Album Review: Kentucky by Panopticon

It should come as no surprise I am a big fan of musicians embracing the idea of infusing heavy metal with traditionally not-very-metal genres.  Stuff like Diablo Swing Orchestra’s brand of ‘New Orleans swing metal’, Blood Ceremony’s ‘jazz flute metal’, and Ihsahn’s ‘sexy sax metal’ all tickle my fancy.  So, when I caught wind that one man black metal band Panopticon had released an album that was to be a combination of atmospheric black metal and traditional bluegrass, my interest was piqued to say the least.  I love me some atmospheric black metal and I totally dig on some bluegrass, what could possibly go wrong.  In theory, the stark differences between these 2 styles would lead one to believe that the combination would be quite jarring when blended together, hence why no one until now has released a full album of the mix.  But in the hands of Kentucky native Austin Lunn, his passion for both styles of music and love of his home state have led to one of this years most interesting and best releases.

Starting the album off with a nice little upbeat, purely bluegrass instrumental, “Bernheim Forest in Spring” sets up the backdrop of the album.  Just like it’s title suggests it paints a picture of an Appalachian forest filled with green and majestic mountainous terrain.  While I have not spent much time in Kentucky, I have done a nice share of hiking and camping along the Appalachian Trail and do have to say the images this song made my mind conjure up were well matched by this number.  Now that my mind was filled with thoughts and images of beautiful nature and wilderness “Bodies Under the Falls” dives forth with a flurry of blast beats accentuated by tin flutes and driving tremolo picked guitars making those beautiful landscapes in my head just more awesome.  The juxtaposition of the bluegrass and metal worked wonders allowing the contrast to build 2 very separate entities into a whole that was larger than life and seriously choked me up on the inside with the flute really tying the 2 seamlessly together.  Building on that initial movement, emotional lead guitars played in a style that reminded me of John Haughm and Don Anderson’s ethereal leads in Agalloch.  That paired with the dissonant black metal vocal which take a lower spot in the mix built this striking atmosphere is just as big as the landscapes and mountains it takes it’s inspiration from.  And the song hasn’t even reached it’s halfway mark at this point!

Slowing down the overbearing beauty of the music, “Bodies Under the Falls” transitions into a mellow banjo and slide guitar bluegrass section letting you recover from the initial overwhelming sensation of the songs previous movement. It lets you just sit back and appreciate the what you just experienced before moving back into metal territory closing out by making a full circle back to the musical theme of the beginning of the song.  Aaaand, whew!  That was an intense 13 minutes.  But Kentucky is just getting started.

With dissonant and low mixed black metal style vocals it’s often nigh impossible to understand the lyrics and the theme of the song/album, so I tend to just hear them as something that just serves the purpose of atmosphere.  On “Come All Ye Coal Miners”, an upbeat, yet melancholic traditional bluegrass song sings of the hardships of the coal miners life in Kentucky.  It’s here that the real meat and potatoes of the record come through as the theme of how the coal mining business is both destroying the lives of hard working people and our planet.  “Black Soot and Red Blood” really drives this point home with the pace slowed down abandoning the majestic soundscapes of “Bodies Under the Falls” and the music personifying a feeling of sadness, which in it’s way has it’s own beauty.  On an early movement in the song a voice over starts with an older man talking about the life and politics of coal mining behind an acoustic backdrop which add a really personal touch and sense of immediacy to the music.  The tune then moves to close out with a heart wrenching fluster of blackened and atmospheric guitars, leads, segwaying to the sound of a town meeting gone wrong.

“Which Side Are You On?” asks you to take some stake in the theme of the album by way of another excellent traditional bluegrass tune before kicking into “Killing the Giants as They Sleep”.  This song revisits some of the grandiose beauty of the first part of the album but juxtaposes itself with with hints of sadness and a dreamy ambient section.  Ripping you out of any trance the ambiance may have put you in a movement of pure rage lets you know how the coal miners and their families must feel about they way big business are treating them and their land.  The droning ambient strings and low chanting on “Black Waters” portrays a sound that sounds like makes me think of the dead coal miners spirits passing from their bodies back into the Earth from which they once harvested.  Both extremely sad and uplifting and beautiful at the same time.  Not to leave you on a depressed note, Austin closes Kentucky with another bluegrass instrumental leaving behind those first images of the stark beauty of Mother Nature.  Having this reminder at the end just makes the theme of the album stick more as I think back about the Earth I love so dearly and what is being done to something so magnificent.

Kentucky is simply a stunning album that has left a permanent impression on me.  It’s theme and cause are more than noble and the atmospheres, images, and music it portrays are not things that will be leaving from my head anytime soon.  At first I thought I would have liked to hear the bluegrass mixed in with the metal to a greater degree, but the way Panopticon uses the juxtaposition of the 2 created an album I would not like to hear any other way.  Every song and movement serves its purpose creating one of the most awe-inspiring albums I’ve heard all year.  I highly suggest listening to this album, especially if you have a deep love for nature and atmospheric black metal.  This record captures the majesty of Appalacia perfectly, and even if you’ve never been to that region, I’m sure you will still be able to relate to the music.  Respect our planet, its the only one we go ;)  Peace Love and Metal!!!

P.S.  Unfortunately Kentucky is only available to purchase on vinyl (click here) right now.  I was in contact with Austin (the bands sole member) and he informed me that there will be CDs to be released in the future and the details are being ironed out right now.  For a digital copy he had told me to (paraphrasing) “Google it and download one of the many vinyl rips floating around on the internet.  He didn’t mind at all.”  If you do decided to download yourself a copy to listen to this masterpiece ASAP be sure to purchase a copy when the CDs are finally released, I’ll be sure to let you know the second you can get your hands on one.

P.P.S. If you’re interested in more ‘black grass’ check out the blog Blood and Banjos where a group of talented musicians are chronicling everything going into their debut record.  Extremely interesting reading and the album sounds like it is shaping up nicely albeit with a different take and direction from the ‘black grass’ of Kentucky.

Release Date:  6 June 2012

Record Label:  Self-Released

Nationality:  U.S.A

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About RiffRaff

Just takin' it easy for all you sinners.

Posted on 2012-08-29, in Album Reviews and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. Wow, ‘Black Grass’ – that’s a new one on me. There’s an obvious parallel with the way some Scandi-metal acts have incorporated traditional folk elements with Black/Death Metal which is equally valid.The one-man band and kinda lo-fi quality of the recording (though I acknowledge the latter may be due in part to YouTube’s inevitable low-res) conjures the spirit of Bathory (RIP) in particular, as much as the music is quite different.

    Like yourself, I’m always in love with the idea of melding seemingly incompatible styles of popular (or indeed, unpopular) musical styles. I recall reading an interview with Billy Gibbons (ZZ Top) who sang the praises of Hank Williams III: apparently the guy divides his time between following his in granddaddy’s footsteps as a Country artist and playing Grindcore. Not sure if he’s ever tried combining the two, though? Couple bands I enjoy are Angra – melodic, proggy kinda metal with a definite Latin slant (Argentinian, I think) and dramatic orchestrations – and the mighty Mars Volta, who again, set themselves apart with their strong Latin influence combined with full-on rock, funky vibes and psychedelic interludes. In a quite different vein, I really enjoyed the last Pendulum album, ‘Immersion’. This Anglo-Australian group came to prominence playing Drum’n’Bass – though there was always something a bit Rock’n’Roll about them – and over three albums assimilated a whole bunch of different styles. ‘Immersion’ included cameos from both In Flames and Steven Wilson. I kinda like a bit of hard rock mixed with that industrial/electro vibe if it’s done right – Celldweller and Red Harvest are a couple other examples that work for me. Hell, you probably know all this anyway :-) but here’s some links all the same:

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