LURKER SMACKDOWN: Fight One, Round One (Panopticon – Kentucky)

Although LURKER is an elite brotherhood of like-minded individuals forged in blood, steel and ink, there are the occasional lapses when we actually disagree over music. And this isn’t mere amicable rivalry – sparks fly, verbal blows are exchanged, and swelling egos are left bruised and whimpering. One recent example is Panopticon’s newest album, Kentucky, of which our opinions and interpretations were so brazenly divergent that there was little else left to do than to lay it all out in the open and enter the ring. Cue the SMACKDOWN, where two brave lurkers square up in a no-holds-barred literary skirmish to the death, bidding to convince you, the reader, of an album’s worth… or lack thereof. There will typically be two rounds, a venomous slandering followed by a furious rebuttal of support and praise, or vice versa – whoever steps to first begins the battle. Who wins? You decide. Comment as you see fit, but the aim of this series is to question some of the odious groupthink surrounding each year’s most “popular” albums. But enough! Let’s fucking brawl! Challenger Pavel approaches…

On his new album Kentucky, Panopticon’s Austin Lunn has turned from general broadsides against The System to a timely, vivid look at an Appalachian landscape scarred by mountaintop removal, debilitated by occupational disease, and haunted by poverty. Lunn tells the suppressed story of unionised coal miners who dared to resist management, connecting their doomed struggle to the vicious environmental conflicts that currently wrack his native region. This is clearly an ambitious album, and Kentucky is also a significant change of direction for Panopticon in musical terms. The project has become known for “red/anarchist black metal” – vaguely Weakling-ish riffage interspersed with nods to crust punk – but now Lunn strives to match the crippled beauty of coal country with something more poignant, incorporating the elaborate leads of Agallochian progressive metal and the grandiose harmonic structures of the post-rock/screamo milieu. He weaves some bluegrass instrumentation into the metal and breaks up the more aggressive tracks with renditions of three traditional mining songs, all dark and highly political.

With its continuously shifting style and its lengthy documentary samples, Kentucky works more like a soundtrack than a traditional album. It is, seemingly, intended as the musical equivalent of a great realist film, an effort to evoke the rot in the heart of America with a synthesis of visionary poetry and hard-eyed observation. Yet despite Lunn’s commendable earnestness, the album reminds me less of a desolate backwoods epic like Winter’s Bone than a mockumentary like Spinal Tap. The only thing transcendent about Panopticon’s latest is its totally unintentional humor value.

The album opens promisingly with Lunn’s original bluegrass instrumental ‘Bernheim Forest In The Spring’. There are enough gorgeous melodies within this sylvan tangle of banjo, fiddle and guitar parts to fill a short EP of less intricate music. Full of forward momentum, it instantly pulls the listener into Kentucky as envisioned by Panopticon, and into an emotional maze of yearning and joy. As it ends, there’s a palpable sense of potential, and experienced black metalheads will be twitching for release. But when the inevitable blastbeats come crashing in at the opening of ‘Bodies Over The Falls’, there’s no ripping tremolo riff, no soaring cloud of keyboards. Instead, Panopticon leads with a fucking flute, wailing out a stilted rehash of the Titanic song. This would-be theme barely coheres as a musical utterance, and it’s jarringly out of tune with the rhythm guitar part. Just when the flute joke starts wearing thin, Panopticon transforms it into an orgy of harmonised lead guitar. Imagine a riffless Thin Lizzy, or a clumsy shredder in a Euro power metal band trying desperately to impress thirteen-year-olds. It’s almost painful to hear Lunn playing this pseudo-melodic fluff with so much pomp and conviction, especially after his effortless lyricism on ‘Bernheim Forest…’.

This isn’t a momentary misstep. Throughout Kentucky, the unadulterated musical and lyrical power of the bluegrass songs testifies against the mannered weakness of Panopticon’s “metal” compositions. ‘Which Side Are You On’, a rallying cry for striking miners, is built on a martial stomp and a vicious pentatonic riff. Electrified and screamed, it would sound a lot like Graveland or Moonblood. And where ‘Bodies…’ is an Anthro 101 apologetic for the slaughter of the Kentucky Cherokee by the “palefaces”, ‘Which Side…’ is a vehicle for exquisitely grim propaganda. Its long-forgotten songwriter reveals a backwoods world where there are “no neutrals” and the threat of physical violence is ever present. He distinguishes between allies and enemies with the clarity of a polished knifeblade: “Will you be a lousy scab or will you be a man?” This is the true spirit of black metal, a spirit utterly absent from a song like ‘Black Soot And Red Blood’. Meandering from emo riffs to acoustic plucking to a smattering of metal tropes, this ten-minute ordeal sucks its secondhand gravitas from an interview with a veteran miner.

Mumford & Sons

From forthcoming Panopticon/Mumford & Sons split EP.

Despite Panopticon’s roots in the crust punk scene, Kentucky is as bloated as any progressive rock classic. Instead of cutting the bullshit, Lunn revels in it, maximising the length of tracks and piling on digressions as if these were inherently desirable features of music. ‘Killing The Giants As They Sleep’, the album’s aspiring epic, offers scant reward for enduring its twelve minutes. Opening with some of Panopticon’s signature non-riffage, it soon recalls the goofy flute motif from ‘Bodies…’. Past the three-minute mark, ‘Killing The Giants…’ begins to show its true colors. The beat drops out to highlight some flashy arpeggiated wankery, which opens up into a full-on wankfest in the august tradition of Opeth. There are many, many notes, all of them utterly disposable. It’s the musical equivalent of a very long sentence without a coherent structure, or even a verb. By 5:10 the guitars have pulled together into one of the album’s only cohesive, memorable themes. Panopticon milks it interminably, until the obligatory “post-rock” section seems like a welcome relief. Complete with sampled speech, introspective plucking and basic feedback manipulation, the only purpose this passage serves is to remind the listener that Lunn isn’t just some crusty metalhead – he’s into Godspeed, or Mogwai, or Indian Summer, or whatever. (These bands all wrote some long songs, but they were masters of the structural rigor that eludes Panopticon.) ‘Killing The Giants…’ concludes with predictable unpredictability, snapping back into a droning blast section enlivened by frenzied violin soloing. There’s chaos, but not much power.

Funny as it is, there’s also something sad about the way Kentucky cheapens the things it’s meant to celebrate. Rather than truly incorporating bluegrass into Panopticon’s sound, Lunn has exploited it as a musical condiment, a facile signal of novelty and depth. His emo/prog/metal riffing has nothing to do with bluegrass’s hallowed melodies or its horror vacuii approach to harmony, and the acoustic instruments do little more than suggest a vaguely “folky” atmosphere. While the old mining standards are, in themselves, Kentucky’s finest moments, they have no musical relationship to the metal tracks. They’re borrowed words and melodies, and in the arc of the album they function as filler. Panopticon is billed as fusing black metal and bluegrass, but Lunn has simply placed them side by side.

Panopticon gives coal mining the same superficial treatment as bluegrass. There can be no doubt of Lunn’s political commitment, but he has stumbled in his attempt to articulate these sentiments. In the context of a pastiche like Kentucky, left-wing mining lore appears as just another form of aesthetic supplement. Panopticon borrows the voices of miners in their songs and in their testimony – to lend its music a kind of secondhand authenticity. And yet the very act of borrowing gives the impression that there is an authenticity deficit to be overcome. The artist, in an attempt to bring his audience closer to his Appalachian home, inadvertently places them at a distance from it. There is also an ethical valence to this paradox: It’s fine to weigh in on someone’s behalf, but less adroit to speak for him. This is especially true when many coal miners now embrace the right-wing politics that destroyed both the unions and the mountains in which they toil. Lunn’s desire to commemorate bygone miner radicalism is understandable and sympathetic, but his cack-handed artistic intervention has more in common with an NPR documentary than a Woodie Guthrie album.

People seem to love Kentucky, but they don’t. What they love is its image – the profound and progressive album it purports to be. Kentucky achieves sublimity, however, only in the vast gap between what it promises and what it delivers. If you’re looking for some really good heavy metal union songs, try British Steel.

18 Comments

  • Reply August 15, 2012

    No Need

    The internet blogosphere at its worst. I used to really enjoy this site, but then it manifested a massively unfounded ego and, armed with a big ol’ thesaurus, began to thrust its unwarranted sense of self-importance upon anyone who had a basic grasp of the English language. It’s crap like this which keeps me from reading any sort of music press, because it’s not about evaluating music anymore, it’s about who hates things for superficial reasons the most while simultaneously making as many unrelated, pseudoeducated allusions as humanly possible. This writeup is a testament to the decadence of journalism and the new age of “well gosh, I listen to music and my ego could be considered a larger micronation by UN standards. TIME TO START A BLOG.”

    • Reply August 15, 2012

      Pavel

      “Micronation” is an awfully fancy word, did you look that one up in the thesaurus?

  • Reply August 15, 2012

    Richard

    Your tears sustain me. I can taste your bitter inadequacy as I lick them off your face. Don’t like it? Don’t read it. How about the “superficial” reason for hating something is because the music is terrible? And if you have problems understanding words, you can always look them up in a dictionary, pleb. But, hey, at least you’re not bored! Still, minus points to Pavel.

  • Reply August 15, 2012

    Tom

    This was a very amusing read, although I did actually enjoy the album. The first time I heard Bodies Under the Falls my first impression about the flute and it being jarring was the same. I’m surprised he chose it as the first thing to show from the album as it is probably one of the weaker songs imo. Aside from Social Diservices, which I like more, this would probably be Panopticon’s most accomplished work to date in my opinion. Kentucky feels a lot more cohesive than previous efforts such as Collapse, and the production actually manages to let the black metal and folk instrumentation shine though, as opposed to the muddy walls of noise with someone bashing a milk crate, playing grade 2 flute over the top. I still enjoy Panopticon’s splits more than his albums, the split with Skagos is very enjoyable, along with the 2nd split with Wheels Within Wheels. I have to say, I was pretty sceptical of this album, but I think he just about pulls it off. Pompous and a little bloated? Maybe, but I found it an evocative and enjoyable listen anyway.

    I look forward to reading the rebuttal

  • Reply August 16, 2012

    Johan

    Yeah, great read. I don’t think I have ever read something by Pavel I agreed with, and this is no exception. The rebuttal will be welcomed with open arms.

    “People seem to love Kentucky, but they don’t. What they love is its image – the profound and progressive album it purports to be. ”

    Dude. Really?

    • Reply August 16, 2012

      Pavel

      Really! Didn’t mean to suggest that people are actively pretending to like Kentucky, or anything like that. It’s just that this album ticks off all the boxes stereotypically associated with originality and beauty, so many people take the cues without really LISTENING to the music or thinking about it. They like this *kind* of post-black riffing rather than the riffs themselves, and they like “innovation” (in this case, mere novelty). Sure, the music makes them feel things, but with all the cheap efficacy of a standard Hollywood soundtrack. They latch onto the surface and miss the spirit. This is just how a lot of people experience music, but it’s also due to the active efforts of Pitchfork-style music writers and undiscriminating PR agencies. Not unlike their mainstream counterparts, they’ve succeeded in building a predictable, receptive market for new tripe.

      Don’t mean to suggest that you’re one of these superficial listeners–you have your own band, so I assume you pay attention to the shit that matters–but I do think you’re vastly overrating this one.

      • Reply August 17, 2012

        Johan

        Ok, then the point is clear. Still not agreeing, but I misread that last sentence then.

        Thanks for the positive assumption ;)

  • Reply August 16, 2012

    John

    I like Pavel, but I don’t like Pavel’s BRAIN.

    This is a really good read, but I obviously disagree. I’m literally greasing up my writing-muscles in the dressing room as we speak.

    • Reply August 17, 2012

      Pavel

      Good thing then, that when we first hang out IRL my brain will be utterly incapacitated by whiskey and ale! Glad you enjoyed the read, and looking forward to your riposte, sir.

    • Reply August 17, 2012

      Richard

      I think Pavel has a beautiful mind.

  • Reply August 18, 2012

    A.

    a lot of people won’t want to hear what’s being said in this article. I agree there’s a certain built up mystique behind this album, fueling the hype. Completely agree with this assessment, such weighty themes not appropriately treated by half measures

    • Reply August 18, 2012

      Pavel

      thanks man, glad to hear you dig the review

  • Reply August 19, 2012

    r

    We seek variation even with our basic biological needs: varying sex positions, drinking beverages other than water, not eating the same meal everyday. But for some reason it seems that anytime someone puts a variation on black metal, a war begins. It is perfectly normal for a record to receive criticism, in fact in my mind this is all evidence of a piece of art doing what it needs to do…rile up the masses (Stravinsky?), but i must say this writer shows his complete ignorance when integrating a banjo begets a a Mumford and Sons metaphor. The criticism then loses merit. Sorry buddy, better luck next time.

    • Reply August 19, 2012

      Pavel

      You talk about innovation, yet you’re basically reading from a script. Brandon Stosuy called and he wants his talking points back! But I’ll reply to a couple points anyway.

      I am not sure you read the body of the review. The problem isn’t that “Kentucky” sounds different, but that it is horribly written music, and that its purported originality is nothing but facile “variation.” The banjo, for instance, hasn’t been “integrated” in any real sense of the word. It’d easily be possible to weave banjo into the fabric of the metal itself–as Taake did so brilliantly on Noregs Vaapen–but instead it just pops up during filler tracks and Broken Social Scene interludes.

      So while the banjo is an obvious and very funny link to Mumford, the comparison is really about how the banjo is *used*. Both these bands make weak, pretentious music that depends more on “folky vibes” than any substantive engagement with folk music. I’d absolutely love to hear a bluegrass black metal album, but this isn’t it.

      What I am most offended by, however, is the comparison to Stravinsky, who–far from using folk as a branding device–completely re-imagined how classical music could work and what it could accomplish. And even then he didn’t just incorporate folk melodies and rhythms, as some of his Romantic predecessors already had. Instead, he utterly transmuted these sounds.

      If you are a false, don’t entry.

  • Reply September 4, 2012

    Ian

    “People seem to love Kentucky, but they don’t. What they love is its image – the profound and progressive album it purports to be.”

    I’m sorry, I thought music was a subjective and personal experience, with each person gathering their own experience(s), good or bad, from an album, I didn’t realize I was so wrong. I guess I’ll look to others to tell me how to feel about the music I listen to now. Shit like this really pisses me off. Where do you get off telling others how they interpret an album/piece of music. I get that you’re not a fan of the album, but you have no right telling others that how they feel towards an album is wrong.

  • Reply September 4, 2012

    gk

    “People seem to love Kentucky, but they don’t. What they love is its image – the profound and progressive album it purports to be.”

    - That’s just really pretentious. this was a really good and well thought out review till those last couple of sentences.

    I really liked this album. Live half way around the world from Kentucky, but coal mining and its effects has the same effect here as it does there. Found that this album had a rare resonance for me and after a long time, heard a black(ish) metal album that affected me emotionally. Looking forward to the rebuttal.

  • Reply October 23, 2012

    bRIAN

    i think after reading all this back and forth and what not, i have to go pee on my ouija board after i sacrifice a few beers and snort some afghani brown…….aaaahhhh now i feel like i can deal…thanx.

  • Reply May 3, 2013

    R

    Seems it’s all about being controversial theese days, not about music anymore. Congrats, I’m never going to read you again. I should have stopped doing it when you reviewed Swans’ The Seer without actually listening to it but I gave you another chance.

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