Metal as protest music is a vein rich in history, but a vein far too often left unmined by rock journos. From Sabbath’s “War Pigs” to the entirety of Napalm Death’s output. From Sepultura to Brutal Truth. From Hammers of Misfortune to any number of Anthrax’s most powerful songs. Metal has long addressed socio-political concerns in ways that go far beyond the “we’re all fucked” message that many might take away from its aesthetics.
Black metal, though? It’s easy to write most of it off as a blind celebration of all that is evil, misanthropic and anti-human. Public perception is that it tends toward the apolitical at best, and tends toward neo-Naziism at worst. While a good case can be made for black metal’s embrace of Satanic and Pagan ideologies and spirituality as a basic protest against organized religious influence in society, and its “back to nature” proponents as engaging in protest against the industrialization and needless consumerism of the modern era (both essentially apolitical or nonpartisan stances), few artists engage in actual political messaging or activism. (For a good overview and sampling of artists that prove the exception to this rule, check out the Red & Anarchist Black Metal blog for some inspiring choices.)
Few artists are Kentucky’s Austin Lunn (aka A. Lundr), the powerhouse behind Panopticon.
Panopticon’s latest album Kentucky follows in the tradition of his previous works, in that he uses the brutality and atmospherics of black metal to deliver broadsides attacking a wide variety of political injustices from a socialist-anarchist and Pagan point of view. On this album, like the previous Social Disservices, he focuses on one issue: in this case, the plight of Appalachian workers struggling to survive as those at the top profit from their plight, while echoes of the victims of previous exploitation (the Indian nations slaughtered for their land) reverberate through the mountains.
In turns rousing and mournful, joyous and furious, Panopticon blend rustic Kentucky bluegrass with modern black metal to create one of the most beautiful albums I’ve heard in years. It’s not common for a black metal album to move me nearly to tears, but this one does. Tears of rage, tears of sorrow, tears shed in solidarity for a people and a land treated as disposable. The musicianship on this album is absolutely stunning, serving as proof to any doubters that black metal can evoke the same wide palette of emotion the best of any music can, and it’s hard to believe (as is typically the case with Panopticon) that it’s all executed by one guy. The bluegrass sections are deftly woven within the whole. The Depression-era protest songs “Come All Ye Coal Miners” and “Which Side Are You On?” (which interpolates a portion of “O Death”) explicitly tie the surrounding tracks to the protest canon. The soundbites of activists and miners bring the injustices to the surface, in case you have trouble deciphering Munn’s vocals. And the album ends as it begins, with an evocation of place (“Bernheim Forest in Spring” and the title track, “Kentucky”) that not only conjures up vivid imagery of the Kentuckian landscape as well as the spirit of its inhabitants, but emphasizes that we should be careful and thoughtful stewards of this land in a time when it is close to being ruined via disastrous mining techniques (a message carried forward from the penultimate track, a black metal cover of the folk song “Black Waters”).
In short, this album is a must-buy. Particularly since a portion of the profits are donated to Kentuckians for the Commonwealth in order to fight mountaintop removal, which is decimating the Appalachian landscape.