People are not rootless. Even economic migrants, or a generation born in exile, or the war-displaced, or an endless diaspora, or the homeless – all retain a sense of place that shapes their identity, even if – or perhaps especially if – that place is a work of fiction and false memory (as are all places we no longer inhabit). One of the primary functions of folk music is to summon that sense of place, perhaps even more so when one is absent from that place. One might say, then, that what distinguishes folk music from protest music is that when the former deploys its locational groundedness to contradict reality, it becomes the latter: Things are not as they should be; things can be other than they are.
Now, I don’t know if music can change the world. The ineffable thing about the very best protest music, though, is that it makes you believe that it can, with every fiber of its naked, quavering insistence. Panopticon’s Kentucky accomplishes that very feat with its ragged melancholy and defiant joy. Austin Lunn’s one-man project operates on the terrain of black metal, sure, but Kentucky is just as notable for its bluegrass and Appalachian folk elements. Call it bluegrass black metal, or blackgrass metal, or whatever the hell you need to call it to feel okay, but the important thing is to come sit by this fire and listen to this careening mass of untethered passion.
Lunn has crafted a magnificent album that is equal parts love letter and seething political indictment. Its themes are corporate greed, union busting, and the social and environmental degradation that form a large part of the history of coal mining in Kentucky, themes that are explored in three lengthy, winding black metal songs surrounded by instrumentals, folk interludes, and a heavy (but never overbearing) use of samples. As the spirited bluegrass jam of “Bernheim Forest in Spring” cuts out, “Bodies Over the Falls” explodes in furious widescreen, all harsh black shrieks and blurred riffing backed by flutes. Things shift just as quickly into heroic twin guitar leads, which in turn eventually give way to improbable bouts of shredding. The folk instruments reenter halfway through for another few minutes of relative calm, until the violin sticks around to usher in a section of cascading post-metal, replete with soaring chords, distant washes of high-pitched howling, hungry-sounding blastbeats, and the sort of delicately keening single-note melody favored by Godspeed You! Black Emperor et al.
The songwriting throughout Kentucky is rough around the edges, with many of its transitions between the bluegrass instrumentals and the black metal battery raw, rushed, and almost shockingly abrupt. While in most other contexts that would be a weakness, here that engagingly loose approach is where most of Lunn’s obvious passion bleeds through. “Killing the Giants as They Sleep” displays this nicely, featuring more charmingly out-of-place widdly dual guitar bits and some of Lunn’s best drumming. It then diverts into a lengthy midsection of ambient atmospherics and samples, before a punishing sprint of blastbeats and cramped-wrist riffing dashes to the end.
Despite the palpable rage and desperation of the lunging attack of these songs, Lunn is no man of constant sorrow. Kentucky functions as a momentously powerful lament, but it does not wallow. The scathing anger of the black metal outbursts is focused, and the unionist folk songs give voice to that focus, particularly the foot-stomping “Which Side Are You On?”, in which Lunn also cleverly slips into the bluegrass standard “O Death” before returning to the workers. “Black Soot and Red Blood” concludes with a powerful sample of a woman introduced as 91-years old, who asks of the security forces presumably present to put down a union organizing effort, “I’m ready to die. Are you?” Despite the many social and political ills targeted on Kentucky, the album is just as fierce in its promotion of struggle, solidarity, and, ultimately, hope. Kentucky’s two-song coda is proof enough, with the deep, echoing, resonant, and almost neo-folk chant of “Black Waters” spilling into the idyllic banjo and guitar of “Kentucky.” Here is where the love of the land is most clearly felt.
Even among the admittedly non-representative sample of one-man black metal projects, Panopticon thus far has been remarkably prolific. More remarkable than that, however, has been Lunn’s ability to infuse a core of black metal with undeniably potent emotional and political content, and to do so while making drastically different but almost uniformly fantastic albums. Though some might hear in Kentucky’s bluegrass fusion something like a gimmick, to these ears the combination sounds perfectly natural, as if there was no other way to make the songs say what they needed to say but like this. If you’re still particularly fussed with labels, and aren’t satisfied with calling it ‘more, and other than’ black metal, then hell, call it Kentucky metal, or Howard Zinn metal. Alan Lomax metal. Studs Terkel metal. This is music with roots as deep as those of the people that sing it. Things are not as they should be, but things can be other than they are. Things can be other than they are. Hope dies last.