Panopticon - Roads to the North / Myrkur - s/t

Thus far, 2014 has been an outstanding year for fans of black metal. Starting back in January with Murmur’s stellar self-titled record, this year has seen excellent releases from both more established bands (Cormorant, Agalloch, Lantlos, Woods of Desolation, Krieg) and relative newcomers (Bastard Sapling, Barghest, Mutilation Rites, Barbeleth, Myopic, Torrid Husk, The Great Old Ones, Emptiness, Thantifaxath). Add to that list a pair of releases from September: Panopticon’s Roads to the North and the self-titled debut EP from Myrkur.

I don’t know how much sense it makes to say that a record is both slightly disappointing and a strong candidate for album of the year, but that’s exactly how I feel about the newest release from Panopticon. Judged solely on its own merits, Roads to the North is another jaw-droppingly good album from arguably the most talented man in contemporary USBM, Austin Lunn. The only working against it is that his last full-length, 2012’s out-of-left-field masterpiece Kentucky, might be the best USBM album thus far this millennium. Part of what made Kentucky so fucking good is its completely unexpected mixture of lo-fi, Burzum-esque black metal and bluegrass. Perhaps wisely, Roads to the North doesn’t depart that much from the blueprint Lunn laid out with Kentucky, and in some respects it may even slightly improve on it, but it doesn’t give me the same feeling I got the first time I heard Kentucky. Still, it’s easily one of the best records to come out this year, and Lunn does still manage to throw a couple of surprises into the mix, like the sweep picking (a first for black metal?) in album opener “The Echoes of a Disharmonic Dreamsong,” and the adventurous 20+minute “The Long Road” suite that takes up side two of the vinyl version. Also, Lunn is really an outstanding drummer; somehow I never noticed that on any of his other releases.

People generally tend to either really love or really hate Panopticon—and, granted, Lunn’s mix of blast beats and banjos isn’t for everyone—but Roads to the North is nowhere near as polarizing a release as the self-titled debut EP from Danish one-woman black metal outfit Myrkur, who was on precisely nobody’s radar before signing to Relapse earlier this year. The fact that the woman behind Myrkur, Amalie Bruun, turned out to be a Danish supermodel and co-leader of Brooklyn indie-pop band Ex-Cops has pretty much overshadowed whether the music on Myrkur is any good or not. I think the answer is a complicated yes. In spite of her apparent lack of kvlt-ness, it’s obvious that Bruun knows her second-wave Norwegian black metal; from a musical perspective, these songs sound a lot like early Burzum. It’s the vocals that really set Myrkur apart; instead of the traditional black metal rasp, Bruun layers her vocals in an almost choral-like fashion, more reminiscent of something like a black metal Enya than Varg Vikernes. Sure, there are those who might say that songs like “Ravenes Banner” and “Nattens Barn” sound like music from the end credits of a Lord of the Rings movie, but there’s something about the combination of lo-fi guitars, drums that are pretty obviously EZDrummer loops, and those ethereal, layered vocals that’s incredibly compelling even though the EP is kind of a train wreck. Still, it’s a train wreck I’ve had on heavy rotation since it came out, and I really can’t wait to see what she does next.