Skin is the third album from UK Progressive band Panic Room and another first for me. I hadn't heard Visionary Position or Satellite (see review), prior to buying Skin. But after listening to some of the sample stuff off of Skin, I ordered Satellite along with Skin which provided me with an opportunity to compare how Panic Room have matured over the last couple of years.
This is not the soft rock that Satellite often hinted at, but something altogether different. The melodic rock feel of Satellite is still there but with Skin, the melodies are richer, more complex and the weave between the vocal of Anne-Marie Helder and the music is much tighter.
The lyrics often tell you a lot about what a band was thinking when writing a track. Skin opens with Song For Tomorrow, a track that is about looking forward, escaping where we are now and the promise of being free. The lyrics and Helder's voice quickly grab you and the track almost feels over too soon. Don't be fooled. This is a 6 minute track that seems to pass in just a couple of minutes and it sets a great tone for the rest of the album.
None of the tracks in Skin seem over long, in fact, quite the opposite. There are several that seem far too short and Song For Tomorrow is one of them. The mix feels tight and at no point did I find myself reaching for the jump forward button. This is a good feel as a listener and something that a lot of producers seem to forget.
Chameleon is a track that will mean different things to many listeners but it is essentially about the dangers of being something you are not. The music plays its part in this story of change. Just as you think the track has ended and you are on the next track, you realise that this is still part of Chameleon as the track changes around the listener. Instead of being driven by the lyrics, now it is driven by the instruments and, ironically, is almost the better for it. I would really like to see this part of Chameleon appear in an extended format as the B-Side of a single.
The strings of the Larkin Quartet open the next track Screens. One of the big bonuses to me of progressive and symphonic rock bands is their willingness to use classically trained musicians on their albums to enhance the feel of the music. Sadly, here, I think it fails a little. I was expecting a ballad but Screen is anything but. Once it hits its stride, the keyboard and guitar work makes this a very good rock track.
This takes us to Chances, which picks up the pace and is a real finger tapper. It is about this point I find myself turning up the volume a notch or two and the album moves to another level. At a little under six minutes, this track has some excellent guitar work that is very cleverly understated. It would have been very easy to really go over the top with the guitars in between Helder's lyrics. In many ways it is a classic stage rock track where you can hear, and even see in your mind, control being passed around the group as people get their chance to step forward and engage with the audience.
Tightrope Walking is very much a ballad with a hint of Eastern promise in the underlying music. The volume drops, Helder croons rather than belts out the lyrics and the backing instruments are very understated. There are a couple of false starts signified by a quick succession of drum beats and just as you start to think the track is going off on a different direction, in comes Helder to sing softly in your ear and you settle down again. Even when the volume and pace pick up towards the latter part of the track, you still find yourself swaying with the music.
Promises is an anthem track. Right from the start you get the feeling that this is about getting the audience to participate. At five minutes twenty-four seconds it's on the limit for a single but is an ideal radio track and should get a lot of really good radio play for Panic Room. In fact, as a 45 single release with the second part of Chameleon on the B-side, this would make a great release.
The shortest track on the album, Velvet & Stars, comes across as a solo for Helder and I can easily see her sitting on a high stool playing the melody on the guitar while gently singing into the microphone. This has a much wider appeal than just progressive rock and its ballad feel should hopefully enable Panic Room to get it onto a couple of compilation albums in the run up to Christmas.
Freefalling starts off as if it is to be another ballad with two guitars but very quickly picks up pace as the drum comes in. The chorus line - "Freefalling.. the wind through my hair, The sky calling and I'll be there" is one of those lines that just sits in your head and goes around and around. Although I really liked this track, I always find myself a little frustrated that it just doesn't take off towards the end into a big rock number.
The title track Skin finally makes its own appearance and allows Helder to let loose. It's catchy yet the lyrics are poignant. At times listening to this track you don't know whether to laugh or cry as the lyrics take you on an emotional jag. The line "follow me as we fly to eternity" is achieved by the counterpoint of the music to the lyrics. You almost feel lifted off the bed and carried away. Right at the end the track feels like it's about to explode into a very hard rock line but then it ends.
The difference between Skin and the next track, Hiding The World, couldn't be more stark. Hiding The World is a show closing track. The pace and hardness of the rock finally allows Helder to belt out the lyrics and take full control of the audience. I confess that at this point, the volume control tends to make a jump to the loudest point on the dial. This track is the best on the album to me and anyone not moved by this when it's played live is listening to the wrong genre of music.
Nocturnal is unquestionably an encore track. It starts off with a keyboard line that gets you nodding your head. After that the track just starts to grow. It moves from melodic progressive to rock and back again with ease. There are moments where you can visualise Helder introducing the band members to the audience and thanking people for being there. The solos, when they come, are understated but solid and at no point do they engage in the over the top ego trip that often happens during an encore. Instead, this track grows and grows with the last 90 seconds lifting the audience until it reaches a climax and gently lets you down again.
As I said at the beginning, I ordered Skin along with the previous album Satellite and took the opportunity to listen to Satellite first. From that, I was expecting a band capable of putting out good melodic rock. What I wasn't expecting was how well that was going to be constructed or the way that Panic Room have evolved since Satellite.
This is a very accomplished album and one that I confess I liked very much. There are very, very few bands whose album I have ever liked from the first listening in the same way as Panic Room and Skin. This is very close to topping my list of best album for 2012 and I cannot wait to see what Helder and Co do next. Hopefully I will get a chance to see them perform this album live this year.
****+ Ian Murphy
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