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Conor Fynes
5 stars 'Kentucky' - Panopticon (9/10)

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 alot 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..." 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. Alot 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.

Report this review (#928122)
Posted Monday, March 11, 2013 | Review Permalink
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.

Report this review (#1312957)
Posted Thursday, November 20, 2014 | Review Permalink

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