Kentucky: an impassioned and fiery black metal / bluegrass clarion call for justice and the preservation of history

Panopticon, Kentucky, Pagan Flames, CD (2012)

My loyal, faithful fans – they probably number no more than a few misguided and socially maladjusted souls in desperate need of a more fulfilling life – who’ve been following my blatherings on TSP for many years will know that sometimes I get quite political and go off on rants totally unrelated to the music under review. Here at last is a recording over which I can now wax lyrical over politics and social justice; into the bargain also is the fact that it’s a black metal album! Yessiree, that most “apolitical” and socially apathetic of music genres has yielded an inspired and impassioned recording that comes down squarely on the side of one of the most marginalised, impoverished, embattled and least celebrated groups in modern America: the people, in particular the coal-miners, of the Appalachian mountain region in the eastern US. USBM one-man band Panopticon’s “Kentucky” revolves around the history of the struggles of the coal-miners of eastern Kentucky against their employers, the state and federal governments, and established religion for the right to form trade unions, improve their wages and working and living conditions, and give their families and communities a decent life.

The music is a splendid mix of aggressive and pile-driving black metal, stirring bluegrass music performed on banjo and violin, melodic post-rock and spoken voice and found sound recordings. Together with its subject matter, “Kentucky” comes close to being something a more fired-up Godspeed You Black Emperor could have produced if that band had incorporated some black metal aspects. Particular highlights of the album include Panopticon leader A. Lunn’s adaptation of “Come All Ye Coal Miners” which finishes with brief coal-mine work ambience and a brief speech on the history of the exploitation of mine workers and the land alike; “Black Soot and Red Blood” which details the battles the miners fought against a formidable multi-headed enemy; and the instrumental outro track “Kentucky”, a beautiful homage on banjo, resonator and mandolin to the mountains and forests of Kentucky state and the ghosts of people who died defending their lands and communities.

Songs on the album are arranged in a historical time-line form the early history of native Americans to the present and the music proceeds from the personal – two locations in rural Kentucky dear to A Lunn’s heart – to the historical and general.

Admittedly this is not a perfect work – some of the black metal can be repetitive and bombastic and the vocal on “Black Waters” is so distant and blurry that the lyrics can hardly be heard – but the sentiment behind the music is a deeply felt one and powers it all the way through the album. “Kentucky” is a clarion call to all decent-minded people to remember the history of the coal miners in Appalachia and their fight for a decent life, and to support present efforts of community and environmental groups to preserve the lands and natural resources of southeastern Kentucky.

Some of the profits from sales of this album are being donated to fight the use of mountain-top removal as a mining method in Kentucky. Mountain-top removal is a particularly hideous and devastating form of large-scale mining: it involves using dynamite or other explosives to blast away forest, top soil and hundreds of vertical metres of rock to expose coal seams. The debris is dumped into nearby valleys and river-beds, causing silt-up and disrupting the natural flow of streams and rivers. The consequences of this form of mining, while it dispenses with the expense and hazards involved in sending miners underground, can be imagined: air pollution including toxic aerial chemicals, increased soil erosion in affected areas, increased risks of flash-flooding and mudslides threatening homes and communities, pollution of groundwater to name a few.

In addition, the areas affected by mountain-top removal in both Kentucky and neighbouring parts of West Virginia state have historic, cultural and archaeological significance as several of them were the scenes of bitter fighting in the Battle of Blair Mountain, fought by 10,000 coal-miners and supporters against mining companies, local law enforcement and eventually the US Army, in West Virginia in 1921.  Several thousand coal-miners who took part in this battle, the largest armed civil uprising in US history after the American Civil War, came over from Kentucky; the miners also received support from local communities, in particular from returned WW1 veterans and medical people who treated wounded miners. The uprising was crushed severely and miners were forced back into the mines on pay and working conditions made worse than before. However the battle also raised public awareness of and sympathy for the appalling working conditions that coal-miners had to face, and eventually in the 1930s the miners benefited from political, social and economic changes brought about by President Franklin D Roosevelt’s New Deal policies.

However as the fight to preserve Blair Mountain from mining demonstrates, the battle for worker rights and to preserve the memory of this battle continues.

Contact: Pagan Flames