A Deeper Look At The Politics Behind Panopticon’s ‘Kentucky’

Panopticon’s sixth release, 2012’s ‘Kentucky’, was my first introduction to the black metal sub-genre, RABM. Standing for “Red Anarchist Black Metal” for the uninitiated, other notable bands in this far-left genre are Iskra and American black metal legends, Wolves In The Throne Room. Musically, this 2012 Panopticon LP is a rather weird yet interesting and effective combination of old-school American bluegrass folk and long-form black metal. However, I’m not here today to wax-lyrical about the quality of the music itself. I’m instead here to talk about how the album synthesises the themes and histories of country and black metal to elaborate upon them both; relating environmental concerns with anti-capitalism, two issues that are rarely handled this explicitly. So, let’s talk about all of that because why the hell not?  

Part One: Themes in black metal & country music

Black metal has had a long appreciation for nature. In the late 80’s and 90’s, death metal’s weirder cousin was dominated by a sort of kitschy paganism, where it was basically a rite of passage to have your band dress up in medieval combat gear and take promo photos out in the woods. Varg Vikernes (Burzum) has basically dedicated his entire Youtube channel to doing just that; espousing his wack and extreme political views in the process. This kitschy brand of Paganism was usually combined with an intense variety of misanthropy too. I mean, just look at the name of Immortal’s 1992 debut album: ‘Diabolical Fullmoon Mysticism‘ – it says it all, really.

This article from People’s World references all sorts of song names, like Satyricon’sMy Tribute to the Winterland‘ and Behemoth’s ‘My Winter Kingdom‘. All suggesting a sort of fetishization of the natural world, imagining it as a realm of the earth where people can be animalistic and free; unbound by society’s restrictions, kinda like a musical Henry David Thoreau. The exemplar of this is the name of Ulver’s 1997 third album, which when translated from Norwegian, is called ‘Madrigal of the Night – Eight Hymns to the Wolf in Man‘. As an FYI, “The Wolf in Man” is the animal that comes out of humanity when it enters a forest. Black metal doesn’t have a monopoly on that belief, though. You could compare it to the beliefs of anarcho-primitivists, people who argue that we’ve become SO alienated from the natural world and our animal beginnings, that they now live out my fantasy and run away to live in the woods. Unlike me, they’re not just doing it to get out of paying rent.

More recently, black metal has ditched the kitschy paganism and adopted a more varied set of beliefs about nature. One of black metal’s more recent approaches is with a very niche genre called ‘space black metal’ or ‘cosmic black metal’, but the more important movement for this piece – if you could even call it a movement – is the Pacific North-West scene centred around Washington and Oregon. This scene has embraced a kind of deep ecology, which acknowledges humans’ place in nature and the Earth’s various ecosystems. That People’s World article I mentioned before also quotes Wolves in the Throne Room’s Aaron Weaver saying precisely that. Yet the message is also present in song names and themes too.

Take Fauna, for instance. Their second album, 2007’s ‘The Hunt‘, is comprised of one 80-minute song about a human returning to nature after being alienated from it for so long by the greyness of the city. Where this differs from Norwegian 90’s acts is that the song details how the process of being in nature and hunting an animal turns the two distinct beings into one coexisting entity, in an eco-spiritual sort of way. A similar lyrical idea about human’s place in an ecosystem is the premise of ‘I Will Lay Down My Bones Among the Rocks and Roots‘ by Wolves in the Throne Room. Where upon the dead return to nature, interpreted as giving back their body to the earth and rejuvenating an ecosystem with their remains. Think James Cameron’s Avatar, just with zero tall blue people and way more grim riffs and blast beats.

Although, Wolves and Fauna don’t really make music that’s explicitly political. At least, not in an immediate, do-or-die sort of way. This is where Panopticon, and country music more broadly, comes in to the picture.

On Panopticon’s Kentucky‘, lyrics depicting the beauty of nature and our place within it are usually complicated by political issues. For example, in ‘Bodies Under the Falls‘, the lyrics depict serene waterfalls and forests, but also describe how these forests and waterfalls were ancestral Native American lands – before those people were murdered and driven away from it. In another example, the title for ‘Killing the Giants As They Sleep‘ describes mountains as “sleeping giants”, a common way to depict the peacefulness of such landscapes, but then goes into detail about how these mountains are “killed” through mountaintop removal by those who only see mountains for the resources they contain. The common theme that runs throughout this record is nature’s beauty yet also it’s eradication by powerful people with political interests. For a better understanding of that, we need to take a look at country music.

Austin Lunn, AKA Panopticon.

An important event in country music history was when Dixie Chicks called out George W. Bush for the invasion of Iraq in 2003, as well as the overall negative reaction from their fans afterwards. The Dixie Chicks were onstage in The Netherlands at the time, and said to the crowd that they were ashamed to be from Texas, the same state as their then warmongering president. Their fans back in America were fucking livid! The Dixie Chicks were thus labelled as traitors for not wanting a military response to the events of 9/11, and the band’s popularity soon plummeted, never to recover. So why is this important when I’m not talking about war?  You’re right, I’m not talking about war, but I am talking about anti-authority.

As much as country music is associated with right-wing conservative politics that wants you to support the troops, praise Jesus, drive big cars, and eat your goddamn cereal, it has a history full of figures who rebelled against the government in numerous ways. As for our subject, the old protest songs on ‘Kentucky‘, like ‘Which Side Are You On?‘ and ‘Come All Ye Coal Miners‘, are all good examples of this, but I’ll get to those in more detail later on. For now, an important figure in discussing anti-authoritarianism in country music is a dude by the name of Woody Guthrie.

Woody Guthrie was a folk/country musician, active from the 1930’s through to the 50’s, and was a pretty hardcore communist too. Even in the 50’s, he wasn’t one of those sexy anarcho-communists that got invited to all of the fun parties. No, he supported Stalin. And I know what you’re thinking: “How can a guy who supported Stalin be anti-authoritarian?” Well, it depends on what authoritarian force you’re living under. For all of you Orwell fans who love referring to the dystopian government organisations in 1984 like the “Ministry of Truth”, one of Guthrie’s friends, Pete Seeger, was even blacklisted by an American organisation called the House of Un-American Activities Committee. So don’t talk to me about totalitarianism unless you’re willing to equally criticise organisations that stop you from working ever again because you didn’t sing the national anthem exactly right one time. While Stalin was a dangerous and murderous authoritarian dictator, Guthrie was living in the working-class dust bowl of America during the Great Depression. Stalin and the USSR didn’t affect him, but rampant capitalism did, and radical communism provided a road map out of that extreme poverty.

But Guthrie’s radical politics have been watered-down over time. A more recent Guardian piece briefly touches on how some Americans have bulldozed over Guthrie’s hardcore politics in order to enjoy his music apolitically while maintaining the image of a free capitalist country, as does this article from Monthly Review, which is a little more in-depth. One very prominent example of the watered-down politics in Guthrie’s work is  ‘This Land is Your Land‘, which originally contained a verse that was very critical of the concept of private property, but has now been co-opted as a sort of patriotic anthem. Just like Bruce Springsteen’sBorn in the USA‘, funnily enough.

Another way that Guthrie’s politics became watered-down was by being an object of nostalgia. While a lot of folk and country music is nostalgic towards the past, and argues that it was a simpler time, Guthrie’s music was intensely critical of the present and looked to the future, which many people have forgotten. In a Smithsonian article about conservatism and bluegrass, Geoffrey Himes writes about how songs like ‘Cornbread and Creek Water‘ were originally critical of the working-class diet that wasn’t enough for anybody to survive off. Ideals that are now romanticised as hard, simple meals for hard, simple people before all these avocado-lovers and their quinoa and turmeric lattes became so popular with the kids. There’s even a reference to these rougher old days in Panopticon’s ‘Come All Ye Coal Miners‘, in the third verse:

“I was born in old Kentucky
In a coal camp born and bred
I know all about the pinto beans
Bulldog gravy and corn bread”

For a real-life example of romanticising hardship, pay close attention when politicians start throwing around phrases like “hard-working Australians” as a bastion of good citizenry. When phrases like that come up, and they frequently do, ask yourself; who does your hard work benefit the most? And there’s more than one answer. Over time, we’ve all been fed the ideal of hard-working and hard living, but who profits from your poor living conditions and hard work? Guthrie’s anti-authoritarian politics may have been overlooked over the years, but his politics are exactly the sort of thing that invigorates albums like ‘Kentucky‘ and provides important historical context. Where our labour goes will make a lot more sense in this next part, so buckle up.

Part Two: Big Daddy Marx

Despite what some total ding-dongs would have you believe, Marxism is about A LOT more than just hating the rich, smacking the word ‘post-modernist’ in front of it, and wanting Jeff Bezos to use trans people’s preferred pronouns. The main argument of Marxism is that all of history is a class struggle between two groups: the hard-working proletariat (the workers), and the blue-blooded bourgeoisie, (the capitalists).

I’d argue that ‘Kentuckyis a Marxist album, particularly when it comes to the existence of the historical class struggle. The record even highlights the everlasting struggle between the two by using covers of decades old protest songs. Just like Woody Guthrie’s music that I mentioned earlier, these songs have not lost their importance. Well, even if their actual meanings and radical politics may be ignored or unfortunately lost in time.

In ‘Which Side Are You On?’, the lyric “My daddy was a miner” references how a lot of these miners grew up in full families of miners, who then end up passing their profession on to their children as well. That lyric also suggests the struggle for workers’ rights is on-going, and unlikely to change soon. Even the name, ‘Which Side Are You On?‘ is another example, presenting workers’ rights as a struggle between two clear opposing parties, but the lyrics back that up. The very first verse goes as follows:

“They say in Harlan County
There are no neutrals there.
You’ll either be a union man
Or a thug for J. H. Blair.”

“No neutrals” frames the worker’s struggle as “you’re either with us, or against us”, which is a core tenet of Marxism. And also something that Marxists and postmodernists disagree about constantly.

The album gains more Marxist significance if the struggle between miners and mine owners is interpreted as a synecdoche for the fight between workers and capitalists. Meaning that references to coal miners could be a metaphor for ALL workers while references to mine owners and operators can be a metaphor for the bourgeoisie and capitalists swine. The use of protest songs and references to being the son of a coal miner take on much broader meanings if the despair and weariness of these songs are focused on the miner’s social position as an oppressed worker, rather than an oppressed coal miner specifically. You’re the son of an oppressed worker, your father is an oppressed worker, and unless something is done, that cycle will go on until the end of humanity.

This reading does have a problem, though. Austin Lunn, the man behind Panopticon, was born in the state of Kentucky. So this album is obviously very meaningful to him in a personal way, I assume. Reading the struggle of coal miners – some who he may well know or may even be related to – as a broader metaphor does risk ignoring the personal stake that Kentuckians and West Virginians have in fighting for rights against their bosses. As that approach seems to forget about the violent histories of each state in conflicts like Bloody Harlan and the Battle of Blair Mountain. (I strongly recommend reading the Wikipedia page for both of those conflicts, as well as the far-left group, Redneck Revolt.)

On a different note, another theorist who helps us understand the politics of this record is Murray Bookchin. Especially because like Austin, Bookchin is a green anarchist, the best kind of anarchist, and is most known for penning an idea called “social ecology”. Social ecology is the idea that humans’ unjust treatment of the environment stems from unjust social hierarchies. Bookchin argues that dissolving social hierarchies is a necessary step in ending destructive ecological practices.

There are certain hints towards social ecology scattered throughout ‘Kentucky‘. For example, take the ‘Black Soot and Red Blood‘. The name itself juxtaposes the destruction of the environment through mining with the destruction of human life through violence. The song takes that comparison even further in its lyrics, written about the Bloody Harlan mining conflict between mistreated coal miners and their operating overlords. Another reference to social ecology is in an interview during the documentary, Harlan County USA, in which a man states that mine operators treat workers as disposable; treating the landscape itself as disposable too. Going back to Marx, even he understood the violence that unrestrained capitalism dolls out on the environment, writing that: “Capitalism tends to destroy its two sources of wealth: Nature and human beings”.

Well, I think that’s a really good quote to end on, don’t you? Panopticon’sKentucky‘ doesn’t just dwell on the righteous anger of Woody Guthrie or the eco-centric themes in black metal; it instead combines the two. It focuses on both the environment and workers to criticise capitalism and its inherent consequences. It’s an important album if we want to think about the dredging and mining of the Great Barrier Reef, or the deforestation of the Amazon rainforest, or even current conversations about the treatment of coal miners in states like Kentucky or West Virginia. And that’s pretty rad in my book.

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