Panopticon’s ‘Kentucky’ is a moving, impressive fix of bluegrass black metal

I grew up in a family and community of steelworkers, in a town close enough to the smokestacks that I always knew the identity of our area’s primary commodity, and among people who all had been born and raised with some connection to the industry. Even with steel having been derailed as a identifying symbol some two decades ago, it’s nearly impossible to drive through Pittsburgh and its surrounding regions without seeing the skeleton of an old mill or the red, yellow, and blue hypocycloids that ended up being adopted by the Pittsburgh Steelers as part of their emblem.

Even with steel basically dead in the area save for a few plants, and the medical industry supplanting it as the dominant industry in the region, we still find our heritage in the mills. We’re steel people, seen by outsiders as rugged, tireless blue-collar workers who haul their lunch pails to work every day, even though that time has passed. But figuratively, it’s who we are, and we’re proud and protective of it.

That’s just where I live. Other places, obviously, have different industries they call their own, and black metal musician Austin Lunn of Panopticon is tackling the one of his adopted state to uncover for those who perhaps aren’t aware of the history. “Kentucky” focuses on the coal industry, a means of labor that provided jobs and means of living for years for generations in that region and many others (including here and in neighboring West Virginia), and it’s obvious from some of the tragedies we’ve seen with mine collapses over the years that it’s a dangerous profession. That’s not to mention the long hours, strenuous labor, and even illnesses that are connected to being a coal miner, as well as the strife miners had for decades battling for fair wages and safe working conditions. All of these things Lunn tackles on “Kentucky,” and it’s quite a historical and sociological examination of coal mining and the people who worked in and are affected the industry.

In the past, Lunn has incorporated elements of folk and traditional American music into his swirling black metal, but never more than he does here. Sort of like Horseback, Earth, and U.S. Christmas, Lunn embraces and pays homage to our nation’s musical threads, but arguably he does it more effectively than anyone before him on “Kentucky.” That doesn’t mean it’s all banjos and strings — though there is a lot of that in this bluegrass/folk/black metal hybrid — as Lunn still has a knack for emotional, thunderstorming metal that’s executed with a passion and intensity matched by very few modern musicians. This collection also is very interesting to me because I happen to be a fan of all the forms of music Lunn approaches on “Kentucky,” and I love to hear how all of these divergent sounds come together to form something unlike anything you’ve heard before. It’s moving and fascinating.

Lunn puts together some of his own compositions on this record, as well as his own readings of traditional songs sung by miners and other laborers through the years as anthems of solidarity and struggle. Mixed in are clips of various testimonials and bits from documentaries about the coal industry that gives you a heart-breaking look at how some of miners feel disregarded by the industry they served and had to go to battle for things in which they believed. It also touches on how the lands often are compromised by the industry and how distrust builds for the companies, politicians, and even the clergy the workers thought had their backs.

The record opens with the bluegrass instrumental “Bernheim in the Spring,” a lush, string-dressed song that acts sort of as opening credits before launching into the monstrous, howling “Bodies Under the Falls,” a massive barrage of power and anguish that’s Panopticon at its black metal finest. But halfway through the song, the fury fades and the folk and bluegrass kick back in and take over for a spell, letting in a sense of back porch relief after a strenuous day “at the office,” before the lightning rips through again and shakes the whole thing to its foundation. “Come All Ye Coal Miners” is a traditional cut that’s given fairly true treatment, with a heart-on-sleeves approach, soulful harmonizing, and voice samples about miner treatment. It’s just a damn good piece of bluegrass.

“Black Soil and Red Blood,” a track that reveals its sentiment right there in its title, is a melodic slab of black metal that also is filled out by naked acoustic passages and an extended story from an old miner who talks of his disillusionment and struggle from trying to see that he and his fellow workers got fair treatment. The pain and betrayal in the man’s voice is utterly gripping and is a well-chosen piece for this song. It concludes with a cascading, heart-rushing section of guitar work that sounds like a tidal wave of sweat and tears. “Which Side Are You On?’ the classic Florence Reece-penned pro-union song that has been covered over the years by artists such as Pete Seeger and most recently Ani DiFranco, sounds incredible and is as much a tribute as anything else on here (it also would be a beautiful way to battle the Scott Walkers of the world). It’s a rousing, exciting song that drips with power. “Killing the Giants” gushes with intensity both musically and lyrically, as we hear crushing tales about how the mountainsides and nature are affected and defaced by the mining industry, as Lunn’s guitar work exudes sorrow and anguish. When the calm finally sets in, Lunn bows out with two quiet songs – “Black Waters,” an echoey, ambient-style instrumental, and the title track, a beautiful outro of mountain music that ends “Kentucky” on the right note.

Lunn doesn’t just make records, he tells people’s stories. He gets involved, understands his subject matter, and gets inside their psyches to translate their inner struggles and feelings.  He did that with incredible precision on last year’s revealing “Social Disservices” and outdoes himself on “Kentucky.” This isn’t just a record, but a story of a community and its struggles with a major industry. They’re at its mercy but also have had their lives built around it. This is an incredible document, one of the most impressive, deep metal records you’ll ever hear, and a statement from an artist who’s proud of his musical heritage and isn’t afraid to push black metal as far as it’ll go.

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