For Kentucky, the fifth album from one-man black metal project Panopticon, Andrew Lunn dove headfirst into one of the more ambitious and unlikely approaches to extreme music.
Drawing on his own upbringing in Kentucky, he sought to mesh traditional bluegrass and Appalachian sounds with the assaultive metal that he built his project on, doing so as a way to explore his home state's long history of socioeconomic struggles.
The concept was wildly imaginative at best and risked being completely ludicrous, but Kentucky accomplished the near impossible feat of finding common ground between the two disparate music styles.
Lunn plays all the instruments on the album's eight selections, beginning with the bluegrass hootenanny intro of "Bernheim Forest in Spring." It's a wild barn dance complete with squeaky fiddle, banjo, string bass, and mandolin.
The minor-key melody, while rural, still holds a sinister undercurrent that explodes into the foreground when the song abruptly opens up into the black metal swarm of the ten-minute-plus "Bodies Under the Falls." Here Lunn screams in a feral howl over blastbeats and burning dual guitars, playing medieval flute lines over the increasingly melodic metal riffing.
After the epic, multi-part song winds down, the folk dirge "Come All Ye Coal Miners" breaks down to creaky vocals and banjo.
Themes of poor, hard-working Southern folks boil up between the blasts of metal in this tune and the labor union anthem "Which Side Are You On?" The juxtaposition of pained, howling black metal and Appalachian folk-blues works better than expected.
Lunn's commentary on social injustices, wealth disparity, and oppression draws direct lines between traditional Appalachian folk and unrelenting metal statements like "Killing the Giants as They Sleep." Both styles are born of different strains of the same frustration, and Lunn's deft architecture threads the two together with sampled sounds of interviews about the coal industry and foggy ambient stretches.
Kentucky's singular vision gives it an impact far beyond the simple gut-punch of extreme performances.
Lunn explores lives destroyed by social injustice and the anger, pain, and vitriol of people being looked upon as less than human because of their economic status.
It's as vulnerable as it is challenging and serves as one of the smarter and more emotionally complex metal records of its time.