There are a couple moments in "Where Mountains Pierce the Sky" — after nine minutes of acoustic guitar, fiddle and Native American flute, what could conceivably be called a black metal riff with a pop-punk bounce and flurry of twin lead guitars — that clue you into Roads to the North's M.O. (As if the first nine minutes weren't enough.) First, the key-change climax, which may not seem like much, but this tectonic shift is the sound of a mountain piercing the damn sky. Then there's the chugga-chugga breakdown, the enemy of all that is grim. Those lines blur more often these days, but late '90s-style hardcore (think Earth Crisis, Shai Hulud) and black metal are still infrequent bedfellows, so to have a pulling-up-change move come out of a blast beat is a trip.
Panopticon's sole member, Austin Lunn, always works best from his own life experience: loss (On the Subject of Mortality), the social justice system (Social Disservices), and unions (Kentucky), to sum up these very different LPs all too briefly. With Roads to the North, Lunn has a lot to celebrate: the birth of a child, and a career-making sojourn through Norway that begat a move from Kentucky to Minnesota to make — wait for it — craft beer.
Those triumphs inform Roads, but not without hardship. It's difficult to discern without a lyric sheet, but the three-part "Long Road" feels the like heart of the record, starting with a bittersweet farewell to Kentucky bluegrass-style ("One Last Fire"), raging through crusty black metal-cum-prog ("Capricious Miles") and ending with the appropriately titled "The Sigh of Summer," its Rodan-like cadence sounding like a nod to his time in Louisville. There's a weight and texture given to this triptych, building on melodies that feel lived in, desperate for more. It doesn't hurt that Colin Marston (Krallice, Dysrythmia) engineered and produced, ever with an ear for tuneful arranging and making unexpected sounds come alive.
Members of When Bitter Spring Sleeps, Waldgeflüster, Altar of Plagues and Obsequiae all make important contributions here, but Road to the North — as all Panopticon albums — lies solely in the realm of Austin Lunn. This is a triumphant, ebullient metal record that steps outside Panopticon's curveball mixture of American folk and metal (black- and melodic death-metal, in particular) but also makes a space to rein everything in.