Environment, unions, bluegrass, and metal: Panopticon’s “Kentucky”

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Louisville's one-man metal band Panopticon has been redefining its genre since 2007.

Vocalist/guitarist/bassist/drummer Austin Lunn plays black metal mixed with bluegrass, called "blackgrass" - a newly emerging subgenre that just a handful of artists currently play. Bridging the gap between his favorite music and his cultural roots, Lunn's newest album, Kentucky, takes an important look at the plight of the Kentucky coal miners, environmentalism, and unions.

Culturally, Panopticon is a band that fits perfectly on the Cascadian Black Metal spectrum. The Cascadian scene is so named because it first developed in the Cascadian Mountain region; such bands played a particular, folk-tinged style of black metal, which almost always touched upon nature and the environment - and sometimes paganism or mysticism. The scene has spread in recent years - as far south as Kentucky, which is where Panopticon took the reigns, linking environmentalism with the historical fight for workers' rights.

Kentucky, in its eight lyrically and emotionally adept songs, covers corporate greed, union busting, environmental abuse, and the bonds of workers and family - and those are just the main themes. Referencing real historical events from the 1930s up to the present, Panopticon laments how mountaintop removal (which involves using explosives to uncover coal) is a profit-driven practice that cuts coal miners' jobs, poisons local ecosystems, and poisons workers themselves.

Worker conditions and union strength

The mountains of Kentucky, said Lunn in an interview with Worm Gear 'Zine, "are being crumbled. Coal companies are always on the defensive, and the Republicans are at it again with the "Stop the War on Coal Act." Mining site areas are among the poorest in the nation, the most polluted with the lowest quality of life, and [the Republicans] say there's a war on coal? How about a war on the environment and workers!

"The legislation is a combination of five bills. Among other things, it would block the EPA's ability to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from power plants and other sources, and prevent rules on the storage and disposal of coal ash."

Lunn also sings about the anti-union actions that coal miners endured, including the use of "gun thugs" by coal companies (private guards hired to intimidate union organizers and keep them out of coal mines and company towns), and the workers' eventual victory, through organizing under the United Mine Workers of Amerca, that won them unionization and collective bargaining rights.

"Worker conditions and union strength are issues that are close to my heart," Lunn remarked. "I firmly believe the boss needs us - we don't need the boss. So for me, it was moving what happened in eastern Kentucky: there was brutality, bloodshed, and horror, but the people there stood for something, banded together, and fought for what they believed in. I think the union struggle of the 30's and 70's is something we can all learn from - taking responsibility for ourselves and taking care of our communities."

"This is an industry that views workers as disposable, and views the landscape as disposable," says the voice of a coal miner, sampled during the song "Come All Ye Coal Miners."

"These weren't black-clad anarchists or hippies," Lunn clarified. "They were families and the elderly - people wanting their kids to be able to play on the playground toxin-free. The last lines of that song talk about coal companies not giving a sh*t about the people who work for them, or the communities around mining sites."

Moments of pure blackgrass

Overall, Kentucky is generally pretty successful at mixing traditional black metal with bluegrass and, sometimes, folk music. Lunn blends blackened screams with bluesy singing; electric guitar with banjo. The instrumental swaps and combinations seem to work, but there is still some additional blending that could be done. For example, "Which Side Are You On?" (a powerful pro-worker anthem) is entirely a bluegrass song, while "Killing the Giants as They Sleep" is basic black metal. But on songs like "Black Soot and Red Blood," there are moments of pure blackgrass.

The instrumental "Bernheim Forest in the Spring," meanwhile, harkens back to the nature-worship that Cascadian Black Metal was built upon; it also evokes the softer elements of prog metal bands like Opeth. And "Bodies Under the Falls" takes a lyrical left-turn, as it is by and large about the killings of Cherokee Indians in Kentucky by "palefaces." These songs still fit in perfectly with their peers, and measure up to what seems to be the album's main theme: the historical assaults that have been waged against the people and land in Kentucky.

Kentucky teaches the listener that gritty, scream-filled bluegrass is not a paradox; nor is it a trend or a joke. An open mind, and a pair of ears well-accustomed to black metal's sound structure, are required for this music to be enjoyed. But even for those whose taste blackgrass may not suit, Panopticon's lyrical statements alone ought to be appreciated as art with an eye for labor and environmental history.

New bands in the 'Cascadian' scene are now popping up in different regions - from the Rust Belt to the Deep South - bringing along with them perspectives that are progressive and much more philosophical than black metal's Scandinavian pioneers. At the forefront of this movement is Panopticon, who, though having acquired only an underground fanbase, represents pro-union, pro-nature black metal in its finest hour.

Photo: Official Panopticon Facebook page

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