In 1976, filmmaker Barbara Kopple released Harlan County U.S.A., a documentary delving into Kentucky coal miners’ 1973 Brookside Strike against the Eastover Coal Company and its larger corporate owners. Critics largely regarded the film as an instant classic, with Kopple receiving an Oscar for Best Documentary Feature, but despite the region’s increased attention and the strike’s eventual success, coal country’s inhabitants unequivocally lost the long-term war. Today finds Appalachia left to slowly bleed out as politicians repeatedly take advantage of its remaining resources and workforce, promising a revitalization that will simply never come. Liberal intelligentsia deride those suckered into voting for Trump and his cronies, while providing no viable alternatives for those who can’t imagine future generations’ oceans burning because they’re too preoccupied trying to imagine next week’s paycheck.
Permanent Records is an ongoing closer look at the records that matter most.
Unsurprisingly, coal country begets a particularly disenfranchised and frustrated kind of musician, which over the years has resulted in a diverse, underappreciated array of metal groups alongside the region’s perennial folk and bluegrass acts. In 2012, one such local, Austin Lunn, single-handedly wrote, recorded, and quietly released his fifth full-length under the moniker of Panopticon. Named after his home, Kentucky merged these disparate genres to set a blaze in the Southern sky, propelling Lunn to American metal’s forefront while helping to push the boundaries of what larger audiences could consider American folk music. Seven years later, Kentucky stands as one of the genre’s most striking and singular releases—simultaneously a love letter to Lunn’s home state, a eulogy to the generations literally and figuratively crushed under the weight of the coal industry, and a furious, apocalyptic street-corner sermon warning what’s to come for our environment.
Originally from Memphis, Austin Lunn grew up “dirt-ass poor” not far from the site where union busters opened fire on strikers and Kopple’s film crew in Kentucky. In his twenties, he worked various day-laborer jobs as a factory lineman or sorting trash at the local dump. During off-hours Lunn wrote and performed around the Louisville area with deep-cut metal outfits like Anagnorisis and Saor, but focused most of his original work into bedroom recordings as Panopticon.
To describe Lunn as prolific would be an understatement. Between 2008 and 2012, he released four full-lengths and five split records. Another three splits and three albums have followed, his most recent of which, 2018’s The Scars Of Man On The Once Nameless Wilderness, is a double LP clocking in at just under two hours. All of these feature Lunn playing essentially every instrument on every song.
Panopticon enjoyed a minor following in an already niche subgenre prior to Kentucky, which is to say no one outside extreme metal circuits knew it. Lunn toyed with folk instrumentation and melodies on past releases, but Kentucky’s radical merging of the two worlds marked what can be considered his first “commercial” success. The term “folk-metal” sends shudders through most metalheads, conjuring men dressed as Vikings playing electric lutes atop Scandinavian cliffs, bellowing about drunkenly sailing ships they’ve never even seen, much less piloted. Lunn’s Kentucky tackled the idea in a drastically different sense, blending Appalachian culture, not caricature, with his passion for metal.
But for all its intricate weaving of disparate sounds, the album essentially arose spontaneously, spurred by Lunn’s intense love of the natural world. “Kentucky wasn’t a planned record. It was inspired by a hike in the woods with [Lunn’s wife] Bek,” Lunn explained in a rare interview, recounting being so overwhelmed by his surroundings’ beauty that he went home and immediately started recording without anything concrete written. “I spent all week recording that album, just running off of the inspiration of the woods I tread and the state I love. That was all I needed.”
Lunn kicks off with “Bernheim Forest In Spring,” leaning heavily—and deceptively—into the album’s namesake with three minutes of pure, barn-stomping bluegrass, complete with guitar, banjo, and fiddle solos straight out of any living room pickin’ party. The nearly 16,000-square-acre Bernheim Forest, Kentucky’s official arboretum, is located just south of Louisville, with 40 miles of hiking trails, which Lunn, an avid outdoorsman, surely trekked over the years. After getting lost amid the lush introduction, the song’s final notes barely have time to ring out before the album is ripped open by a chest-rattling roar over one of black metal’s emblematic frenzied drum lead-ins, commanding listeners’ attention toward “Bodies Under The Falls,” the first of three songs clocking in at over 10 minutes each.
Lunn’s icy howls cut through Kentucky like wind across Appalachian hollers, with an echoing effect often layered over his voice as if his screams are reverberating down abandoned mine shafts. Blast beats and tremolo strumming mirror the mechanical, rhythmic din of Eastover Coal’s machinery, but floating above the song’s opening measures is a flute’s clear, high, idiosyncratic whistle, equally as jarring as Lunn’s infernal vocals. At first blush, a listener might worry they’re heading into one of those aforementioned Viking-metal LARP-ing quests, but staying on Lunn’s sonic tour of the commonwealth’s history and landscape quickly dispels any fear of gimmickry.
Within a single track, Lunn makes navigating between expansive, overwhelming black-metal rage and introspective acoustic balladry look easy, blurring the lines into something wholly new, “American folk metal” in its most literal sense. Any pauses in the musical current come from audio clips of Kopple’s Harlan County U.S.A.—an interview with an elderly former coal worker detailing abusive line bosses, an organizer’s stark explanation of coal companies’ callous disregard for its miners, a union hall joining together in unanimous cries to strike—before returning to the soundtrack of a simultaneously beautiful and stripped area of America.
Lyrically, Kentucky is a strange, iconoclastic piece of art. Folk, especially for political protest, is almost always built on simple, easily understood lyrics and melodies, meant to be quickly learned and repeated throughout picket lines and sit-ins. There is no question who Lunn is addressing on his sparse cover of “Which Side Are You On?” or any confusion about the painful histories conveyed in his driving rendition of “Come All Ye Coal Miners.” Black metal, on the other hand, relies on the inscrutable and the difficult; it’s atonal and frenetic, with indecipherable lyrics only understood if one is lucky enough to have access to liner notes.
Still, even a quick read through Lunn’s lyrics on Kentucky conveys an attention and thoughtfulness that is, perhaps intentionally, lost amid the clamor. “Drifting off to the mind-numbing hum of grinding gears / Families starving in the eerie silence of the hills, lie exposed to the elements so fierce,” Lunn shrieks on the more melodically based metal track “Black Soot And Red Blood.” “Hold out just one more day… say the same tomorrow, say the same tomorrow / For the union, hold out, for a fair wage and a living, this sorrow.”
Lunn’s sympathy and love for his neighbors is perhaps only matched by his unbridled contempt for the coal industry. “You hack at the mountain / And scrape away for your simple need / What was formed by silent gods / On the day the void first burst with sound,” he berates them on “Killing The Giants As They Sleep,” a violent dirge for the strip-mined mountain sides. “Black Waters,” a ghostly, ambient song of reverberating dulcimer notes, has Lunn pause from shredding his throat to sing the perspective of a farmer watching his home and family wither away from coal’s literal and figurative consumptions.
The final, title track bookends the story, giving listeners a quiet bluegrass respite featuring none of Lunn’s screams, calls to overturn capitalism, or elegies. It’s a simple interplay of mandolin and guitar, fading away for a banjo’s final tinny notes, barely a ripple in the dirtied stream waters Lunn parted for the past 50 minutes, revealing to us a people and land long since swallowed by industry and neglect.
There’s a famous—apocryphal—story of Pete Seeger threatening to take an ax to Bob Dylan’s amplifier cables the night he “went electric” at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival. The fallout from Dylan’s use of electric instruments was widespread among folk’s old guard, but in the decades since, one would be pressed to find musicians in the genre who don’t rely on them at least occasionally. Likewise, many may scoff at calling Panopticon’s Kentucky an American folk record, but Lunn’s care, love, and musical influences are undeniable. Austin Lunn crafted an album based on the music of his forebears to celebrate rural life while calling on all of us to tear down the oppressive capitalist systems strangling our futures—if that ain’t folk, then what is?