The eclectic nature of neofolk (and this blog) means that there is a broad spread of folk music that the genre can pull from, but there are a few common features. Paganism, history, community, resistance, and the struggle to maintain a counter-culture all collapse together like a neutron star with Panopticon, a genre defining Americana black metal band that has become a staple of Old God playlists. Based out of Appalachia, the uniqueness of their sound is a the methodical rhythm of storytelling, which founds their albums in a tradition of oral history that traces back past the coal mining migration to the mountains or the economic collapse and mass exodus from West Virginia.
It was tough to choose a band that is primarily known for its deep screeching metal sound to feature on this site so early, but that is not the Panopticon we are going to focus on. While they tower high in the world of epic metal, that is only one half of an incredibly diverse musical array that drives heavily into the world of european neofolk revival, Appalachian folk music, vibrant bluegrass, and tech-imbued ambience. Albums like The Scars of Man on the Once Nameless Wilderness 2 (the twin side to a crushing metal first entry) forgoes the sound of the prior entirely to jump into a folk traditions of culture that formed up around working class coal miners who developed an internal community life that riffed on folk spiritual and survival lessons from the old country. Autumn Eternal is mixed company, slow acoustic sets, marked particularly by slow strings, ar interspersed with the sound that we are so accustomed to hearing. The shifting sound, which has gone from full bore hillbilly country to acoustic silence of neofolk to blackgaze, is something to really marvel at when we are talking about a single person stretching over fifteen albums.
While it is clear from their lyrics, almost spoken didactically at times, that they see folk traditions and spirituality as a claim of strong community bonds against a commercializing world, this is centered deep in the class politics that are rightly the province of West Virginia. Starting with a focus on mass incarceration and the surveillance state evolving in late capitalism, Panopticon has a strong prison abolitionist strain. Kentucky and West Virginia’s labor history, particularly the “redneck” coal strikes that charged the region with the kind of militant anger that only comes the kind of brutal exploitation that coal barons have staked their reputation on. The album Kentucky deals with this heavily, introducing the labor folk songs of the area that many would expect from the Industrial Workers of the World’s “Little Red Songbook” or Utah Phillips last release. There is a deeply felt sense of loss in the way the album deals with settler colonization of the Americas, but still finds heroic stories in how it recounts the trials of Sacco and Vanzeti, the Haymarket martyrs, and ground laid by anarchist figures like Emma Goldman (The final track on their self-titled debut is called Emma’s Song).
Panopticon’s main figure, Austin Lunn, is open about his anarchist politics, the way that regionalism plays into his worldview, and how it is connected to struggle. This on the theme of identity that plays so heavily in neofolk, but takes it decisively back from the far-right, who tries to essentialize it with race and gender. Instead, it is working class community, the beauty of the mountain, and the bonds formed in rural backgrounds that formed that sense of self. There is a bluegrass pick in it, the sound of a dripping still, an uncle’s voice of advice. Those roots are the multicultural mix of working people, those who survive only because of the skin of each other, and Lunn is proud of this. Part of Lunn’s refusal to do too much press or numerous interviews with metal magazines is the antagonistic response to open anti-racist politics, which some see as divisive or “witch hunting.”
Panopticon has made a point of playing at metal festivals that eschew apolitical fence-sitting for open politics, like the Dutch festival Roadburn. He is continuing this trend in the upcoming Northwest Terror Fest happening in Seattle from May 29th to June 1st. On Wednesday evening Lunn will be playing an acoustic set, perfect for anyone interested strictly in the neofolk side of Panopticon. The festival itself (which we will be covering in the future) will be filled with anti fascist metal and grind new-standards like Dawn Ray’d, Cloud Rat, and Closet Witch.
We are adding only a few of Panopticon’s neofolk tracks to our playlist, as well as embedding their Appalachian folk and euro-neofolk albums below, but feel free to check out their entire Bandcamp library.