Craft Beer. Heavy Metal. Fuck Yeah.
Panopticon – Kentucky
Question: what do you get when you cross Uncle Tupelo’s March 16–20, 1992 with Cobalt?
I know that sounds like the set-up to a terrible joke, but it’s also a pretty good starting place for understanding the genre-defying brilliance of Panopticon’s Kentucky.
For those who aren’t well-versed in the world of No Depression/alt.country music, a quick sidebar here: Uncle Tupelo were three kids from tiny Bellville, IL who essentially invented modern alt.country with their debut album No Depression. Their third album, March 16–20, 1992, consists largely of old folk songs they learned off of Smithsonian Folkways records. They were coal mining songs, union songs, etc. After one more album, Uncle Tupelo split into two bands: Sun Volt and Wilco.
I’m going to just assume that most of our readers know who Cobalt is; if not, quickly go listen to Gin and then come back. We’ll wait for you.
Okay, back to Panopticon. The album opens with ‘Bernheim Forest in Spring,’ a very black metal name for a song that isn’t black metal at all—it’s a banjo and fiddle instrumental track that leads directly into the ferocious black/pagan metal track ‘Bodies Under the Falls,’ which rages on for about five minutes until it fades into an acoustic guitar, banjo and dobro passage and then back out into raging black/pagan metal. That track is followed up with a faithful acoustic cover of the traditional ‘Come All Ye Coal Miners’ that ends with a lengthy sample of someone discussing the shortcuts mine owners will take in terms of safety in the name of increasing their profits. There’s another lengthy section in the next track, ‘Black Soot and Red Blood,’ where and old miner talks about going on strike to get their wages raised to eight cents an hour, which is followed by another faithful acoustic version of the old pro-Union song ‘Which Side Are You On?’ probably best known by Pete Seeger.
I could go on and describe the rest of the album, but I’m guessing that by now the point I’m trying to make should be pretty clear. On paper, this album is an absolute cluster-fuck that should in no way work. It’s essentially a black/pagan metal/traditional folk concept album about coal miners in Kentucky. Yet it succeeds on an astonishing level. Each part blends seamlessly into the next, creating a sonic landscape that is both so jarring in its disparateness yet so flawless in its execution that I spent most of my first time listening to it with my jaw agape. On the one hand, this shouldn’t be a total surprise since Panopticon main man Austin Lunn is also part of the brilliant Seidr, whose debut album For Winter Fire was one of the highlights of 2011, and Kólga, whose demo we recently reviewed on this site. Still, I have never heard an album as ambitious, as sprawling, and as flat-out fucking brilliant as Panopticon’s Kentucky and doubt I ever will again, This is an album that comes along once in a lifetime. Find yourself a copy of it right now.
Final Grade: A+