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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.