Blue Grass, Black Metal: A Kentucky Black Metal Primer
When people talk about U.S. black metal, the focus is usually on the Brooklyn, Pacific Northwest, and California scenes. But if you dig a little deeper you'll find pockets of disciples creating a blackened, infernal racket all over the country. One of these lesser known scenes is in Kentucky. The Bluegrass State seems like an unlikely place to inspire the harshest and bleakest permutation of heavy metal, but some truly great USBM has been seeping out of Kentucky for the last seven years.
Largely ignored by the heavy metal community, Kentucky's black metal bands have been stewing in the underground for years. The state's relative geographic isolation from other black metal hot spots and the fact that it isn't exactly a priority stop for touring metal bands has kept the spotlight off Kentucky's extreme metal bands for years. It wasn't until the 2012 release of Panopticon's bluegrass/black metal masterpiece Kentucky that the extreme metal community perked up and finally took notice.
Since the black metal scene in Kentucky is just now starting to garner national attention, the history of the movement is still somewhat labyrinthine and confusing. The relationships between a lot of the bands are incestuous and sometimes resemble a pit of writhing, entangled vipers. Trying to make sense of the scene's evolution requires lots of time spent cross-referencing band and artist pages on Encyclopedia Metallum and Bandcamp. Once you start digging, though, it quickly becomes apparent that the central figure in the movement was, until recently, Austin Lunn, and it's geographic nucleus is Louisville.
Prior to 2003 Austin Lunn played in a number of anarcho-crust punk and straightedge hardcore bands. Then, in 2003, he began writing music as Anagnorisis. Although Lunn was initially the sole member of the band, he eventually added a full line-up of musicians to help record the band's debut LP Overton Trees. Overton Trees was released in 2007, but by 2008 Lunn had decided to leave the band and focus on a new one man black metal project called Panopticon.
After Lunn left, the band recruited vocalist Nathan Bowling. Bowling was only with Anagnorisis for a short time – from 2008 to 2009. He toured with the band briefly and served as vocalist for 2009's Alpha and Omega EP. After Bowling left, he went on to form another Louisville black metal entity called Order of Leviathan. Bowling was replaced on vocals by Anagnorisis's bassist Zachary Kerr who performed both duties live for several years and on the band'd 2012 EP Ghosts of Our Fathers.
In 2012, Josh Mumford of another Louisville BM band called Esoteric Burial was recruited to play bass while Kerr focused solely on vocals. This line-up would be responsible for recording the band's 2013 break-out album Beyond All Light. Beyond All Light managed to find its way onto the year end lists of many prominent metal blogs, and for good reason. The album is haunting and absolutely massive sounding. It was a huge triumph for the Kentucky black metal community and is only rivaled by Panopticon's Kentucky in terms of attention that it brought to the scene.
While Anagnorisis spent the years following Austin Lunn's departure dealing with multiple line-up changes and refining their sound, Lunn himself was busy writing and recording a mountain of material. Under the Panopticon name, Lunn is responsible for single-handedly writing and recording four full-length albums between 2008 and 2013. He also recorded six split releases with various black metal bands in that time frame as well, and a new one with Falls of Rauros is due this Spring.
Among the split releases, there are two with Louisville blackened drone metal band Wheels Within Wheels. WWW is a project created by W. Crow, a member of Lunn's doom metal band Seidr. WWW is also responsible for several split releases, one of them with a great black metal band from Lexington, KY called Merkaba.
To further muddy the waters, Austin Lunn has also contributed concurrently to two other black metal bands aside from Panopticon. He's occasionally played drums for Germany's Throndt since 2011 and he has another project called Kólga which released it's first demo in 2012. Needless to say, it would be a massive understatement to call Lunn a prolific artist. Still, even with all of these projects going at the same time, he was able to create one of the best and most important USBM albums in the genre's relatively short lifespan – Kentucky.
Upon first listen, it's easy to write Kentucky off as just some bizarre experiment; a mash-up of atmospheric black metal, Kentucky bluegrass, and leftist politics. Without first hearing the album, it's hard to imagine it could be anything other than a train wreck. It's not though; Lunn manages to blend folky pro-union protest songs, traditional bluegrass, and black metal together seamlessly.
And, as a bonus, Kentucky is the first example of truly US-American folk metal. There are plenty of bands in the states that rip off Euro-style folk metal, but Panopticon is the first to take a uniquely American style of folk music and blend it with black metal. It's unfortunate that Kentucky has gone largely unnoticed by the metal writing community. The album didn't get anywhere near the amount of press that Sunbather did, but it's every bit as original and compelling.
It would be hard to deny that Austin Lunn has been a main, if not THE main, driving force behind Kentucky's burgeoning black metal movement. He founded two of the scene's major bands and created it's most important album to date. But Lunn moved to Minnesota in 2012 to open a brewery and it'll be interesting to see who steps up to fill his innovative shoes. Anignorisis certainly have some buzz behind them due to their last album. But Merkaba are more in line with what Panopticon was doing musically and ideologically, and they're getting ready to release a remastered version of their 2011 debut Bones of the Sacred Forest on Pagan Flames Productions.
It's also possible that a new band will be responsible for pushing Kentucky's black metal scene further into uncharted territory. The movement could also shrivel up and die on the vine of course, but hopefully that won't be the case. The best way to ensure that this scene thrives is to support it financially. If you like what you hear, then buy the albums and go to shows if you can. Just because you don't live in the state doesn't mean you shouldn't support good music. And this handful of bands are about as good as you can get.