Panopticon – Kentucky

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Panopticon
Kentucky
Handmade Birds/Pagan Flames

Black metal has always been a Scandinavian game, littered with themes of nihilism, death, religion, every bit as cold, grim and dark and it pervades to be, almost always staring into the abyss of hell, or at the cold night sky. That in recent years the Americans have not just finally got black metal, but they’re having a damn good go at reinventing it too. The country that gave us McDonalds, Jack Daniels and George W. Bush have in recent years given us Liturgy, Nachtmystium, Wolves In The Throne Room, Ludicra and more, all stamping a different mark on the movement that wasn’t supposed to evolve. Nothing is resistant to change, but arguably no one country has done more to evolve black metal’s brazen, cold image than the United States.

Nevertheless, the pagan and folk elements of the genre were still traditionally Scandinavian, but are being incorporated more and more by proponents of the USBM movement, and no one man appears to be pushing this boundary more so than Austin ‘A. Lundr’ Lunn, aka Panopticon. On fourth album ‘Kentucky’, he shifts his previous focus for Scandinavian subject matter into a focus on his homeland. On this album he firmly displays his affinity for his home state and tells the story of the struggle of the 1930’s coal miners dispute, through an initially inconceivable concoction of atmospheric black metal and bluegrass (which some have quickly taken to label ‘blackgrass’). Indeed, anyone expecting to have their faces melted by a scorching riff will be taken aback by ‘Bernheim Forests in Spring’, which sets the tone for the next fifty-one minutes with its distinctly backwoods flavour, three minutes of fiddle and banjo. As it closes, ‘Bodies under the Falls’ enters, with said scorching guitars, blasting drums, and the sound of a flute playing over the top of the riff. This unorthodox approach is quite something at first, but it totally works, and it emerges that as it progresses, Lunn’s work here is nothing short of spectacular. The main riff has such a buzz to it, not too dissimilar to what you’d hear from a hardcore or punk guitarist at times, yet still distinctly black and bleak enough to evoke what Lunn is going for. Six minutes in, it fades out to allow the banjo to return with an ascending three-step riff, before returning to the song’s main furious blitz.

Panopticon – Black Soot and Red Blood

The album flips between folk and bluegrass anthems and progressive swarms of blackened metal, the former on display emphatically with ‘Come All Ye Coal Miners’ and ‘Which Side Are You On?’, both covers of traditional coal miner songs, either of which you could hold a barnburning hoedown to, yet convey the story of the Kentucky coal miners’ struggle perfectly. As rallying as these songs are, the flipside is the surge of raw guitars, rough howls and desperation that pervades Panopticon at its most aggressive. And the desperation and anger of the coal miners rises during ‘Black Soot and Red Blood’, which is at one point dubbed with a sample of a miner talking about the oppression and the struggles of their work, ending with the sound of a protest about to be shut down, when a “91-year-old” woman says to the security forces ‘I’m ready to die, are you?’.

The album closes with a powerfully-charged one-two of ‘Killing the Giants as They Sleep’ and ‘Black Waters’, the former another slab of frenetic and atmospheric black metal that six minutes in begins its descent into the depths, careering into the end with samples and whistles, before plunging into a desolate cover of another old coal miner song, leaving room only for the self-titled instrumental bluegrass track to lift your spirits at the close following that run through the proverbial wringer.

The notions of solidarity, sacrifice, of social and political pain and unrest, come well and truly to the fore, but Lunn’s dedication to his home state also pays homage to Kentucky’s natural beauty, its backwoods, its cypresses and swamps, Appalachia, etc – the artwork’s itself possesses Bernheim Forest as its backdrop, with the ghostly image of a coal miner faintly present in the same picture. The forest is heavily featured in the vinyl’s artwork as well, displaying all aspects of its amazing plumage. It all adds up mark how truly special this album is. Currently this album is vinyl-only on a legal basis – though there are plans to release it on CD and digitally too.

If there’s any one thing to nitpick at, you could argue that the flipflopping of styles isn’t truly merging black metal with bluegrass, and hence the ‘blackgrass’ tag is a bit of a mis-sell. But then, it is only if you believe in genre-listing every potential new musical style that comes to pass. And fuck everyone who puts the hipster tag on this. Nobody’s forcing you to listen. It’s you who are missing out. Yes that brigade will seek to put down, and the traditionalists will decry it and seek to maintain status quo. The rest of us will surely appreciate Lunn’s boldness, vision, and indeed execution, in carrying forward a genre not necessarily in need of change, yet all the more refreshed for its progression.

Peter Clegg 

Buy ‘Kentucky’ here (2x gatefold vinyl)

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