Let me take a minute to explain how I found this gem. If you don't want to hear the story, the review begins in the next paragraph. I went to the Charm City Art Space to see Defiance, Ohio play and Ryan Harvey happened to be opening. As I looked through the Riot-Folk CDs he had laid out on the merch table with a sign of the suggested donation ($5) and a hat, he began to play. Immediately I was drawn to it as was every other person there. I texted my friend about him and my friend told me he loved Ryan Harvey and to get CDs by Tom Frampton and Mark Gunnery. I went over to Ryan after the show and asked if he could pick out CDs by those artists and himself. After giving me a couple CDs he picked up Panopticon, thought for a few seconds, and handed it to me saying "Mark would want you to have this. It's his electric CD."
The next day I put the CD in and pressed play, immediately realizing this was nothing like Mark's other work. Mark ditches his acoustic guitar for a drum machine. As he explains in the song "Home," "I ain't saying folk is dead but I'm gonna play it on the drum machine instead." It was different from everything I've ever listened to, but within seconds, the opener "Kineahora" made me want to get up and dance. One of the first things I noticed about this song was that it featured fellow Riot Folk artist Brenna Sahatjian's vocals.
This album doesn't regurgitate beats. Every song is distinct. "Spoons" is a fast-paced number about kinky sex: "Ain't nothing wrong with a little bit of pain." Then the album moves onto a more rap-style song titled "Home" about Gonif's upbringing and his love of Baltimore. "Behave," a cover of God Is My Co-Pilot's rewrite of the Chumbawumba song, feels more like an interlude than anything else. After "Home," it feels unnecessary. "Rock Star" is a three-minute attack on corporate musicians "who write cheap ass poetry then don't give it away for free" and features an amusing conversation of the people in the studio (who apparently aren't supposed to be there) and the owner of the studio.
Remember when I said this album doesn't regurgitate beats? It is completely true. "The Wall" is one of the most impressive songs on Panopticon. The rhythm is both unique and fun. The lyrics are smart, although the chorus simply isn't on the same level as the verses. "There's a wall, but the wall gonna fall" is a let-down compared to "in Palestine they say they do it for peace but I know that's promo colonial double speak." "The Wall" has potential that is killed by the barely-better-than-mediocre chorus. Luckily, the next song is my favorite on the entire record. Maybe it's because I can relate to it, but "Jew Town" seems to be the most energetic, sincere and fun song on the entire album. By the time Gonif hits the second chorus I swear you'll be totally lost in it. My only complaint is that the choruses are a little long seeing as it's made up of only four words.
The last three songs I usually skip. "Kathy's Song" is just spoken word in front of a beat. And the spoken word isn't powerful enough for this song to work. "Dreamers" features a return to the folk Mark Gunnery is known for. But it isn't that good. The end is a surprise I won't spoil, but I'll say it is a nice way of mixing up the slow song and I'm glad he did it if the song had to be on the record. "Puget Sound" shouldn't be on this record. It sounds like a B-side from Aryeh Gonif's split with Tansy & Tarweed, A Mingling of Freak Phenomena. That's not to say it isn't good. It is. It reflects Mark's love of the water pretty well and is an all-around beautiful track.
I can safely say that Panopticon retains its replay value. With each listen I hear something new and I try out a new, highly embarrassing should anyone ever see, dance move. I tend to be harsh on albums in reviews, but this album will almost certainly make my top 20 albums of 2010 list.
You can download this album for free or order the CD here.