"I'm not a coal miner as you well know, but I'm as close as I could be not to be one. My father was a coal miner who was killed in the mines and my husband is slowly dyin' with the black lung. And my husband and me was in the strike in the '30's in bloody Harlan County and I do mean it was bloody too. And they tell me-These miners say we're gonna stick it out unless Duke Power signs a contract till hell freezes over. And the men knows they got nothin' to lose but their chains and their union to gain."-Harlan County U.S.A
"If I get shot, they can't shoot the union out of me"
Panopticon's latest album, Kentucky, is an ambitious and spirited mixture of black metal and traditional American folk music. Central to the album are political and social issues that surround, and have surrounded, the state of Kentucky since the first commercial coal mine opened in 1820. Coal mining, long regarded as one of the most deadly and strenuous occupations in the world was and is the life blood of many communities throughout the world. Much in the way it shaped Wales, Chile, and the Appalachian parts of the United States, it has also destroyed aspects of those areas. This is the focus on Kentucky, the human aspect of industry and its footprint on our culture and land.
Panopticon operates as one of the few vehemently political bodies in the realm of black metal, a genre that's often strived to be apolitical or for worse, has flirted with National Socialism. This is refreshing in of itself. Too many times have I read or heard black metal bands say "black metal shouldn't be about politics" or "black metal should be about Satan," the argument of what "should" or "shouldn't" be is thrown out as Panopitcon has effectively mixed influences for the better part of five years, and Kentucky's no different.
Musically speaking, the album is interspersed with traditional folk and bluegrass in between black metal sections which contain elements of folk, but unfortunately not as fluid as I had hoped for. An all too common trope is employed by Panopticon as one song may be folk, another metal, rarely are the two fully married. This isn't to say the album's bad, or sloppy- far from it, the transitions from folk to metal and back again are smooth and well done, but the contrast is obvious. The album's as atmospheric as it is invigorating and melodic, well strewn guitar lines match various instruments to create intricate and overwhelming melodies reminiscent of bands like Agalloch and Windir. The soaring interplay of what sounds like pan flute and guitar in the beginning of "Bodies Under the Falls" is uplifting and powerful, and does well to contrast the banjo and violin towards the end of the track. The diverse, but cohesive structure of this particular track make it probably the best thing Panopticon's done yet.
Regardless of genre boundaries, Kentucky is a rarity as it is inviting, warm and soulful yet aggressive and spiteful. The inclusion of folk staples "Come All Ye Coal Miners," "Which Side Are You On?" and "Black Waters" do well to balance these feelings as they are protest songs, songs of strife, yet less harsh than the metal tracks. The album feels complete in this regard as all things are connected, even the samples taken from Harlan County U.S.A and various coal miners fit perfectly.
Much in the way Barbara Kopple brought the issues of the coal miners of East Kentucky into light in her crucial documentary Harlan County U.S.A, maybe Panopticon's Kentucky can do the same for this generation of metal heads and supporters of extreme music.