Panopticon’s “Kentucky” (5/5 Mjolnir)
I love black metal. Unabashedly, I am a fan of grim timbre, cold tone and tremolo picking; the bleak lyrics of a world cast into darkness and hopelessness.
The American South has been blessed with our own regional music which is also marked by grim timbre, cold tone and tremolo picking; the bleak lyrics of a world cast into darkness and hopelessness: Bluegrass. Somehow, someway, the twain were destined to meet.
Obviously the existential despair of the South, and our skinny-dip into themes of a forgotten people shackled by poverty, oppression and ridicule, has shown through in our music before –irrespective of race: Caribb chord progressions, West African syncopation, Gaelic folk tunes, Highland-cum-lowland songs of lament, Jazz, the Blues.
Songs of murder; of loss; of mourning; of a daily diet of small defeats and existential loss: Another cousin dies as a mine shaft implodes. Another mother loses her war against the thing in her womb which, even as it kills her, has no meaningful existence of its own. Grandpa isn’t coming home, a victim of his drinking and too many errant fists. Uncle is locked up, small time drug charges eventually catching up. Momma ran off with that guy. Your aunt got laid off again. You have to live with the sorry fucker who beats you. Through it all, Grandma is the light, the strength, and she hopes that Jesus is your daily bread.
These are ours. Own them.
Enter Kentucky’s Panopticon, and its amazing release: Kentucky (Nov. 2012, Pagan Flames). This album is without hyperbole a triumph of spirit: an exhausting emotional trek, and one of the most rewarding musical experiences of your life.
Black metal lends itself to one-man operations in some small part because the music is so individualized. That is why there is no perfect black metal album. There are perfect black metal songs and they vary widely between people: You and I can look upon the same world and feel very different things. It is, at heart, a phenomenological music – and this is the importance of Panopticon’s appropriation of the genre and the perfection of Blackgrass. He takes the themes and music of Black Metal, and weaves it with experience, to create something of personalized, heartbreaking beauty.
Kentucky is musically similar to releases from Taake or Lunar Aurora in that the chord progressions are melancholic, but in a way that is more melodic than the KVLT Black Metal acts (looking at you, Dark Funeral, Emperor, Gorgoroth). The frigidity of the Norwegian form remains, though, in its tinny drums, the distant vocals which are more exhortations of pain than actual lyrics, and particularly in the guitar work –where tremolo picking and flat-picking are interchanged almost seamlessly. Panopticon also does a tremendous job in its samples of the world around. There are no howling winds, no rime-bitten oars on a vast sea. Instead, you are dropped into the impossibly dark nights of the Appalachian South, where you are left with cicadas, screech owls, rustling leaves, the memories of loss, and your imagination.
But, the atmosphere is really set, and the album is defined, by Kentucky’s haunting lyrics which show an incredibly angry, Guthrie-esque attention to class warfare…if not as nuanced as the latter. Nowhere is this more evident than in the amazing “Black Soot and Red Blood”, excerpted below:
Hold out just one more day…say the same tomorrow…say the same tomorrow. For the union; hold out, for a fair wage and a living, this sorrow. Living and dying union men. Meet them in the streets, meet them in the hollers, meet them in the hills and don’t back down.
Scarlet red around your neck.
Black lungs and broken backs in Bloody Harlan, in Bloody Harlan…in Bloody Harlan. The years go on and the mountains crumble.
So much for idiotic Satan lyrics.
Kentucky is important not only to American Black Metal specifically, but to the genre generally. This is a special album by a haunted man, and it is well worth every minute you spend digesting it. I thank @BitterOldPunk for turning me on to this, and can only hope Panopticon influences more regional releases. We are a large nation, with a lot of talent, and stories worth telling.
I leave you with Black Soot, and the rest of this journey is up to you. Lyrics are here.
I need your metal: especially from local bands and regional bands, the unsigned, the now-defunct, the emergent, the never-will-bes that should-have-beens. Please send me your Soundclouds, YouTubes, MySpaces, BandCamps etc. I promise I will listen to each and every one. And, if they are metal-as-fuck, I will rep them. –Ves Heill