MMA Reviewer's Challenge: May 2016
I once read an interview, I forget who it was with unfortunately (but it may have been Japan's Sigh), where one of the musician's pointed out that you can do anything with the black metal genre. While anything could be a bit of a stretch (I'm sure I'm not alone in not wanting to hear rap black metal for example) I understand such a sentiment perfectly. As far as pushing boundaries and bringing new ideas to the table goes, black metal is perhaps the most exciting genre of metal music out there these days. This is thanks to artists like Panopticon, a one man black metal act from the United States. Kentucky (2012) is the fourth full-length album released by the project, the mastermind of which is one Austin Lunn.
So just what is it about Kentucky that makes it different? Well it's the clash between two vastly different genres of music. When playing black metal Panopticon takes an atmospheric direction with some folk elements on this album, but there are songs here where the genre shifts entirely to bluegrass. Lunn opens and closes the album in this way, and also covers traditional songs in between his black metal pieces, though takes a more ambient feel on Jean Ritchie's Black Waters (1971). It's an eight track album, but only three of the tracks are actually black metal tracks, although due to their extended length, each being over the ten minute mark, those three still make up the bulk of the 51:29 long album. This sort of thing is, according my research, a unique kind of approach; I was only able to turn up one other band who crosses bluegrass and metal (metalcore in that case), that being Blood & Banjos, whose first material was released after Panopticon's Kentucky. So Kentucky seems to be the first album of its kind, though I have previously heard the two worlds clash by way of bluegrass versions of metal songs.
It's quite the contrast in sound even with some folk elements heard during the black metal tracks, but one that works surprisingly well. Lunn makes some great black metal here, with my personal favourite being Bodies Under the Falls, but also shows himself more than competent at the bluegrass stuff, and in good form for clean singing too. The two main bluegrass cover songs here, Come All Ye Coal Miners (written by Sarah Ogan Gunning in - according to some sources - 1937) and Which Side Are You On? (written by Florence Reece in 1931) seem to have been carefully chosen to fit with the theme of the album, being protest songs, as this seems to be quite a political album from Lunn. I personally only really care for the musical quality though, and that's on the top level to my ears whether Lunn is playing metal or bluegrass, original or cover. He tends to keep the two sounds separated, but that's actually part of what I like about the album.
All the Panopticon albums I've heard so far sound a little different within the black metal context but Kentucky is, thus far, my favourite by a massive margin, as well as being the most unique. A must own for both black metal fans and connoisseurs of the unusual.