Who: Panic Room
When: 14th June 2014
Where: The Borderline, Orange Yard, Manette Street, London
It’s been four years since I was asked to review Panic Room live and during that time they’ve gone through a few changes. Bassist, Alun Vaughan was replaced by Yatim Halimi just after that last review and then last year, Paul Davies left to be eventually replaced by Adam O’ Sullivan.
The band back then were a curious mix of the very charismatic (lead vocalist, guitar, flute – Anne-Marie Helder) and the visually barely noticeable (the rest). The two changes have not done a lot to improve that situation. O’Sullivan is a good lead and rhythm guitarist but he quietly goes about his work and gives the audience no other reason to notice him. Halimi works a little harder to be noticed but he is a short guy and he is not going to grab too much attention. This does leave Helder with a lot to do but she is up to the task and she has the songs and pizazz to help her carry the show. They have fans who are obviously very, very enthusiastic about this band but they haven’t broken through to the next level and as this tour continues to promote their fourth album, it is difficult to see how they are ever going to do that. They are a great band but they will remain mostly a secret.
So what was on offer in tonight’s set?
Bravely the show begins with three songs which their audience might not be as familiar with as some of the rest they will hear. Two of those are from the new album, “Incarnate” and the third from a disk which was given away with initial copies of their second album, “Satellite” (the free disc was “Little Satellite”). The first two, “Into Temptation” and “Velocity” are typical of the Panic Room sound. Unfortunately, they are hindered by the mix in the room which leaves the sound a little dead and it is difficult to distinguish the individual instruments, leaving a barrage of sound which threatens to bury the vocals and the lyrics.
This continues through the aforementioned “5th Amendment” but by the time we are five or six songs in the sound guy had obviously noticed and been at work on this and there was a noticeable improvement. Miss Helder encouraged the guys in the audience to sing along with the chorus on “Freedom to Breathe” which along with “Picking Up Knives” are songs included in the set from the main “Satellite” disc.
One of the strengths of Panic Room is the variety and range of their songs. This began to be evident tonight as the set reached “I Wonder What’s Keeping My True Love Tonight” a traditional folk number, recorded by the band for their debut album, which Anne-Marie began unaccompanied and on which the sound gradually built up until the whole band was involved.
The band’s belief in their new album is shown by their determination to include almost all the songs from it in their set. This is very refreshing in an era when many bands tour playing only their best known songs. The new material worked well and blended with the older but then I guess this is a little easier when you don’t have any “hits” you must play.
Anne-Marie Helder is a woman with a sense of humour as well as a good degree of beauty. She opened one song by announcing “It’s pussy time” knowing that her audience would realise she was going to go in to “I Am a Cat” but also enjoy the double entendre. She prowled around the stage to great effect like the feline in the title and her voice was now at its fullest and most expressive.
One of the difficulties for Panic Room’s sound is the way that all too often in concert it buries the keyboard work of Jonathan Edwards which is virtually inaudible on most songs. Talking to fans before the show, it is clear that most of them regard the band as “progressive rock”. Whilst this kind of pigeon-holing is very unfortunate because Panic Room are much more than that, it is also quite instructive in a peculiar way. The bands most associated with that genre are very noticeably keyboard-driven (Tony Banks in early Genesis, Rick Wakeman in Yes and all their descendants and offspring) and whilst Edwards is clearly a gifted musician, the way that the band’s performance doesn’t allow his expressive work to be heard is unfortunate.
Interestingly, one area of the show where the band aren’t going full throttle is in the mini acoustic set which makes up much of the encore. This was one of the highlights of the night and it is in some of these gentler moments that you begin to realise that there are many strengths to this outfit. This is sometimes more evident on their albums than it is in their live shows.
The show closed with “Incarnate” the title track from the new album which is a little bit of an anti-climax. I might have switched it around with “Dust” which closed the main set which was much more poignant and atmospheric.
Mmm… this was a good show but I do think that Panic Room could challenge themselves to achieve more. Perhaps there is room for some deep thought before deciding on the direction of the fifth album and the subsequent tour. Otherwise they are in danger of missing some chances. The Borderline is a far better venue for acoustic and semi-acoustic performances and this showed tonight. But there are more lessons for Panic Room to learn. Perhaps, they should think about why Helder and Edwards felt the need to record an outside acoustic project under the name of Luna Rossa and add some of that light and shade from Mr Edwards’ keyboard work to the main band’s live show.