Music Opinion Blog

Opinions and occasional rants about the state of the music scene. The views expressed are entirely my own, and do not represent those of any artists or publications with whom I may be connected.

Panic Room – Ten of the Best

Panic Room at South Street, Reading

Regular readers of this blog (all four of you) will know I’ve written a few “Ten of the Best” features for The Guardian Music Blog. I’ve done entries in the series for Yes, Black Sabbath and Ritchie Blackmore, amongst others, and pitched quite a few more suggestions (And no, I’m not going to say who they’re of, in case the editor comes back and accepts more of those pitches).

These things are fun to write. They’re explicitly “Ten of the best”, rather than “The Ten Best” which leave scope to include the odd personal favourite or overlooked gem at the expense of one or two of the all-too-obvious standards that everyone ought to know anyway.

So how about a Ten of the Best for a band a little closer to home? I’ve chosen an obvious favourite of this blog, Panic Room. Even though they’ve only recorded four albums so far, just about the minimum body of work to qualify for this sort of feature, it’s still a hard choice. They have so many great songs.

So, with no further ado…

Apocalypstick

Panic Room’s début album “Visionary Position” was the sound of a collective of musicians who’d survived the implosion of another band casting around for a new musical direction. It contained an eclectic mix of styles from stripped-down singer-songwriter material to sprawling prog epics. One standout was “Apocalypstick”, with lyrics about Helen of Troy and swirling eastern motifs in the music, featuring spiralling electric violin from guest musician Liz Prendergast. Anne-Marie Helder sounds both seductive and scary at the same time on vocals, which fits the song title perfectly. This was the song, more than any other, that pointed the way forward for the band.

Picking Up Knives

Panic Room’s second album “Satellite” was a far more coherent statement of intent, marking the point where the band found their musical identity, and this song was one of many highlights. Anne-Marie’s lyric takes the perspective of a mother seeing her son getting caught up in knife culture and fearing the worst, with music driven by Alun Vaughan’s propulsive bass riff and Jon Edward’s evocative shimmering electric piano with more than a hint of Ray Manzarek about it.

Dark Star

Panic Room’s music has always contained elements of pop, jazz, folk and metal, and this song, opening with a monstrously sinister organ riff, and with Alun Vaughan channelling Geezer Bulter on bass, represents the band at their most metal. It’s a big, dense wall of sound of a song, and shows the power of Anne-Marie’s voice, in absolutely no danger of being swamped by the instrumentation.

I Am A Cat

The strangest, quirkiest song in the Panic Room songbook, and one that seems to divide opinion. The ode to the archetypal mad cat lady is both humorous and tragic at the same time. Even if not everyone appreciated it, if you’ve ever seen the band include this song in their set, it’s obvious just how much they enjoy playing it live. There is an actual cat credited for additional backing vocals.

Song for Tomorrow

If the band found their voice with “Satellite”, their third album “Skin” took things to the next level. The album’s dramatic opener is a kaleidoscopic journey through much of what makes Panic Room such a great band. It begins with atmospheric keyboard washes, and when played live saw Anne-Marie playing guitar with a violin bow. Then it explodes into spiralling prog-metal guitars, before the guitars drop out for Anne-Marie’s emotive verse. Every member of the band is firing on all cylinders here, including new bassist Yatim Halimi.

Chameleon

Chameleon represents the opposite face of Panic Room’s music, that of sophisticated jazz-tinged adult pop. It demonstrates their versatility as musicians, and it’s a form that suits Anne-Marie’s vocal style especially well. The short solo section at the end features some delightful jazz guitar from Paul Davies. When they play it live nowadays Anne-Marie also throws in a flute solo, though we’ll have to wait for their upcoming live album before we can hear that on record.

Promises

The album “Skin” included a string quartet on several numbers, and they used the strings not just for additional colour but as an extra instrument in the band. The result is powerful arrangement for a very emotive song. Although on record it’s a big cinematic number, but the song works just as well as a stripped-down solo acoustic song, as seen when Anne-Marie supported Steve Hackett a few years back.

Nocturnal

This list contains now fewer than four songs from “Skin”, and to be honest the album is so consistently strong that just about anything from the record could easily have been included. We’ll leave this album with the slow-burning epic ballad that closes the record, starting with Jon’s delicate piano intro and ending with Paul’s evocative slide guitar outtro.

Bitches Crystal

Panic Room have played quite a few covers over the years. In the early days of the band before they’d built up such an extensive songbook of their own material they’d encore with things like Massive Attack’s “Teardrop” or a groove-based arrangement of Led Zeppelin’s “No Quarter”. But the only cover they’ve actually recorded was this ELP number, which appears on their “Altitude” EP. It’s one of the rare cases where a cover vastly surpasses the original, rebuilding the song from the ground up and making it their own, reinterpreting it in swamp-blues style.

Dust

Panic Room’s fourth album “Incarnate” saw a change in direction. With Paul Davies leaving the band and new guitarist Adam O’Sullivan coming from a jazz background, the band moved away from wall of sound rock approach of “Skin” in favour of a lighter singer-songwriter style. One highlight is the evocative closing number, quite unlike both the rest of the album and equally unlike anything the band had done before, based around a simple repeating motif that gradually builds in intensity over the song’s seven minutes, and carries on playing in your head even after the last piano notes have faded away.

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What next for the music blog?

I know I write about this band a lot. But this blog is more than just a fan-site for one band

Here’s a question for readers of the music posts on this blog. Over the past couple of years I’ve focussed on album and concert reviews, news items focussing on the independent prog scene, and short opinion pieces which are often part of the ongoing music conversation of the day.

Are there other sorts of things you’d like to see on here? Here are some of the thoughts I’ve had.

  • Retrospective reviews of older records, either classic albums revisited or overlooked gems. I did one of these recently, for The Fire Sermon by The Violet Hour, which came out 25 years ago but was new to me. There are many more such pieces that could be written.
  • Overviews of bands, a bit like the “Cult Heroes” column in The Guardian, but with bands from the underground progressive rock scene, with the emphasis on bands who are no longer active.
  • I’ve written a couple of “Ten of the Best” features for The Guardian for the likes of Yes, Black Sabbath and Ritchie Blackmore, and these things are fun to wrire. But what about some Ten of the Bests for the smaller bands that feature a lot on this blog? It would have to be bands who have been going long enough to have produced a significant body of work, probably four albums at a minimum.
  • More news pieces. I tend to restrict news announcements to the bands I follow, like Panic Room or Mostly Autumn or their various spinoffs. But I get loads of press releases from PR agencies, often for higher profile acts. While the indie and pop announcements aren’t really relevant for this blog’s audience, a lot more are for the rock, metal and prog scenes. Should I published a few more of them?

Over to you. Any other things you’d love me to write about?

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Peel and Prog

Haze

It was suggested on Twitter than the revival of progressive rock over the past decade and a bit was a consequence of the death of John Peel.

I’m not buying it.

It’s true that Peel, who famously dismissed Emerson Lake and Palmer as “A waste of talent and electricity” wasn’t a big friend of progressive rock. Any progressive band he did champion in the early days he dropped like a stone as soon as punk came along. And it’s also undeniably true that he had an enormous and possibly unhealthily excessive influence as a gatekeeper across several decades.

But the timing simply doesn’t support the hypothesis. Peel died in 2004, and the progressive rock revival began in the late 1990s with the emergence of bands from Porcupine Tree to Mostly Autumn. Surely the revival of a grassroots progressive scene has more to do with the rise of the internet allowing music fans and artists to bypass gatekeepers altogether? And possibly the 90s peak of Britpop was a factor too; that was a revival of precisely the sort of one-dimensional guitar pop that the original generation of progressive rock was a response to.

Anyway. I’m sure Peel would be playing bands like The Fierce and The Dead and Knifeworld if he was still alive.

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The Greying of Rock Fandom?

The Mentulls

Some thoughts struck me about the Cambridge Rock Festival back in August, which saw some discussion on Twitter.

There were one or two very young bands, such as The Mentulls, playing music in a very traditional classic rock style dating from before any of them were born. But the audience was overwhelmingly middle-aged, old enough to remember the heyday of blues-rock and prog from the first time around.

You see a lot of this in the progressive rock world. There are plenty of young bands like Haken, Maschine or Synaesthesia. Maybe it’s just an artefact of the festivals where I’ve seen them, but there don’t seem to be many of their own generation in the audiences. And the blues-rock scene is even worse. It’s as if anyone under the age of 35 who actually loves “old” music is already in a band.

As the existing audience continues to grey, who will replace them when they’re too old and infirm to get out to gigs?

Maybe I’m just being pessimistic here. Perhaps the bands would rather establish a niche than compete in a much more crowded market playing generic contemporary indie or pop. And maybe an audience of fiftysomethings whose kids have grown up and left home will actually age out more slowly than an audience of twentysomethings most of whom will drop out of music fandom when they get married and have kids?

What do you think?

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NWOBHM – 10 of the best

The Guardian have just published my latest in the “Ten of the Best”, on the New Wave of British Heavy Metal.

When it comes to scenes rather than individual bands it’s harder to decide what to include and what doesn’t quite fit. So though I mentioned them in passing I excluded bands like Motörhead on the grounds that represented the previous generation.. Likewise Magnum, who were again slightly older and never quite seemed part of the scene.

I compiled the list largely by identifying the significant bands and then choosing their defining songs. A few of the tracks chose themselves; Diamond Head’s monumental “Am I Evil” is the most obvious one, followed closely by Angelwitch’s eponymous song. In one or two cases I went for personal favourites, for example Demon’s “Father of Time”. For The Tygers of Pan Tang I chose “Don’t Stop By” for John Sykes magnificent solo.

When it came to the better-known bands I tried to avoid being too obvious. Def Leppard’s early single is there for it’s historical importance. With Saxon I decided to go for an album cut rather than one of their hit singles.

Aside from the bigger names there’s a whole slew of lesser bands, some of whom managed the occasional great song, and the comment section is highlighting a few of these that I missed. I’d forgotten “Dance to the Music” by Last Flight, though Quartz did make my longlist.

And no, there was no room for Sledgehammer.

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X Factor is the musical equivalent of the burning of the library of Alexandria.

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Should have gone to Cambridge?


Meryl Hamilton of Voodoo Vegas at the Cambridge Rock Festival

It’s Reading Festival weekend again. The streets are filled with extremely young people in wellies, and every supermarket has a Canary Wharf of cheap booze.

I used to go to the festival back in the early 1980s, when the bill included such headliners as Rory Gallagher, UFO, Girlschool, Iron Maiden, Black Sabbath and Thin Lizzy. But even though some recent bills have included bands I wouldn’t mind seeing, it’s not for me. Now as back then, it’s a teenage rite of passage.

While The Guardian ackowleges this in its headline, most of their article is an extended moan about the bill being too male. Perhaps they should have gone to the Cambridge Rock Festival instead?

There is discussion to be had on gender and music festivals, but as is predictable with their gender or race-baiting articles, The Guardian has disabled comments.  In previous years Guardian has repeatedly demanded festivals include more women by reducing the amount of rock on the bills, usually written by people who didn’t actually like rock.

But surely there are other ways? What about one or two European symphonic metal bands like Nightwish, Within Temptation or Delain?  Or perhaps Babymetal? Or maybe even put acts like Panic Room or Mostly Autumn early on the bill?

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Violet Hour

A couple of songs, “The River” and the single “Could Have Been” from The Violet Hour’s album “The Fire Sermon”. The album had been out of print for many years, but is now available again via former singer Doris Brendel’s website.

Doris and her band played the  Cambridge Rock Festival and were one of the highlight. They didn’t play any Violet Hour songs, but after finding out Violet Hour were an early influence on Mostly Autumn made the album worth getting hold of.

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Prog goes Nigel Tufnel

Prog Magazine has attempted to compile a list of The 10 Sexiest Prog Songs. You can argue whether or not the songs chosen fit the theme or no, but this throwaway line did rather stick in the throat.

These days, of course, prog has got well sexed up with the proliferation of scantily clad females fronting acts such as Touchstone, Mostly Autumn, The Reasoning, Panic Room and beyond.

It’s hard to read that line without it coming over as gross, sexist and a little bit creepy. The implication is to reduce talented musicians and songwriters to eye-candy for male audiences. The frontwomen of the bands mentioned above deserve better.

It does make you wonder if the author of that article has ever seen the likes of Touchstone or Panic Room live. Checking the byline, it’s by someone who’s definitely been seen at their gigs, and really ought to know better.

As one regular commenter to this blog said on another forum:

If he thinks those people are scantily clad, he clearly doesn’t get out enough. He should come and walk round Newcastle on a Friday night.

Quite.

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Overpriced boxed sets from legacy acts who don’t need the money harm grassroots music far, far more that YouTube or Spotify could ever do. Just think how many smaller prog bands could have sustainable careers from the money spent on the latest £378 Pink Floyd one.

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