Most black metal is pure fantasy. The end of the world, kingdoms of snow and ice, fever dreams involving murder, suicide, Satanisim and extreme sexual behavior are the genre’s tried and true conceptual fodder. But not so for Louisville, Kentucky’s Panopticon, who uses black metal as a means to tackle some frighteningly real social issues on his third album, Social Disservices.
Divided into four lengthy tracks titled “Resident” “Client” “Subject” and “Patient,” Social Disservices is a cry of outrage on behalf of children who have “fallen through the cracks” and subsequently become absorbed by state-run mental health and behavioral systems. According to Panopticon mastermind Austin Lunn, these kids are often mistreated either by their supposed caregivers or their peers; his descriptions in the album’s lyrics and liner notes make the system sound more like a hellish prison than something designed to help and care for people. This idea is reinforced by its cover art, which strikes me as a twisted sequel to Edvard Munch’s The Scream, as if the figure from that famous painting has collapsed from over-exertion and is now being stabbed in the back by dozens of daggers.
Of course what really drives the point home is the music. It is by turns abrasive, haunting and beautiful; the beauty of youth swallowed up and withered, plunged into the depths of sorrow and anger. Panopticon’s music is black metal to the core; sweeping, sharp and Burzum-esque, yet Lunn also incorporates elements of neo-folk, industrial and post rock into Social Disservices. It is a wildly varied listen, and yet everything is seamlessly lashed together by the rage and yearning that only black metal can convey, a yearning to escape from the mental and physical agony inflicted upon those that society chooses to shun or lock away forever.
While it is ultimately difficult for me to identify with these feelings, having experienced a so-called “normal” upbringing and being a fairly well-adjusted child (albeit somewhat socially awkward), I can’t help but feel that in some way, nearly all of us are victims of some system or institution, whether it be school, prison, the government or corporate America, all of us are locked into the machine, letting it grind us down to a nub while on the inside we silently scream our guts out. This is what Panopticon is tapping into on Social Disservices, the blood-curdling cry of despair on the tip of every tongue.
Panopticon proves with Social Disservices that the horrors of reality are far more terrifying than any imaginary apocalypse or pit of Hell. It also re-affirms my belief that black metal shares a kinship with both punk and folk music in its ability to expose the ugliest parts of society’s underbelly, acting as a voice for those trapped underneath who might otherwise remain mute. In this respect Social Disservices is some of the most ambitious, powerful and thought provoking black metal I’ve ever heard.