Review Summary: This could have been so much better.
Panopticon is the one man extreme metal project of Kentuckian Austin Lunn, known for playing a style of atmospheric black metal occasionally blended with elements of Appalachian folk music and espousing an anarchist philosophy through his lyrics. Lunn has released five full-length albums under the Panopticon name and a plethora of split releases, averaging about one full-length and a split per year since the release of the excellent self-titled debut in 2008. The Appalachian folk influence began to emerge in 2009 with the full-length Collapse, but was downplayed on 2010’s much more atmospheric On the Subject of Mortality, and non-existent on 2011’s blisteringly heavy Social Disservices. 2012 found Panopticon bringing back the folk influence for the band’s fifth full-length album, Kentucky.
Kentucky, following the pattern of most other Panopticon releases, is a concept album, a concept album in which two themes can be identified. On the one hand, the album is a heartfelt tribute to Lunn’s beloved home state. On the other, the album serves as a biting criticism to that state’s violent past and its continuing abuses in the coal mining industry. With Kentucky, Lunn has managed to create a truly unique album. It is safe to say that this album is one of a kind, both in the style of music that is being played and the ambitious concept behind the album. There is a depth to this album that most artists can only dream of achieving. This album had the potential to be an absolute masterpiece, but unfortunately falls short due to several major issues that will be covered shortly.
Musically, this album is almost perfect. The music is extremely well performed by Lunn, with him playing every instrument except the violin, which is performed by guest musician Johan Becker. Besides the tight music performance, there is also an incredible amount of variety on Kentucky. The folk influence is featured to a far greater extent than what appeared on 2009’s Collapse, and serves as an anchor for the rest of the music. The simplicity of the folk style leaves its influence on the metal tracks and the more atmospheric “Black Waters”, even if the instrumentation is not always featured. This may seem a bit strange for a Panopticon release, but there are only three metal tracks present on this album. Granted, they all exceed ten minutes, but around half of this album is dedicated to other music styles, making Kentucky a clear departure from the band’s past material.
The folk instrumentation is used to great effect on one of the metal tracks of the album, the album’s second track, “Bodies Under the Falls”. The song kicks off in full black metal style, with a frenzy of distorted guitar and blastbeats played at a furious tempo. Also standing out very clear in the mix is a flute playing over the chaos of the other instruments. The addition of the flute gives the music a great folk metal feel, and makes “Bodies Under the Falls” easily one of the best tracks on the album. About halfway through the lengthy song, the metal breaks first into a slower, more atmospheric part, and then into a reprisal of a folk piece featured on a previous Panopticon album, 2009’s Collapse. Lyrically, the song deals with the betrayal and massacres of the indigenous Cherokee people by the early American settlers in Kentucky, displacing the natives to take their lands and wealth.
As a whole, the lyrics featured on Kentucky are very powerful, and deserve to be given full attention. That brings us to one of the biggest flaws in this album – the vocal performance. Lunn’s performance on Kentucky makes it clear that his style of harsh vocals has changed dramatically since the 2008 Panopticon debut. While his performance on that album was powerful, commanding, and easily deciphered, his performance on Kentucky cannot be described as anything other than weak. There is no emotion in the harsh vocals present on this album, and they are absolutely unintelligible without the lyric sheet. Since the album has such a deep and complex message, this stands as a major flaw. Not only are the vocals weak and hard to understand, they are also buried deep in the mix, making it even harder to make out the message he is trying to portray. Clearly Lunn is (or was) capable of performing quality vocals, the self-titled album and Collapse are testament to that fact. He just does not provide an adequate performance on Kentucky, and that really is a shame. The depth of the music and concept deserve much better.
That being said, the clean vocals featured on the folk covers are performed extremely well, and add a new dimension to Panopticon’s music, with all vocals on previous albums having been exclusively harsh. The traditional songs were carefully chosen to fit with the theme of the album, two written by union workers in the 1930’s, and serve as a relevant inclusion. A particular album highlight is his cover of the Jean Ritchie song “Black Waters”, which Lunn turns into a beautiful ambient track with heavily reverbed clean vocals.
Another key aspect of Kentucky is the choice of samples Lunn featured in the metal tracks. Samples have frequently been used on past Panopticon releases, but on Kentucky they are used to underscore the overall theme of the album quite effectively. The samples chosen for use on Kentucky are a mix of union workers telling their stories and Kentuckians speaking of the beautiful natural landscape of their home state and how it is being destroyed through coal mining. These samples are the perfect choice for the album, and are most effective on the track “Black Soot and Red Blood”. The sample consists of a very moving interview with an elderly coal worker talking about the abuses he had received when he went on strike.
While the samples are very effective and moving, there is often a huge issue in the way they are presented. More often than not the samples are buried in the mix and simply impossible to understand. Halfway through the sample in “Black Soot and Red Blood” the electric guitar kicks in and drowns out the second half of what the man is saying. This poor mixing severely detracts from the album, as the samples are such a key part of the political message the album is trying to convey. The covering up of the samples is a major disappointment, and serves to prevent Kentucky from getting its real message to listeners.
All in all, Kentucky stands as a frustratingly flawed masterwork. While in its finished form it stands as a good album, it had the potential to be so much more. In fact, all of the elements of a perfect album are present on this release; they are just ruined by the poor mix and unsatisfactory vocal performance. That being said, the album is still definitely worth a listen for any fans of metal music. It really is a one of a kind album. Even if you are not interested in the political theme behind the album, the music is very well-crafted, and, excluding the extreme vocals, is also very well-performed. If you are interested in the themes and politics behind this album it is encouraged to read the lyrics while listening, as you will get far more out of it than you would from simply listening.
Album Highlights: “Black Waters”, “Bodies under the Falls”, “Black Soot and Red Blood”