October 2021 Feature Release – The North Edition
So just like that we find that a new month is upon us which of course means that we’ll be nominating a brand new monthly feature release for each clan. This essentially means that we’re asking you to rate, review & discuss our chosen features for no other reason than because we enjoy the process & banter. We’re really looking forward to hearing your thoughts on our chosen releases so don’t be shy.
This month’s feature release for The North has been nominated by Sonny. It's 2012's fourth album "Kentucky" from Kentucky-based atmospheric black metallers Panopticon.
Atmospheric black metal with an Americana focus and a surprisingly left-wing political agenda that is among some of the best black metal I've heard in years. I think that many extreme metal purists will not find much use for a band like Panopticon since they constantly swap back and forth between the pummeling black metal passages, and the bluegrass inspiration that makes it's way on the foik/protest songs, and the title track. But if you are looking for some beautiful, progressive black metal, there are very few artists that can do it better than Austin Lunn and Panopticon!
Excellent choice for this month's featured release for The North Clan, nice one Sonny. My review is quite recent for this and I have nothing further to add other than to say that since writing the review and understanding the theme behind it I have now watched the film-documentary, Harlan County and it is every bit as fascinating to a nerdy local history fan like me. I don't think it would have as much relevance for me had I not heard Panopticon beforehand, however the album defines and frames the struggle really well and adds a real dimension to it.
Kentucky gets touted as the "breakthrough" release for Panopticon but I have to say it has taken me a good near decade to get to grips with it and its combination of folk, bluegrass and black metal elements. Without going into too much detail, if the album cover doesn't give it away, the subject matter for the album is the labour struggles in mining in (fittingly) Kentucky with a heavy focus on the film-documentary Harlan County, USA from which many samples are used to great effect.
It is a challenge to get the balance of samples right in a record. They all too easily clash in my experience and can quite quickly become a distraction that detracts from the music itself. However, Panopticon give a masterclass in the application of the samples here, using the black metal elements to give them a real sense of drama and the bluegrass and folk elements to underline the real human aspect to the stories also. As such it is an album you feel compelled to listen to in its entirety in order to do both the record itself and the stories real justice.
The styles of music all have a relevant place here and all are firmly placed across the record with 3 tracks being folk covers and 3 being predominantly black metal (Black Waters sits as some ambient track towards the end - again adding depth; some reflection as the album draws to a close). This combination of genres works well overall on the album as a whole but on individual tracks the transitions don't always feel they are executed cleanly and whilst never sounding clunky as such they do keep the record off full marks on the rating.
For such a passionate subject matter there's a feeling that the storytelling is done sensibly and the album feels that more sincere and authentic to the cause as a result. It's sparked an interest in me to go and watch the documentary and learn more which is what good music should do I suppose. My initial reservation some ten years ago upon first hearing this seems nonsensical now and is evident of my lack of musical maturity at the time because overall this works and is one of the few albums in recent years i have truly connected with.
I think it's fair to say that "Kentucky" was never going to be something that I'd claim to be right up my alley but that's not to say that it's a bad record by any measure. I actually quite liked it in the end but there are a few things that hold me back from getting too excited about this coal-mining themed one-man black metal experiment. It's not a very dark black metal record with some of the more melodic sections possessing an atmosphere that glistens with a positivity that wouldn't feel out of place on a blackgaze release while the mining themes don't really seem to fit all that well within the context of such a cold, primitive & raw style of extreme music if you ask me. The other major obstacle I discovered is that the first few tracks do very little for me so the album doesn't really get going until track four in my opinion. That poor start meant that my first listen was a bit of a write-off as I was already pretty disappointed by track four & subsequently didn't allow the remainder of the record a decent chance of recovery. A couple of revisits have since seen me overcoming that issue & I've found that I actually get a fair bit of enjoyment out of tracks 4 through 9, particularly "Black Soot & Red Blood", "Killing the Giants As They Sleep" & "Black Waters" which are all very solid pieces of work in their own right.
In saying that though, I'm definitely not onboard with the few sections that see an instrument that sounds very much like a pan-flute or a recorder being poorly amalgamated within an extreme metal framework. That shit just doesn't sit all that well with this old metalhead but thankfully those parts are generally short-lived & are often followed by some of the better sections of the album. There's a strong post-rock influence scattered across the tracklisting too & those sections clearly sit amongst the most impressive parts of the record for me as I'm quite partial to an introspective interlude or two in my extreme metal. The vocal shrieks aren't amazing & some of the instrumentation isn't as polished as some but there's a good energy to a lot of the more brutal sections & the solemn bluegrass pieces are well executed & generally offer a depth, authenticity & integrity that allows them to feel more substantial than anything you'd find on your run-of-the-mill folk metal release. In fact, the consistent inclusion of folk music on this album initially left me confused as to why "Kentucky" is rarely labelled as Pagan Black Metal but I've since realized that it's the subject matter that's the roadblock there.
I think it's fair to say that I found "Kentucky" to be an intriguing if not all that enticing prospect on paper but hindsight has seen me admitting that it's over-achieved on its promise in practice. I'm not sure it's the type of thing that I'll be returning to all that regularly which mostly comes down to taste but it certainly has some artistic merit & deserves points for effort & ambition as much as anything else.
For fans of Saor, Wolves In The Throne Room & Skagos.