Tuesday, June 12, 2012
Panopticon - "Kentucky" (2012) [Handmade Birds/Pagan Flames Records]
Kentucky has been a long time coming. Lundr's love for his home state pervades his discography, whether it be the bluegrass-influenced instrumentation found throughout Collapse and the Wheels Within Wheels split, or his "for the people" politics which follows Kentucky's history of coal miner riots and Union rallies. It's not very often a "nationalist" (take that very loosely) black metal album is released which doesn't glorify Europe, so, naturally, there is quite a bit of intrigue which surrounds this album. To our European friends who are not familiar with the concept behind this album, coal mining has been a part of the Appalachian range's culture for the past hundred fifty years or so, and, before the unions came and made work places safe, these people were treated less than dirt. (WARNING: super condensed history lesson without citations) Having once visited a coal mine in my youth, these people worked in nearly absolute darkness, breathing a mixture of sweat, stale air, and toxic coal dust, nary getting a break or a drink of clean water. If you weren't killed underground, you felt the crippling, fatal aftereffects of the "black lung." After years of near-servitude to the wealthy coalmongers, the newly-founded coal unions came in from the North, speaking of safer workplaces, protection, and fair pay which, naturally, enraged the coalmongers. This led to extensive riots, in which people died, structures were destroyed, and coal production was brought to a near halt before the unions were allowed to be established. Kentucky thematically covers this portion of history, which unfortunately repeated itself in the 1970s, going as far as Lundr offering his own renditions of classic coal miner protest songs from the Great American Songbook.
Musically, Kentucky can be broken into two basic sound groups: folk music and metal. The folk music that Lundr performs hits me in that perfect spot, not only because I have a deep connection with my own country's history and man's triumph over himself, but because the folk music offered on Kentucky is legitimate. As someone who has devoted the past few years of his life to studying folk musics, I slowly came to the realization that much of what black metal musicians consider folk music is merely an afterthought of Romantic classical composer Johann Kaspar Mertz. That's not to say the intricate, harmonically pleasing guitar work found on Ulver's Kveldssanger and Empyrium's Weiland isn't enjoyable (it is VERY enjoyable), rather, it isn't folk music. Looking at my own country's "black metal thoroughbred" (oh god), we see a similar approach to Europe's neofolk artists: it is nice sounding, but it isn't American folk music! A. Lundr, armed with a banjo, penny whistles, and the help of compatriot J. Becker, who lent his talents to Social Disservices, on fiddle, may very well be the first black metal musician in the United States to record what is legitimately American folk music as part of a metal album, and boy, is it refreshing. Rooted in fleet-fingered bluegrass and heartfelt, passionate coal miner songs, Lundr sings the praises of his home as well as reinforces his own political beliefs in a tasteful, historically relevant fashion. These are the songs people sang over a hundred years ago and, honestly, it wouldn't have surprised me if Estil C. Ball and Almeda Riddle somehow joined in from beyond the grave. I hope Lundr's embrace of REAL American folk music acts as a sort of beacon to all other United States "folk metal" bands, guiding them to what really is theirs.
Aside from the folk songs (there are five), Kentucky's second face holds a much more explosive sort of passion which can only be found in metal. With this new album, we see Lundr pulling back from the gritty, raw anger found on Social Disservices, instead going back to his signature, melodic brand of metal. Once again, we see a mass amount of influence from Mineral-tinged post-hardcore and atmospheric post-rock, but, at the same time, we also see Lundr embracing some more "classic" metal influence not seen on previous albums, namely the return of the guitar solo. Yes, we've heard him "shred" before, but in a much more modern sense...to see what I mean, check out the wonderfully smooth guitar solo in "Bodies Under The Falls." Now, notice I've stayed away from calling this particular album "black metal." Over countless listens, I've asked myself again and again...is Kentucky "black" metal? Honestly? No. Looking at it from a purely sound and performance angle, Kentucky manifests itself more so as a metal album, or, if we're really reaching here, a rather aggressive post-hardcore album. Yeah, yeah, the blast beats and harsh vocals are there, but who's to say black metal has full custody over a single drum technique and a single vocal approach? It all seems so silly. Does this realization make Kentucky any less good? No! The album's impeccable performance, tangible passion, and immense research into a misrepresented style is what makes it great.
Of course, the album isn't perfect. It isn't really a huge complaint, and I might be nitpicking here, but I find Kentucky to be a little on the inconsistent side. All the press outlets referred to Kentucky as a "blackgrass" album, and, frankly, I think the two styles are still rather separate. Throughout the album, there is still a distinct difference between the "folk song" and the "metal" song, as well as the "metal" section and the "folk/bluegrass" section within the metal song. It doesn't take away from the way I enjoy the album in the least, but, at first, I was sort of bummed that there wasn't as much fusion as I was originally told. Again, I'm just nitpicking, as I still think Kentucky is pretty great overall, but, in this case, I sort of feel it was the victim of false branding.
Kentucky is a really special album. As someone who is both an American history nerd as well as an obsessive over the Appalachian music heritage, Kentucky is everything I could really want from a metal album. Though this will definitely pose itself as a challenge to your everyday metal fan, what with bluegrass's...ahem..."inbred" reputation, but, I assure all of you that Kentucky's dichotomous approach is both thematically appropriate, historically accurate, and one hell of a listen. Be sure to snag this magnificent album from either Handmade Birds or Pagan Flames before it's gone for good.
Which side are you on?