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Being from Kentucky myself, I’ve always wondered why bluegrass metal isn’t a thing. Folk metal has been established in Europe for a while now and I figured if the genre were to ever gain speed in the US, there would certainly be a few bands fusing metal with Appalachian string music. It makes more sense than it seems to at first. With metal and bluegrass generally being faster, more complex forms of rock and country respectively, combining the two seems like a no-brainer to me.
Well, finally I found what I was looking for. Panopticon’s Kentucky is a concept album about the eastern part of the state’s bloody history (focusing mainly on miners’ strikes and themes of the workers versus the rich) that blends the fiddles, banjos, and steel guitars of bluegrass with the intensity and nastiness of black metal. A lot of quality black metal evokes the place it comes from, with the original Norwegian stuff giving a sense of cold and isolation and Melechesh and AlNamrood throwing Middle Eastern folk influences into their sound. Panopticon similarly makes it undeniably clear that it hails from Kentucky, something that makes the album unique and much stronger than it would be if it was just another black metal project.
The metal songs on this album are long, epic, and artfully crafted. Gorgeous melodies can be detected underneath the harshness, making for an unconventionally emotive album. The anger, sadness, and hatred that black metal usually evoke are in full force here, feeling real, rather than like an act, and directed at something otherwise unheard of in black metal. The occasional touches of traditional Appalachian music are flawlessly implemented, sounding natural even in the midst of a vicious metal assault. Experimental and complex drumming abounds, producing a percussion section that’s about much more than just blast beats. And of course, in true black metal fashion, Kentucky sounds like it was recorded in a parking garage (or a mineshaft).
The album’s shorter songs are in the folk vein, with no detectable traces of black metal. ‘Come All Ye Coal Miners’ and the instrumental ‘Bernheim Forest in Spring’ start off slow but the tempos of both songs quickly build to a fever pitch. With the full-blown, speed-laden trappings of traditional bluegrass bands, these songs will have you tapping your feet until the album switches back to black metal. ‘Which Side Are You On?’, originally written by the wife of a miner who died in the prolonged strike known as the Harlan County War, has a slower pace and a memorable chorus that sounds almost like a hypnotic chant. The seriousness of this song’s subject matter matches the music’s more somber tone. Though more than half the songs have no traces of black metal in them, the balance works out due to the length of the ones that do. The folkier songs serve as interludes between sizable helpings of metal. Not only does this nicely break up the pace, but it also strengthens the album’s Appalachian connection.
Sometimes the album gets too carried away with its atmosphere. While the sound of some guy who seems to be a union leader hyping up his fellow miners in the background during ‘Black Soot and Red Blood’ gives you a good idea of what the album’s about, it lasts too long, as does the minute of people shouting ‘Strike!’ over and over at the end of the song (without any instruments behind the chanting). Sure it completes the atmosphere but twenty seconds of it would have sufficed. There’s quite a bit of wasted potential in ‘Black Waters’. This non-metal song is good, dripping as it is with a melancholy atmosphere. A. Lunn wrote some the most beautiful lyrics I’ve ever read for this song. Sadly, they go to waste because they’re buried too deep in the mix to make them out. The singing is barely audible, sounding like the echo of a whisper, though the song itself is a great meditative piece.
You absolutely have to check out Kentucky if you’re at all interested in hearing black metal with a unique spin on it. The concept is one-of-a-kind, the atmosphere is fully evocative of it, the black metal is filled with genuine rage, and the two forms of music that make up the album’s sound are seamlessly joined. If any other band out there decides to give a combination of bluegrass and metal a go, they’ll be hard-pressed to top this album.
Panopticon is the one man extreme metal project of Kentuckian Austin Lunn, known for playing a style of atmospheric black metal occasionally blended with elements of Appalachian folk music and espousing an anarchist philosophy through his lyrics. Lunn has released five full-length albums under the Panopticon name and a plethora of split releases, averaging about one full-length and a split per year since the release of the excellent self-titled debut in 2008. The Appalachian folk influence began to emerge in 2009 with the full-length Collapse, but was downplayed on 2010’s much more atmospheric On the Subject of Mortality, and non-existent on 2011’s blisteringly heavy Social Disservices. 2012 found Panopticon bringing back the folk influence for the band’s fifth full-length album, Kentucky.
Kentucky, following the pattern of most other Panopticon releases, is a concept album, a concept album in which two themes can be identified. On the one hand, the album is a heartfelt tribute to Lunn’s beloved home state. On the other, the album serves as a biting criticism to that state’s violent past and its continuing abuses in the coal mining industry. With Kentucky, Lunn has managed to create a truly unique album. It is safe to say that this album is one of a kind, both in the style of music that is being played and the ambitious concept behind the album. There is a depth to this album that most artists can only dream of achieving. This album had the potential to be an absolute masterpiece, but unfortunately falls short due to several major issues that will be covered shortly.
Musically, this album is almost perfect. The music is extremely well performed by Lunn, with him playing every instrument except the violin, which is performed by guest musician Johan Becker. Besides the tight music performance, there is also an incredible amount of variety on Kentucky. The folk influence is featured to a far greater extent than what appeared on 2009’s Collapse, and serves as an anchor for the rest of the music. The simplicity of the folk style leaves its influence on the metal tracks and the more atmospheric “Black Waters”, even if the instrumentation is not always featured. This may seem a bit strange for a Panopticon release, but there are only three metal tracks present on this album. Granted, they all exceed ten minutes, but around half of this album is dedicated to other music styles, making Kentucky a clear departure from the band’s past material.
The folk instrumentation is used to great effect on one of the metal tracks of the album, the album’s second track, “Bodies Under the Falls”. The song kicks off in full black metal style, with a frenzy of distorted guitar and blastbeats played at a furious tempo. Also standing out very clear in the mix is a flute playing over the chaos of the other instruments. The addition of the flute gives the music a great folk metal feel, and makes “Bodies Under the Falls” easily one of the best tracks on the album. About halfway through the lengthy song, the metal breaks first into a slower, more atmospheric part, and then into a reprisal of a folk piece featured on a previous Panopticon album, 2009’s Collapse. Lyrically, the song deals with the betrayal and massacres of the indigenous Cherokee people by the early American settlers in Kentucky, displacing the natives to take their lands and wealth.
As a whole, the lyrics featured on Kentucky are very powerful, and deserve to be given full attention. That brings us to one of the biggest flaws in this album – the vocal performance. Lunn’s performance on Kentucky makes it clear that his style of harsh vocals has changed dramatically since the 2008 Panopticon debut. While his performance on that album was powerful, commanding, and easily deciphered, his performance on Kentucky cannot be described as anything other than weak. There is no emotion in the harsh vocals present on this album, and they are absolutely unintelligible without the lyric sheet. Since the album has such a deep and complex message, this stands as a major flaw. Not only are the vocals weak and hard to understand, they are also buried deep in the mix, making it even harder to make out the message he is trying to portray. Clearly Lunn is (or was) capable of performing quality vocals, the self-titled album and Collapse are testament to that fact. He just does not provide an adequate performance on Kentucky, and that really is a shame. The depth of the music and concept deserve much better.
That being said, the clean vocals featured on the folk covers are performed extremely well, and add a new dimension to Panopticon’s music, with all vocals on previous albums having been exclusively harsh. The traditional songs were carefully chosen to fit with the theme of the album, two written by union workers in the 1930’s, and serve as a relevant inclusion. A particular album highlight is his cover of the Jean Ritchie song “Black Waters”, which Lunn turns into a beautiful ambient track with heavily reverbed clean vocals.
Another key aspect of Kentucky is the choice of samples Lunn featured in the metal tracks. Samples have frequently been used on past Panopticon releases, but on Kentucky they are used to underscore the overall theme of the album quite effectively. The samples chosen for use on Kentucky are a mix of union workers telling their stories and Kentuckians speaking of the beautiful natural landscape of their home state and how it is being destroyed through coal mining. These samples are the perfect choice for the album, and are most effective on the track “Black Soot and Red Blood”. The sample consists of a very moving interview with an elderly coal worker talking about the abuses he had received when he went on strike.
While the samples are very effective and moving, there is often a huge issue in the way they are presented. More often than not the samples are buried in the mix and simply impossible to understand. Halfway through the sample in “Black Soot and Red Blood” the electric guitar kicks in and drowns out the second half of what the man is saying. This poor mixing severely detracts from the album, as the samples are such a key part of the political message the album is trying to convey. The covering up of the samples is a major disappointment, and serves to prevent Kentucky from getting its real message to listeners.
All in all, Kentucky stands as a frustratingly flawed masterwork. While in its finished form it stands as a good album, it had the potential to be so much more. In fact, all of the elements of a perfect album are present on this release; they are just ruined by the poor mix and unsatisfactory vocal performance. That being said, the album is still definitely worth a listen for any fans of metal music. It really is a one of a kind album. Even if you are not interested in the political theme behind the album, the music is very well-crafted, and, excluding the extreme vocals, is also very well-performed. If you are interested in the themes and politics behind this album it is encouraged to read the lyrics while listening, as you will get far more out of it than you would from simply listening.
Album Highlights: “Black Waters”, “Bodies under the Falls”, “Black Soot and Red Blood”
Much of the best black metal reflects a sense of place. Whether it evokes the feel of the environment, or pulls in folk melodies of the culture, you should be able to tell something about where it comes from simply by hearing it. With Kentucky, Panopticon has put it right there in the title. But Kentucky isn't just in the title. It's in every note.
The record begins on a folk song, which isn't all that unusual these days. What is a bit more rare--at least outside Europe--is just how thoroughly the folk has taken over the album. Over half the tracks are pure folk, and the black metal cuts (over half the runtime) all have a folk infusion. Which is great, because Appalachian folk is a style that I've really come to love.
The blend of banjo, fiddle, and more is a perfect way to begin the record, setting the stage, unmistakably, in the American South. And then the scream comes in, setting the tone with the first of three sprawling black metal epics. The other prime points of note are the folk protest songs, "Come All Ye Coal Miners" and "Which Side Are You On?" They're dripping with just as much blood and fire as the black metal.
I've stated at least once before that black metal should reflect its surroundings, and I've mentioned many times my love of dark American folk music. This album falls perfectly in line with that. But it also proves the exception to two rules that I've stated repeatedly: That samples are bad, and lyrics don't matter.
The samples tell a story about the plight of coal miners in Kentucky, about how the establishment (including their union leaders) is against them, and about how the company doesn't care about the people or the land. The story-telling reminds me a great deal of Johnny Cash, to now the only lyricist to make me care what he's saying. The folk protest songs have that blue-collar ethic of Cash, even if they are a bit heavy-handed. I think the great Cash was even sampled himself at one point.
Everything about this fits so perfectly well together, and blends so many of my tastes so expertly, that it has quickly become my favorite record of the year. It's like Cobaltgot together with Johnny Cash and the guys from 16 Horsepower. There's even a chance I might look up the lyrics to the black metal parts, if I keep obssessively listening to this. Track by track, the record is not as strong as some other material from 2012. But as a whole, nothing comes close.
originally written for http://fullmetalattorney.blogspot.com/
A quick aside/foreword:
Having done a bunch of mining in my time, some of which is underground (albeit in gold), I highly recommend everyone give the backstory here a bit of research. Here in Australia we have and have always had proper, militant unions so good pay, (relatively) good safety and lots of rights is pretty much a certainty. Plus, our mining is generally done in some barren-ass desert where you can mine all you want, where the countryside isn't completely ruined and there's still a few million square K's of untouched wilderness elsewhere. These things didn't- and still don't - apply in America, though; and here's a fascinating example. A brutal and extremely interesting example of capitalism gone horribly, horribly wrong. Anyway, onto the review.
This album is a really good album, simply put; and such an immersive beast is a hard one to write about. The idea of bluegrass v USBM initially had me afraid of a Wolves in The Throne Room w/banjos abomination, but it's a lot more fierce than that, and the blue collar, identifying-with-the-fellow-miner thing makes me hella glad I joined the CFMEU even though mining here basically pays a fortune for very little work.
There's a ridiculous amount of energy and passion and most importantly it's wrapped up in a really enjoyable type of sound; this really bombastic, vaguely Cascadian BM with a shitload of Priest-like lead lines amidst the basically constant droning, tremelo'd guitars. The bluegrass so oft mentioned is in this album but it's generally segregated from the actual black metal, but in a very agreeable way; the BM songs are powerful expressions of foresty yearning- fantastic lyrics ("Tonight, the dis-harmonic symphony of the cicadas plague my ears / Drifting off to the mind numbing hum of grinding gears.") but they could be singing constantly about anything and you'd have no real idea- and they're meshed perfectly with the significantly more grounded bluegrass stomps and the union speeches of old. It's spine tinglingly good really, a super passionate piece of music that's powerfully socialist while still being unmistakably manly and huge- old school union shit, which will always be rad- all wrapped in this bombastic, rather beautiful yet still fierce USBM.
It achieves it's purpose with a really surprising amount of power and precision, while still being super enjoyable. This album WILL get you banging your head and lost in that gorgeous landscape Linn's reminiscing about (how brilliant, how utterly beautiful and heavy and grand, are those last few minutes of Black Soot??). The bluegrass songs are effective- hardly transcendental pieces of art, but could be sung very loudly while drunk- pieces that drive the concept of the album home and help keep it from being more typical forest-worship agalloch stuff. It will also get you signing up to your local communist party, or at least joining a union- it's amazing what the Bourgeoisie will demand from us if we aren't careful. But enough of politics. A gripping story brilliantly told. A ridiculously good piece of music. A fantastic way to spend an hour or so. Which side are you on?
That most “apolitical” and socially apathetic of music genres, black metal, has yielded an inspired and impassioned recording that comes down squarely on the side of one of the most marginalised groups in modern America: the people, in particular the coal-miners, of the Appalachian mountain region in the eastern US. USBM one-man band Panopticon’s “Kentucky” revolves around the history of the struggles of the coal-miners of eastern Kentucky against their employers, the state and federal governments, and established religion for the right to form trade unions, improve their wages and working and living conditions, and give their families and communities a decent life.
The music is a splendid mix of aggressive and pile-driving black metal, stirring bluegrass music performed on banjo and violin, melodic post-rock and spoken voice and found sound recordings. Together with its subject matter, “Kentucky” comes close to being a record a more fired-up Godspeed You Black Emperor could have produced once upon a time if that band had included a black metal guitarist. Particular highlights of the album include Panopticon leader A. Lunn’s adaptation of “Come All Ye Coal Miners” which finishes with brief coal-mine work ambience and a brief speech on the history of the exploitation of mine workers and the land alike; “Black Soot and Red Blood” which details the battles the miners fought against a formidable multi-headed enemy; and the instrumental outro track “Kentucky”, a beautiful homage on banjo, resonator and mandolin to the mountains and forests of Kentucky state and the ghosts of people who died defending their lands and communities.
Songs on the album are arranged in a historical time-line form the early history of native Americans to the present and the music proceeds from the personal – two locations in rural Kentucky dear to A Lunn’s heart – to the historical and general.
Admittedly this is not a perfect work – some of the black metal can be repetitive and bombastic and the vocal on “Black Waters” is so distant and blurry that the lyrics can hardly be heard – but the sentiment behind the music is a deeply felt one and powers it all the way through the album. “Kentucky” is a clarion call to all decent-minded people to remember the history of the coal miners in Appalachia and their fight for a decent life, and to support present efforts of community and environmental groups to preserve the lands and natural resources of southeastern Kentucky.
Some of the profits from sales of this album are being donated to fight the use of mountain-top removal as a mining method in Kentucky. Mountain-top removal is a devastating form of large-scale mining: it involves using dynamite or other explosives to blast away forest, top soil and hundreds of vertical metres of rock to expose coal seams. The debris is dumped into nearby valleys and river-beds, causing silt-up and disrupting the natural flow of streams and rivers. The consequences of this form of mining can be imagined: air pollution including toxic aerial chemicals, increased soil erosion in affected areas, increased risks of flash-flooding and mudslides threatening homes and communities, and pollution of groundwater to name a few. How appropriate then that black metal, a genre that has traditionally romanticised nature and of late has embraced environmental concerns, should produce a band like Panopticon to champion the concerns of people in south-eastern Kentucky about mountain-top removal mining and how it will affect their lives, health, culture and history.
A fuller review which includes some extra information on the history of Kentuckian and West Virginian coal miners' struggles can be read here at http://www.thesoundprojector.com/2013/05/12/kentucky/.
In all honesty, any bluegrass-inflected black metal (call it "blackgrass") concept record about the labor struggles of Appalachian coal miners would probably have cracked my top five for the year, even if it were terrible. But this is Panopticon we're talking about here. A. Lundr is the undisputed master of American black metal concept albums (there's more competition than you might think), and "Kentucky," a heartfelt tribute to the state he lives in, is his masterpiece.
Penny-whistles mix with cascading blastbeats, hyper tremolo picking, and Lundr's Priest-inspired guitar leads on the first proper song, "Bodies Under the Falls," before the whole thing blends into a banjo and finger-picked guitar driven breakdown halfway through its ten plus minute running length. Uptempo, metal-free takes on "Come All Ye Coal Miners," "Which Side Are You On?" and a chorus or two of "O Death" fit like topical puzzle pieces between the three mountainous metal tracks, babbling brooks that wind their way through the shadows of their coal black neighbors.
Lundr's clean vocals are impassioned and competent, if not terribly authentic, and their ramshackle troubadour ferocity belies his crust punk origins. His acoustic work on these tracks (and he plays every single instrument with the exception of Jonah Becker's nearly feral fiddle) is as technically proficient as his drumming and electric guitar leads, and more than makes up for whatever small shortcomings his "folk singing" might be guilty of.
Extended field recordings of union protests and mining operations appear amongst the musical peaks and valleys as well. Expect to hear condemnations of the Catholic hierarchy's role in strikebreaking and an elderly woman announce she's ready to die for her beliefs. These lengthy samples fit excellently with the righteous anger and seething rage that fuels the record. The true heart of the disk, however, just might be the understated and delicate cover of Viper, Kentucky native and folk legend Jean Ritchie's "Black Water," five minutes of softly flowing dark ambiance that perfectly captures the black beauty of the Appalachian woods at night all while pointing an angry, if sad, finger at those who have sought with some success to destroy Lundr's beloved hills and hollers for profit.
For the better part of the year, I’ve been searching for albums that could potentially strike me in an emotional, heartfelt way. I’ve come across plenty that impressed me tons from a technical perspective, but there have been remarkably few times this year where I’ve been so moved by an album, at least not to the extent that “Kentucky” has affected me. Panopticon fourth record had been recommended to me several times since its release, and for some reason, I only got around to it recently. Running parallel to the ‘Cascadian’ black metal style of the Pacific Northwest, Austin Lunn has crafted a vast work that incorporates epic melodies and an explosive approach to post-black metal, all the while retaining a down-to-earth, rural sensibility to it. It’s a masterpiece, really, and may very well be among the most emotionally poignant albums of its genre to be released in recent years.
Although familiar tropes of ancient nature and its reverence are still touched upon, Lunn has very much created an album in tribute to his own state of Kentucky. In a way, it’s similar to what the singer-songwriter Sufjan Stevens did with his ‘states’ concept albums “Illinois” and “Michigan”. Although the melodic, hypnotic black metal style bears a close resemblance to alot of Panopticon’s Cascadian contemporaries, the sounds of Kentucky are very much alive on the album. Much of this Kentuckian atmosphere is conveyed through Austin’s heavy use of Appalachian folk, or bluegrass music. The bluegrass elements aren’t just used as an intermittent distraction from the black metal either; “Kentucky” could be said to be just as much of a bluegrass record as it is a metal one. To put it in perspective, only three of the album’s eight tracks have anything to do with metal, and while that still amounts to roughly half an hour, that leaves over twenty minutes for the fiddle and banjo.
“Kentucky” opens with “Bernheim Forest in Spring”, which puts a unique spin on the now-clichéd ‘acoustic guitar introduction on a black metal album’ trick. Instead of the solemn strumming and ‘ambient wolf howl’ rubbish that a lesser band might go for, Panopticon’s use of a fiddle-and-banjo jig to introduce the album is so unexpected at first, and it fits the following atmosphere perfectly. The fiddle is bright and works as a one-way pass to the coal mining past of Kentucky. It’s a bit abrupt when the black metal finally kicks in, but I couldn’t imagine the album getting a better overture, given the concept. Each of the three black metal compositions on “Kentucky” are self-contained masterpieces, interspersed amidst the shorter bluegrass tunes. the black metal tracks all share a similar gritty sound, they each bring something fresh emotionally. “Bodies Under the Falls” immediately follows “Bernheim...” with a flurry of blastbeats, melodic guitars and whistle to tie the black metal over with the album’s lighter elements. Although it begins on a fairly dark and aggressive note, the composition develops into something far more melodic, culminating in a gorgeously atmospheric climax that I might only describe as the black metal incarnation of Godspeed You! Black Emperor. “Black Soot and Red Blood” is a fair bit more melancholic than its predecessor, making heavy use of samples to expose the injustice on the Kentuckian coal miners. The sounds of bluegrass are also incorporated very well here.
Although Panopticon does incorporate the Appalachian folk influences using predictable mid-track interludes, Panopticon’s greatest tribute to its mother-state lies in the renditions of traditional folk songs. Although I suppose they could be considered covers, taking authentic music from the state’s past gives the album concept a real sense of veracity. Austin covers these songs with warmth and maintains the spirit in which they were originally written. His voice is plain but tuneful enough, and it really fits the atmosphere of rural class struggle. Alot of heavy metal bands may decide to sing songs about massive struggles between nations, deities and otherworldly monsters. Panopticon sings about ordinary workers rising up against their labour union, and as small-scale as it may sound compared to the typical stuff you’ll hear metal bands writing about, it sounds all the more sincere as a result.
“Killing the Giants as They Sleep” is the darkest, heaviest piece on the album, following up on the promise of aggression beckoned by the opening of “Bodies Under the Falls”. Austin works melody into the gloom very well, and as the piece winds up, he takes the black metal sound to a more aggressive place than it’s been anywhere else on the record. With the ambient screeches of the fiddle in the background, Panopticon conveys pure anger with the album’s dying breath. As the blastbeats fade into a sheet of distortion, Panopticon surprise once again. “Black Waters” is a perfect denouement to such anger, washing over the listener with all sorts of softness and reverb-laden beauty. Although it is yet another traditional folk cover, Lunn takes his version far from the original, or anything else on the album; if I were in the business for using silly labels, I might call it ‘ambient post-shoegaze’. Terminology aside, it’s lovely, and the added bluegrass reprise that follows is a welcome epilogue to something so moving.
It was certainly a musical risk for Panopticon to adopt the sounds of bluegrass so wholeheartedly, but the combination is really phenomenal, albeit unlikely. I never imagined I would hear an album that managed to combine black metal and bluegrass into something more than a gimmick, but it’s happened, and it works wonderfully. I may have liked to hear some more of the black metal here, but only because it’s so good. “Kentucky” is easily one of the most emotionally powerful albums I’ve heard this year.
Like Odysseus, my journey into the heart of obscure and dark black metal has allowed me to hear all kinds of oddities. From strange stylistic crosses to bestial monstrosities, I thought I heard everything. I was wrong. Right from America’s heartland, a musician tried the weirdest mix I’ve had the misfortune to discover: an album merging folk, country and black metal, with socially engaged lyrics. Result of this cosmic anomaly is called Kentucky, recently launched by a band named Panopticon.
This baroque opus traces the misadventures of coal miners in the state of Kentucky, a region where coal is extracted for almost two hundred years. Entirely composed by Austin Lunn, a colossus with endless Rasta, the album destabilizes whoever raises the ear. It is indeed a banjo air that starts Bernheim Forest in Spring, before being accompanied by a typically Bluegrass orchestration, a kind of music originating from the southern Appalachians. It is, however, Bodies Under the Falls that reveals the author’s intentions. The pace is accelerating sharply, even abruptly. Guitars and drums burst, starting an air reminiscent of those oddly found on Swiss’ Eluveitie first album, especially flute playing that is developing in parallel. Hybridization is ongoing and nothing will stop it. All songs oscillate between several stylistic orientations that have absolutely nothing in common and whose fusion seems often artificial.
In addition, author adopts a social cause. It explains the many interviews excerpts or folkish songs heard throughout the album. Taking the miners’ side, lyrics depict poverty, labor struggles and other indignities suffered by American miners during a long history marked by conflicts between proletarians and owners. Nothing could be farther from Satan and his followers!
I usually enjoy stylistic innovations that challenge a sometimes stifling traditional black metal orthodoxy, but come on! Panopticon belongs to this typically American movement that seeks to redefine black metal, both musically and lyrically, crossing it with anything, denaturing it, and Kentucky is the result of such an experiment. However, most interesting passages of the album are those directly inspired by Bluegrass, while more typically metal sections are rather boring. It’s the mix that sound false and has nothing to do with black metal, despite the band’s claims. Euronymous must be turning in his cave.
If you are hungry for all sorts of oddities, you will be served. If you prefer to simply discover Bluegrass, I suggest you listen to the excellent and underrated Cohen Brothers movie O Brother, Where Art Thou? which baths in this southern and catchy music. 5/10
Originally written for Métal Obscur.
Originally posted on my reviews blog at heavymetalspotlight.blogspot.com
Panopticon are an American black-metal outfit which are, on the back of their latest release; Kentucky, really making waves and turning heads. Combining elements of American, for want of a better word, traditional music with black metal, in an extremely tasteful way. It's safe to say that the band is doing something quite fresh, in terms of the bouquet of things which can be combined with black-metal.
It's a shame, really, that I don't know anything about the kind American music which the album incorporates. For simplicities sake, I'll refer to it as American folk music, if the reader will pardon my ignorance. Before hearing all of the positive hype about the album, I'd perhaps have been a little sceptical of the combination of styles involved, but having listened, I can quite happily report that the combination works well, and that the hype is entirely justified; Perhaps to some austere spirit of black-metal, the combination "shouldn't" work, but it does. It simply does. The songs keep a wide-open, epic feel which folk laced black metal often has, but the style of folk in question takes the bands sound to very interesting, perhaps uncharted places. The music feels mellow, honey-coated, slightly, and possesses a wistful, nostalgic feel, with a lot of earthy, no-nonsense beauty. In many ways, it's not really a supernatural album, of course; It's wonderfully engrained in life, and you can really feel it in the sound-waves. I'd almost be tempted to describe the album as upbeat, and while many of the songs themselves aren't about happy things, there is something to this; I discovered the band by reading Zero Tolerance magazine (I recommend it), where the man behind the album was interviewed. The part which sticks in my head the most was a fragment of a quote by him. "...I'm not a grim dude - I'm a father, a husband, a brewer, a nice guy [...]". Listening to the album, I feel that this attitude is certainly extremely apparent in the music, and indeed enjoyable.
The sections which are entirely devoid of black metal are a brave manoeuvre, but in many cases share an equal beauty - It's true of the whole album that it sounds something akin to the warm sun upon ones face, but this is especially true of the "acoustic" sections, which have a definite rustic, comfortable charm. The album contains many spoken word samples, mainly of miners and that pertaining to them, a theme very prominent throughout. These samples certainly bolster the atmosphere further, particularly the American feeling which the album has to it - not the superficial America, but the real America, and all of the charm and musical richness thereof. All in all, the album is a fascinating piece of work, and one which certainly stands strong, in that I could quite happily listen to again and again. The lead guitar parts, in particular, have a wholesome, sometimes slightly mournful tone to them, and really drew me hypnotically in while I was listening. "Black Soot and Red Blood, towards the end, is exceedingly good examples of this.
I knew that I'd have to have a proper listen to this album as soon as I'd become aware of it's existence, and I'm glad I did - It's an excellent opus, both fascinating and enthralling in the soundscapes it creates, and all things considered, it's a really rewarding and pleasant listen.
Panopticon's latest album, Kentucky, is an ambitious and spirited mixture of black metal and traditional American folk music. Central to the album are political and social issues that surround, and have surrounded, the state of Kentucky since the first commercial coal mine opened in 1820. Coal mining, long regarded as one of the most deadly and strenuous occupations in the world was and is the life blood of many communities throughout the world. Much in the way it shaped Wales, Chile, and the Appalachian parts of the United States, it has also destroyed aspects of those areas. This is the focus on Kentucky, the human aspect of industry and its footprint on our culture and land.
Panopticon operates as one of the few vehemently political bodies in the realm of black metal, a genre that's often strived to be apolitical or for worse, has flirted with National Socialism. This is refreshing in of itself. Too many times have I read or heard black metal bands say "black metal shouldn't be about politics" or "black metal should be about Satan," the argument of what "should" or "shouldn't" be is thrown out as Panopitcon has effectively mixed influences for the better part of five years, and Kentucky's no different.
Musically speaking, the album is interspersed with traditional folk and bluegrass in between black metal sections which contain elements of folk, but unfortunately not as fluid as I had hoped for. An all too common trope is employed by Panopticon as one song may be folk, another metal, rarely are the two fully married. This isn't to say the album's bad, or sloppy- far from it, the transitions from folk to metal and back again are smooth and well done, but the contrast is obvious. The album's as atmospheric as it is invigorating and melodic, well strewn guitar lines match various instruments to create intricate and overwhelming melodies reminiscent of bands like Agalloch and Windir. The soaring interplay of what sounds like pan flute and guitar in the beginning of "Bodies Under the Falls" is uplifting and powerful, and does well to contrast the banjo and violin towards the end of the track. The diverse, but cohesive structure of this particular track make it probably the best thing Panopticon's done yet.
Regardless of genre boundaries, Kentucky is a rarity as it is inviting, warm and soulful yet aggressive and spiteful. The inclusion of folk staples "Come All Ye Coal Miners," "Which Side Are You On?" and "Black Waters" do well to balance these feelings as they are protest songs, songs of strife, yet less harsh than the metal tracks. The album feels complete in this regard as all things are connected, even the samples taken from Harlan County U.S.A and various coal miners fit perfectly.
Much in the way Barbara Kopple brought the issues of the coal miners of East Kentucky into light in her crucial documentary Harlan County U.S.A, maybe Panopticon's Kentucky can do the same for this generation of metal heads and supporters of extreme music.
Originally Written for http://perpetualstrifemusic.blogspot.com
Panopticon was one of the best bands in the USBM underground, creating some truly stunning pieces of music that astounded listeners with a unique fusion of black metal, crust, post-rock and even some southern folk/bluegrass influences. Austin Lunn, mastermind and sole member of Panopticon, experimented with American folk and bluegrass on 2009's Collapse, but on Kentucky, his fourth full-length record, Lunn jumps head-first into the eclectic blend that many now call "blackgrass".
It was a good decision. Panopticon is now arguably the best black metal band in North America.
Leaping between stomping, Appalachian bluegrass tunes and extraordinarily emotional black metal blasters, Kentucky is one hell of a wild ride. Austin is an impeccable musician, handling all instruments and vocals here (he is easily above average on all of them, and his drumming is some of the best in the genre), and his songwriting skills are amazing, throwing the listener through every emotional spectrum known to man within Kentucky's 51-minute running time. The samples tastefully woven into a few tracks are some of the most effective I've ever heard, being utilized in an even more powerful way than Godspeed You! Black Emperor's
"Lift Yr. Skinny Fists..."
The traditional bluegrass tunes, such as "Come All Ye Coal Miners" and "Which Side Are You On?" are rollicking coal mining songs, telling tales of the working man's struggle for a piece of the pie through their up-tempo, southern rhythms and impassioned vocal delivery, whereas the black metal numbers, "Bodies Under The Falls" and "Black Soot And Red Blood" are absolutely brimming with emotion, immersing the listener in waves of traditional flute and choir ambience, massive riffs that could tear through a brick wall, and awe-inspiring climaxes that flatten the listener with absolutely incomparable displays of emotion (the climax about 7 minutes into "Bodies" is one of the most beautiful moments I've heard in the genre). Even more noteworthy is the exhilarating one-two punch of "Killing The Giants As They Sleep" and "Black Waters", an absolutely livid slab of melodic black metal leading into a haunting, reverb-soaked acoustic outro that plays out like the aftermath of some terrible battle. Breathtaking and haunting.
With its incredible songwriting, flawless musicianship, and incomparable atmosphere, Panopticon's Kentucky is bound to come out on top as 2012's album of the year (unless the new Skagos record comes out, that is.) Regardless, Austin Lunn is a genius, and with Kentucky, he has created the best black metal album in recent memory. If you have even the slightest interest in melodic or progressive black metal, bluegrass, or post-rock, pick this up without hesitation.