Review Summary: Which side are you on?
It’s no secret that Austin Lunn has a certain special attachment to his home state of Kentucky and its rich history of blue-collar workers living a crude, meager existence in the state’s thick forests. There is much inspiration to be drawn from the landscape, and even more to be found within the pages of past comings and goings, so the fact that Lunn chose to use his home as the backbone of Panopticon’s latest release proved to be very promising. The assurances that Lunn’s intense, atmospheric black metal would be paired with a hearty helping of folky bluegrass tunes instantly brought forth pictures of his sophomore release Collapse
, with its wonderful conclusion “Idavoll”, the interludes of “Aptrgangr”, and the outro to the album’s epic “The Death of Baldr and the Coming War” all sporting superb odes to the traditional style of the region. The aptly titled Kentucky
most certainly brings the listener on a foray deep into the backwoods and dripping mines of this southern state, but the lush landscapes and jaded people don’t fully materialize in the mind’s eye as they should considering the strength of the subject matter and the skill of the musician at the helm. While the bending rivers and dirty faces of the backwoods of Kentucky are home to Panopticon, it seems that this ode goes awry in places where it shouldn’t have.
For one, the promises of combining the typical Panopticon blend of atmospheric black metal with traditional bluegrass is one that was left unfulfilled in the worst kind of way. The structure of the album is almost hostile to the melding of these two opposing sounds, with bluegrass interlude being followed by lengthy black metal number being followed by bluegrass interlude and so on for the nearly the entire album. This glaring fault makes the flow of the record so blocky it is almost amateur in nature – not the kind of thing you would expect an otherwise fluid and experienced musician to release on his fourth LP. Not only is the album structured in a way that is unfriendly to its overall goal, what is present is weak considering what Lunn has shown he is capable of. There are still the screeching, distant vocals and soaring riffs, but despite the fact that their performances can’t be faulted the material being played is tired and weak. While being technically proficient, Kentucky
wallows in a stagnant pool that breaks only a few times, with “Black Soot and Red Blood” providing a placid, wonderful acoustic interlude that is sadly plastered over with a sampling of an old miner lamenting his woes about the company and about his life. Politically and emotionally charged it is, but given the fact that the working man’s grief that is so valiantly expressed in the bluegrass tunes “Come All Ye Coal Miners” and “Which Side Are You On?” isn’t backed up with the same fervor in the more intense numbers save the aforementioned sampling, the overall goal of the album’s subject matter falls by the wayside.
It is true that Lunn has pulled such antics before on “The Death of Baldr and the Coming War”, with its lengthy intro littered with political statements that really don’t carry much weight, but unlike that track Kentucky
does not reinforce its asides with massive and unwavering compositional arrangements. Kentucky
provides no such display of songwriting prowess, and the interludes are so utterly forgettable due to their clunky repetition and one-dimensional style that by the time “Black Waters” rolls around and pummels you with five minutes of almost nothing there is little desire to remain for the title track’s wonderful display of banjo plucking and true, down-to-earth style – and that is really the shame of this album. The two other traditional bluegrass tunes get their message across, but not in a way that is interesting or appealing musically. Not only could Kentucky
not fuse the bluegrass and black metal together in a way that makes the two seem as one, it cannot create more than one great track with each style: “Kentucky” and “Black Soot and Red Blood”. There are riffs here and there that are immensely pleasing – see the out-of-character melody in “Killing the Giants as They Sleep” – but they do not make up for a tired-sounding style that has been worn thin by this point in time. Lunn’s technical ability is unquestionably great – his drumming is still among the best in all of black metal – but the songwriting just isn’t there. It would be wonderful for there to be a seamless melding of black metal guitars and solemn, melancholy bluegrass vocals or the twang of a banjo backing vicious screams, but that simply does not occur. You have your black metal and your bluegrass – not much of both at the same time. The wild fiddle in “Killing the Giants as They Sleep” is bone-chilling, but it isn’t soulful bluegrass akin to the region.
is, without question, the most sloppily thought-out Panopticon release thus far. However, it is well-played and provides enough interesting moments to still be listenable. Let it be a lesson, though, that placing so much of two separate styles on the same record without letting the two intermingle is a volatile idea. There was plenty of hope, plenty of inspiration when it came to Kentucky
, but in the end it was poor songwriting choices that made it fail to achieve its main goal: to fuse Panopticon’s sound with the traditional sound of its home state. Taken individually the set of tracks here are generally good save a few duds, but as a concept and as a tribute to home it is lacking – there is not a single truly outstanding track on the entire album. Kentucky
is an album of polar opposites, of a style that sounds worn and tired, stubbornly refusing to save itself by allowing in other influences. Panopticon’s style has remained mostly unchanged since 2008’s Panopticon
, and unfortunately will remain so despite the chance to completely shatter the mold on Kentucky