranging from the thoughts of environmental philosophers, ecology, personal struggles with identity and religion, subjugation of Native Americans, and blue-collar labor policy. The genuine delivery, the overall organic and sincere nature within Austin’s lyric writing and execution of songwriting truly reflects the passion this man holds for the world around him. As pointed out in an interview he did with Invisible Oranges around the release of 2021’s …And Again into the Light, Austin’s writing tends to gravitate around a sort of absorption of the environment around him, or rather where he resides or even spends his time tends to have the most influence on his work:
‘My friend Tanner [Anderson, Obsequiae] has always said that Panopticon is ‘regional metal’ because I tend to write about and be inspired by where I live. The music has always reflected the places I have been spending my time. I think that’s a pretty common thread in this music… so many bands I know sound more like the places they live than they do the albums that influence them. I know my music changed profoundly when I moved away from Kentucky to Minnesota… and I am sure that if I were to move from Minnesota there’d be another big change in the sound again, too.’
Personally, I think what helped draw me to Austin’s music, outside of the sheer intricacy and endless array of solid riffs found in virtually any part of his discography, was how interwoven nature and environment is to it. Being quite the outdoors person myself, even the completely instrumental compositions find plenty of meaning within my daily life. Practically soundtracking my travels, or telling a story that can only be told through a form of expression such as music, there’s always something endearing to be found in what Panopticon does. Although a lover of all things conceived by the moniker, perhaps my favorite places in the discography are Autumn Eternal, The Scars of Man on the Once Nameless Wilderness, and …And Again into the Light.
I have a sincere appreciation for every subject Austin speaks on within his music, even those that I (admittedly) don’t feel smart enough to fully grasp or understand immediately. That typically just results in some personal research, and then I become maybe a smarter person due to what I learn through these subjects. Similarly, I feel that Austin’s music is a fine reflection of personal growth; How the decisions we make, the environment around us, and that sort of conversation (if you will) that our actions and the things around us, reactions have with one another – how it all impacts not just our lives but life around us, too. When I listen to songs like “Tamarack’s Gold Returns”, “And Again into the Light”, “The Wandering Ghost”, and “A Ridge Where the Tall Pines Once Stood”, I feel a sense of familiarity. For the lyrical side of it, it’s like I’m listening to a story that ties into either my own experiences, or the experiences of people I’ve known in my life.
Is Austin writing these and other songs for me? Doubtful. I mean, sure, Austin’s music is definitely something he clearly wants to share with the world! But, I think it’s my interpretations, and how I’ve connected with these songs, as well as many others he’s written, that help heighten their meaning in my life all the more. This would apply to any artist, no doubt; But when you take something that, in the simplest terms I can convey it, is intended to capture the world around it, and then you apply that in a sense that more specifically connects to your own life, it’s a truly unique sort of alchemy.
To take nature, survival, mental health, the common struggles of human beings and their ways, the sheer meaning of living and finding meaning within life itself, and find so much definition for what it says about your own life – that’s the sort of empowerment I, and I’m sure others, have easily found in Panopticon‘s music. I can’t speak for everyone, of course, but to summarize it all the more; Panopticon is a vividly organic manifestation of all the beautiful and (sadly) abysmal things that make the human experience what it is. As stated by Sander Cohen in Bioshock: ‘The burden of the artist is to capture!’ Austin Lunn more than adequately captures what it means to be alive.
In particular, the track “Tamarack’s Gold Returns” will always take me back to a peaceful drive I experienced in March of 2022, fast on my way to Spartanburg, South Carolina. That song was playing, the sun was shining, the air was nice, worries were miles away, and everything just felt peaceful. I find myself playing this song quite frequently during daily tasks, commutes to far-off job sites for work, and other places in my life that may require that sort of audible tranquility it either creates or expands upon when played. Point blank and simple – there is no drug available anywhere that induces the level of therapeutic placidity as this album-opener does. Then the rest of Autumn Eternal just graces your ears with some of the most powerful songwriting and riffing imaginable.
At the end of 2022, I received word, just before going away to California to visit my brother, that my uncle had passed away tragically. Without sharing more details than I’m comfortable typing into this – this was a little more than just losing a beloved family member. My uncle, Jim Lawson, was a widely-known and revered figure within not just his community, but pretty much the life of every single person who was blessed to meet him. Sure, you could say that about any human being with the right level of positivity about them. But, Uncle Jimmy had a charisma, a passion, a whole aura about his personality that enlightened the soul of anybody he ever met. I saw this firsthand while at his memorial, where an abundance of people I’ve never met all came up to me, once realizing I was a relative of Jim’s, and telling me wild stories about all the time they spent with Jim, and how he actually encouraged them to a point of positive, life-changing events that they’d never forget.
Long story short, and to stay on topic – While I was in California, I got to spend time in Joshua Tree for the first time in my life. I geeked out probably about as hard as Chris McCandless when he first arrived to Alaska. The whole time I kept listening to various songs written by Austin, as well as other instrumentals that would fit the mood of the desert (which quickly became what I consider a home away from home), and it was a time I felt absolutely alive. This was, sadly, quickly followed by the realization that as soon as I’d get off the plane after the trip, I’d be jumping in a car with my dad (Uncle Jim’s brother, of course) to take a long drive up to what was his home in West Virginia, to be with family and hold the memorial, as the reality of it all would sink in.
While on this drive, the title track “And Again into The Light” would come on. My dad never heard Austin’s music before then, but we both just sat in silence and listened, both our eyes doing all they could to hold back tears as it soundtracked the somber feelings of what we were on our way to. My dad’s a huge fan of John Prine, a figure of inspiration to Austin as well; If I remember correctly, my dad even made mention (asking who Panopticon was after that song played) that it sounded ‘like something John Prine would write‘. That whole day and evening, while not my favorite memory by any means of course, sticks with me to date, and I think about my uncle Jim any time that song comes on. But I mean this in the best and non-morbid way possible, too!
It didn’t take long for Panopticon to become backed by a full-on performing band, and while COVID-19 truly threw a wrench in theirs as well as many other artist’s touring plans – Austin and his band have performed in various events, including festivals such as Fire in the Mountains and Migration Fest. While his performances can center around charity events, or awareness of environmental consciousness, Austin in his band have also taken to these gestures on the digital side as well, such as when they streamed Live in Belgium in support of victims of the 2021 Western Kentucky Tornado. As stated in a Metal Injection article covering the move, Austin intended for all proceeds to be directed to the cause:
‘This recording is a combination of the audio from video footage and single mic recording at my show in Antwerp, Belgium at the beautiful AMUZ music hall, in a repurposed historic cathedral. The natural reverb in that room is absolutely insane. That night I was very fortunate to have some special guests perform with me including:
- Patrick Urban (Cello through out the entire performance)
- Jan Van Berlekom (Vocals on “Pancho and Lefty” and ” Norwegian Nights”
- Marissa Kay Janke ( Viola on ” Norwegian Nights”)
- Don Anderson ( Acoustic Guitar on ” The Wandering Ghost”)
It was edited and cleaned up by Spenser Morris, and the Cover photo was taken by Bekah Lunn inside the Cathedral. Thanks to everyone who bought this for helping the people of Kentucky rebuild. It means a lot to me and my family.‘
As can be discerned from the above, and virtually any footage seen of Austin and his band performing, the live aspect of the band is of not only major importance to all those involved, but deeply sentimental as well. Having been a fan of nearly 1o years myself, it wasn’t until this past May in 2023 that I finally got the chance to see Panopticon live…in Austin’s hometown of Louisville! Beyond the show being everything I’d hope for and better, it was paired with an opportunity to not only meet Austin, but have a fairly lengthy chat as well. This was also followed by me and my friends being invited to join Austin and his band, as well as some way-back friends of his, at a local bar after the show.
Of course we obliged. Next thing we know? We’re up till about 2:00 AM or so talking wildlife, music (duh), vegan dishes, beer, favorite places to hike and see across the United States, mountain lions, and how awesome Taco Bell tastes after midnight. Austin treated us like we were long-time best friends of his. Just as sincere and open-arms as could be. You can see your favorite artists live, they can absolutely kill it, and you might even get a chance to shake their hand and thank them for performing after – but it’s few and far between that I ever have an opportunity to personally connect with and share stories to that kind of degree that me and my friends did that night.
So why listen to Panopticon? Well, maybe it could stop at an earlier statement – Austin truly captures what it means to be alive. But that just doesn’t completely cut it. If you like metal music with truly breathtaking song structure and added elements combined? You need to listen immediately. If you appreciate anything at all about the outside world and want to delve more into artists who are as absorbed into that as you believe yourself to be? You need to listen immediately. If what you look for in art, music, people, and the human experience is something genuine, organic, and crafted from nothing more than straight from the heart of one who has something to say (and will say it loudly)? Listen to Panopticon immediately.
I’ll help you find it. Keep up with all things Panopticon via Bandcamp, Instagram, or official merch store! Oh, did I mention Austin brews his own line of beer? You can find out more about his brewery and its history at the HammerHeart website! Yet another example of Austin’s love for culture and preserving the gifts of nature. If somehow you’ve missed out on Panopticon up till now – get to listening and open your heart, mind, and soul to some of the finest compositions your ears will ever consume.