If you’re not familiar with Panopticon you’re not alone. Though the project has been around for a few years now Panopticon has reshaped much of the metal genre. But you’ve probably never heard of the band nor its mastermind: Austin Lunn. Panopticon is a one man music project incorporating elements of folk, bluegrass, industrial, post-rock, and of course Black Metal. A rarity in the music world, all the instruments (unless noted on the records) are played, masterfully by Lunn. Oh, and another thing: he is Heathen, which is yet another thing that separates Panopticon as an innovator in the music world. His mix of music, anarchist ideas, and Heathenry makes for a unique voice not only in the Black Metal scene but also within Heathenry. His approach to music can only be explained as falling deep within the DIY ethic. In fact, he makes all of his merchandise by hand. In his own words “there’s a strong folk element to the band, as I am very into my family/blood heritage. I am certainly proud of the fact that my ethnic roots are firmly planted in Scandinavia, as I find it to be a rich and beautiful culture. Heathenism and many forms of paganism have been bastardized by nationalism and Christianity, robbing us of our ethnic identity and replacing it with feeble minded religions and racism, so it excites me to see Norse mythology and Scandinavian culture present in a lot of black metal….just as long as it is not associated with right wing bullshit and NSBM (National Socialist Black Metal) garbage.” When discussing his personal balance of anarchism and Heathenry he explains “It is often difficult to reconcile spirituality with radical political thought in this particular social and political climate, as many people in radical communities look down upon spiritual traditions, and its counterpart is that many people who search for spirituality have no interest in and in fact are often appalled by political concerns.”
His latest creation is an album which has received rave reviews is now in my current personal rotation, here is my review of the album:
Panopticon’s new album Kentucky starts out with something uncharacteristic of Black Metal genre: bluegrass. A wandering fiddle, lightning mandolin and banjo picking draw the listener into the local land of the albums namesake. Not typical of Black Metal it is distinctly heathen in its embrace of regional culture and folk tradition. The hallmark of the album is the mixing of old and new, traditional anti-capitalist labor folk tunes and hearthammering Black Metal. To say the music is above average in its musicianship is an understatement. It is hard to believe one person playing all these instruments so well. The drumming is not mindless blast beats typical of the genre but a flowing rhythmic orchestration. Soaring guitar riffs and solos do much to give a feel of the Kentucky landscape of green hills and babbling brooks. This type of music is unique in its ability to evoke a landscape and essential in a song like “Bodies Under the Falls” about “spilt blood and splintered bone where Cherokee ghosts roam” and how “the price owed could never be paid.” One new development in Panopticon’s sound is bass guitar that flows seamlessly with the drums accenting while not overpowering, giving the feel of a master plan come to fruition. Also the elements of post-rock riffing transitions well back to this blackened bluegrass masterpiece. A storytelling slide guitar again leads the listener back to a rising crescendo of electrics and break down drumming giving the Panopticon sound a distinct live feel while Austin Lunn screams like a madman.
Another new is the straight up folk music. While previous albums like Collapse showcased a similar bluegrass sound, it has now matured like a fine whiskey in this latest attempt. The Folk music is reflective of the hard working coal miners who fought tooth and nail against the capitalist Coal Barons in the state of Kentucky. “Come All Ye Coal Miners,” a traditional song, proclaims that we should send the capitalist system straight to hell, while long samples by about labor struggles from the area give a background to America’s history of homegrown struggle. If you can’t tell: this ain’t Viking Metal, and it’s much more evolved and by the gods, is it Heathenry-evolved. A new synthesis and a look into what Heathenry could look like in America. Wholly Heathen, and wholly American it is a blending of both cultural traditions.
The acoustics in “Black Soot and Red Blood” perfectly score a sample from a coal worker speaking about how he and his fellow workers struggled against the capitalists, politicians and priests to overcome and win concessions to better their lives. When followed by “Which Side Are You On” you know you’re in for a short history of radical workers in Kentucky. This song is a take on the traditional song written Florence Reece in 1931. Reece was the wife of Sam Reece, a union organizer for the United Mine Workers in Harlan County, Kentucky. In 1931, the miners of that region were locked in a bitter and violent struggle with the mine owners called the “Harlan County War” which gave the county its nickname “Bloody Harlan.” The Industrial Workers of the World helped organize the workers and defend picket lines from bosses and scabs that literally shot at strikers. A similar struggle happened in the 70’s also resulting in death as documented in the movie Harlan County, USA.
The album bounces back from serious folk struggle to hardcore Black Metal with “Killing The Giants As They Sleep”. An epic to be sure, the song shifts from supersonic black metal to atmospheric distortion and interweaves with samples about mountain top coal removal creating a dark song worthy of your attention for 12 minutes. Giving way to the next track “Black Waters”, the listener is transported to an echo chamber of yet another genre bending soundscape. Finally the title track “Kentucky” is an instrumental blue grass ditty one can only imagine being played around a campfire full of Heathens after Winternacht.
Showing the innovation on a currently expanding genre and an embrace in regionalism mixed with a dash of anarchism makes me think this might be not only the best Black Metal album to date but perhaps also the most Heathen album to date. Shaking off the macho Vikingsness associated with ‘Heathen music’ and embracing a real viewpoint is what separates this wheat from the chaff of other Heathen music projects. Hopefully mastermind Austin Lunn’s blackened bluegrass sound sticks and we get an album coupled with that and a focus more on Heathen spirituality. Until then we will have to wait for Panopticon to top what is clearly a masterpiece: Kentucky.
Kentucky track listing:
1. Bernheim Forest In Spring (2:54)
2. Bodies Under The Falls (10:28)
3. Come All Ye Coal Miners (4:13)
4. Black Soot And Red Blood (10:11)
5. Which Side Are You On? (3:00)
6. Killing The Giants As They Sleep (12:25)
7. Black Waters (4:57)
8. Kentucky (3:21)
Pick up some merchandise direct from the man himself here.
Also pick up the new record here.
Some of his albums are hard to find or out of print, so you can grab a download of these albums over at the Red and Anarchist Black Metal Blog
And check out their “Pagan Metal” section and a cool band called Oakhelm.
Also there is another cool Heathen band of note along these same lines called Falls of Rauros. They are a Black Metal band from Maine who describes their music as “North Appalachian Heathen Black Folk Metal,” which is exhibited by their firm beliefs in returning the world to a pre-Christian time, as well as their “appreciation for nature”, their lyrical themes are: “Nature, Misanthropy, Anarchism.” Here is their website.