Panopticon - Kentucky
Pagan Flames / Lundr
American Folk / Black Metal
8 songs (51:29)
Release year: 2012
Official Bandcamp
Reviewed by Koeppe

Austin Lunn is in many ways one of the more prolific artists in metal these days. He is obviously not Devin Townsend in terms of productivity, but he always seems to have something up his sleeve. The idea which he had been teasing fans with for the longest was his desire to expand the bluegrass/folk moments glimpsed in songs like The Death of Baldr and the Coming War or the EP version of …Speaking into a synthesis of bluegrass and black metal. The question, ultimately, is: whether or not what was promised was delivered and does it amount to what the fans hoped for? A preliminary answer might be maybe to both inquiries, but ultimately no one will be dissatisfied with this album.

With Panopticon’s last album, Social Disservices, being what one might describe as his darkest yet Kentucky might be the most pleasant. The source of inspiration, the beauty of the Kentucky mountains juxtaposed against the devastation wrought by coal mining, opens up a space for catastrophe and utopia to be heard against one another. The album opts not for the intensity that Panopticon’s black metal moments have consistently offered listeners in the past, but instead leans towards the more ambient side of their catalog. Lunn’s use of sampling has always been to good effect and here more than anywhere else it expresses the pain and bleakness of political demonstrations, but mostly and most effectively, Lunn provides an account, a narrative of working class struggles in the coal mining industry. Samples provide accounts of the business practices of coal companies, but also firsthand accounts from workers of what it was like to struggle, to experience the harsh working conditions and what it was like challenging the industry and sometimes even succeeding. The beauty in Panopticon has always been how the ugliness its sound represents is able to reflect the blight on Earth wrought by capitalism. What this album does best, though, as past works have done as well but just not this well, is showing us a light at the end of the tunnel.

Bernheim Forest in Spring is absolutely beautiful. Opening with some simple twanging, the song quickly picks up a pace with what I believe is a fiddle, wailing and whining away. Lunn is credited with all instrumentation on this album and the fact that so many instruments are incorporated into the soundscape he creates is bewildering. Before the song ends, more somber and low tones come from the banjo only to build up to the first black metal track, Bodies Under the Falls. Bodies Under the Falls seems to continue the sound that Lunn was able to create on the album, On the Subject of Morality. Incorporating a lot of post-rock moments, the song never hits the brutality that one hears when Lunn channels Darkthrone, but overall it captures that sound of black metal that USBM has made all its own.

Come All Ye Coal Miners is an awesome track. The original folk song being covered is great; one can google the original recording by Sarah Ogan Gunning in order to compare Panopticon’s rendition to it. The song is some straight working class blues, telling it how it really was. In attempting to do it justice, Lunn channels the The Charlie Daniels Band more so than traditional folk metal sounds. And that I find to be incredibly interesting. Rather than hearkening back to some ahistorical account of Viking-ness, what this track reflects is how Panopticon is rooted in a particular lived experience from a particular region of the United States, but what he is describing is a universal concern. That, rather than lyrics about flag burning and autonomy, is where the political current resides in Panopticon’s work.

Black Soot and Red Blood is a rather lackluster black metal track with a decent second half of intensity that follows a sample of an older man describing the success of a worker’s strike. Which Side Are You On? is a solid folk tune, but it lacks the virtuosity that Lunn exhibited in the prior tracks. Killing the Giants as They Sleep puts forth the most blistering black metal sound that this album has to offer, but it can’t compete with Lunn’s work on the self-titled debut or Social Disservices and that is what really holds this album back. The folk elements are so impressive, yet the black metal moments are just so underwhelming. Not even the conclusion of Killing the Giants… can redeem it as Lunn exhibits that virtuosic drumming skill he has shown off in the past. His drumming sound is so unique in that you can just tell that he is banging the skins with all his force. The album closes on a high note with Kentucky, following the rather ambient track Black Waters. Kentucky bookends the album perfectly with Bernheim Forest…, leaving one to hope that Lunn won’t lose these sounds in future works.

An initial complaint that one might have against this album is that with eight tracks there are three black metal tracks and five interludes, ranging from bluegrass compositions to old coal mining union tunes. The complaint would be that there is a distinct bifurcation between Lunn’s influences and the black metal we come to expect, that Lunn hasn’t created the founding statement for a new genre that one might call “blackgrass” or something to that effect. Those who make that argument simply need to listen closer. The folk sound at many times simply bookmarks the black metal, but in doing so it is doing work for the album’s characteristic sound. The bluegrass bridge in Bodies Under the Falls may be compartmentalized but it creates such a contrast to Lunn’s shrieks that it really gives the song its unique air. Despite that, moments of hybridization can be found throughout the track in its incorporation of the flute. I don’t think that rehashing Immortal riffs on a banjo will get us anywhere, and until proven otherwise, I think what Lunn has done on this album is the most tactful manner to incorporate a bluegrass sound into metal.

After such a long-winded review, what left is to be said? The album was a valiant attempt at genius, but ultimately it comes up short. None of the magic that makes The Death of Baldr and the Coming War such a great track is able to shine forth on this album. The black metal tracks never overwhelm the senses like they should. Instead, a post-rock ambience abounds in this album and is only challenged sparingly by the track, Killing the Giants.... I eagerly await Lunn’s next effort where maybe something like the last four minutes of that track can be put flush against the bluegrass that Lunn plays so well.

Killing Songs :
Bernheim Forest in Spring, Come All Ye Coal Miners, Kentucky
Koeppe quoted 75 / 100
Other albums by Panopticon that we have reviewed:
Panopticon - The Scars of Man on the Once Nameless Wilderness reviewed by Goat and quoted 70 / 100
Panopticon - Autumn Eternal reviewed by Goat and quoted 90 / 100
Panopticon - Roads to the North reviewed by Goat and quoted 84 / 100
Panopticon - Collapse reviewed by Charles and quoted 80 / 100
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