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 a lot 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 Forest in Spring 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. A lot 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.