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Panopticon - Kentucky CD (album) cover




Experimental/Post Metal

4.63 | 20 ratings

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5 stars The question any listener is likely to have upon hearing that the material on Panopticon's singular Kentucky is a mixture of black metal and bluegrass is likely to be, "How the hell does that even work?" The two styles have such wildly varying musical roots that it's difficult for the uninitiated to imagine how an album containing the two styles could possibly flow as a coherent whole. It's still utterly beyond me how band mastermind and sole member Austin Lunn managed to make the project work (he must be a better musician than I am), but somehow, it does.

For listeners familiar with Panopticon's earlier output, this probably didn't come as much of a surprise. This isn't the first fusion Lunn performed of the two styles (the split It's Later Than You Think and the full-length Collapse both contained bluegrass songs or segments), and it hasn't been the last (two songs on the later Roads to the North also qualify as bluegrass). However, this is the most extensive fusion of the two styles Lunn has yet concocted, and it such it remains perhaps his singular accomplishment.

So, with that overriding concern out of the way, the other primary question a listener is likely to have is, "How is the music?" And that, too is exceptional. The three lengthy metal compositions here are among the best Lunn has ever recorded; they do a better job summing up the passion, joy, and heartbreak of anarchism than perhaps anything he recorded in the past. And the bluegrass songs are excellent as well. Three of the non-metal songs here are culled from the history of Kentucky's extensive labour movement, a central overriding concern of the album (more on this later). One of these songs is reimagined more as an ambient piece than the folk song it originally started as, but the other two covers remain true to their bluegrass roots. The remaining two songs on the album are instrumental compositions of Lunn's.

The material on this album is mostly fused together seamlessly, so that the bluegrass compositions flow straight into the metal pieces, although there are gaps for vinyl side divisions. While the contrast between metal pieces and bluegrass pieces is mostly fairly sharp, there are lulls in the metal pieces that have unmistakable folk and bluegrass influence, which helps prevent the contrasts from becoming too jarring.

The performances are high quality throughout, which is particularly noteworthy when one considers how many instruments Lunn plays (only the violin is performed by a guest musician). The drumming is, as is usual with Panopticon records, of particularly high quality; it's not just the standard blasting one hears from lesser metal drummers. There's plenty of variety. Lunn's clean singing is quite tuneful, which may come as a surprise to people who expect extreme metal vocalists to be unable to sing. The roars are fairly standard for black metal, but they're performed well and not distracting.

As mentioned above, this album focuses on the labour movement in Kentucky, with particular emphasis on the coal industry (incidentally, Lunn donates a portion of his profits from this album to a charity which fights the environmentally destructive process of mountaintop removal, so you can feel pleased that your dollars are going to a good cause when you purchase this record). The album heavily samples the classic documentary Harlan County, U.S.A. to provide flavour about the labour movement, and the samples interweave nicely with the themes of the album.

In short, Kentucky is a singular work even among Panopticon's impressive discography, and it's not surprising that it's attracted more notice than any of the project's works before or since. Highly recommended.

CassandraLeo | 5/5 |


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