By Van Darden (TX)
Folk metal has always been the Europeans' game. Between trolls and goblins, Celtic warriors and the Norse Eddas, kokles, kanteles, and fucking humppa, the Germanic and Scandinavian hinterlands have long produced enough historical fodder to satisfy even the frilliest of frilly-shirted lute shredders and they've kept it pretty much on lock since its inception.
Folk metal in the U.S., on the other hand, has been a much dicier prospect. Too much Euro-aping, not enough honest-to-God soul-searching. To be fair, the U.S. got a much later start in life and its endemic musical traditions are far less entrenched historically than their continental brethren. But the Nifty Fifty are nonetheless full of traditional folk styles unique almost to their respective acre.
It's troublesome, in fact, that it took even this long to reconcile traditional American folk music and black metal. Sounds like such a simple idea, right? I mean, look how well -- and for how long -- it's worked for the Europeans.
Well, leave it to a good ol' boy from Kentucky to solve this particular conundrum.
Austin Lunn, of Louisville, Ken., is that man, and Kentucky, his fourth full-length recording as Panopticon, is that missing link.
On the surface, Kentucky is a vicious screed against Big Coal played out in blistering black metal and Appalachian bluegrass. But it's both more monumental and more personal than that. You can hear the work put into it, feel the rawness of its product. With this kind of immediacy, it's easy to imagine this album being made by real, actual people -- people who care deeply about their particular corner of the world, who've put down roots and made it home -- coming together as a labor of love and of fierce, passionate defense.
"Ultimately, I made this album for me and my friends and family," Lunn said via e-mail. "So if anyone digs it out side of that, I consider it a bonus."
Big Coal came to the mountaintop and cut its head off. Now the people in the valley below are paying the price -- the mining companies as Goliath; Lunn and Co., the Davids of Louisville and Lexington and Muhlenberg County.
As for the music itself, Lunn provides the bulk of the instrumentation, his familiar, frantic blasting locomoting three 10-minute-plus black metal heart-wringers that are book-ended by -- and intersected with -- traditional folk ballads, protest chants, shapenote ambiance and pentecostal gospel, all of it filtered through a deeply Kentucky holler-specific vocabulary of lush, Appalachian bluegrass. Banjos, fiddles (provided by progressive/atmospheric metallers Austaras' Johan Becker), mandolins and penny-whistles nestle comfortably next to melodic, mid-fret Scandi shredding, southern-fried power solos, unrelenting blizzard blasts and ghostly, throat-shredding diatribes.
For anyone who's been to a house show at a punk squat featuring an anarcho-crust band in Darkthrone and Antisect patches who train-hopped to play an acoustic set in a crowded living room, none of this would be new territory.
For everyone else, Kentucky is that living room.
Between blasts, Lunn drops in the occasional traditional folk anthem ("Come All Ye Coal Miners," "Which Side Are You On?") or soundbite from an interview or town-hall meeting that fillets open the brutal, heartbreaking pathos at work in this hidden, uniquely American tragedy. The ache that runs deeply through Kentucky isn't for the distance ahead, but for the distance behind, before the coal companies moved to town and raped the land.
"This is an industry that views workers as disposable, and views the landscape as disposable, and it's all about getting the coal out of the ground as quickly and cheaply as possible," one man is heard saying, his voice hard -- vengeful, even.
The mournful "Black Soot and Red Blood" ends with the sounds of a mob chanting at a sit-in at the West Virginia state capital building and the harrowing sample of an 91-year-old woman asking a union scab if he's ready to die.
"These weren't black-clad anarchists and hippies, they were families and the elderly, people wanting their kids to play on the playground toxin-free," Lunn said. "The last lines of that song talk about the coal companies not giving a shit about the people who work for them and the communities around mining sites, so a sample from that protest, just on the border of Kentucky, for me, was perfect."
It's blood-chilling stuff and proof of how folk metal can be more -- way more -- than sappy nature samples and polka beats.
Panopticon's Kentucky is available on double vinyl from Handmade Birds and from Pagan Flames.