Panic Room up north.

So the two gig-free months come to an end, and the gigging season begins again. Yet again, I’ve been putting in serious amounts of rail miles to see two gigs by Panic Room, the first at Fibbers in York, the second the following night at The Factory in Manchester. Are they really worth spending so many hours on board Arriva Cross-Country Voyagers to see? I think so, or I wouldn’t keep doing it. Not that I managed to persuade GordonImmel or DarceysDad to attend either…

Friday night was was the second time I’ve been to the recently refurbished Fibbers. It’s now more of a nightclub than a rock club, no draft beers any more, and decor that seems to lack character, and focuses on the dancefloor rather than the stage. Still, unlike in December where what turned out to have been Breathing Space’s final gig was spoiled by very poor sound, this time the venue seems to have got it’s act together in that respect, and the sound was excellent, good separation with every instrument clear.

The Factory in Manchester the following night didn’t have quite as good sound as the night before, a little bit too loud. But we did have one of the most enthusiastic audiences I’ve seen at a Panic Room gig to date. The Magnum-style arm-waving during “Satellite” was a new one on me. There was one downside, though, which I’ll come to later.

A few words on the support acts. Friday’s support was a solo acoustic singer-songwriter who’s name I forget. I find these sorts of performers rather hit-and-miss. Marc Atkinson, Chris Johnson, or for that matter Anne-Marie herself, can win over audiences with strong performances and good songs. But this guy wasn’t really in the same league. To give him some credit, he did write his own songs rather than take the easy route and play covers, but his act really needs a bit more work. Saturday’s support was David R Black, fronting an indie/metal trio who brought along a lot of their own fans and helped sell tickets for the gig. They didn’t do an awful lot for me, I’m afraid. They were musically competent, and pretty tight too, but their songs rather generic to my ears. But they weren’t really my kind of music, so I might not be the best person to judge.

As for Panic Room themselves, they more or less picked up where they left off last year. As I know I’ve said before, Yatim Halimi’s arrival as their new bass player seems to be the final piece of the jigsaw puzzle that has turned them from being a good live band to having all the makings of a great one. They’re now got the magical combination of tightness and onstage energy, all five members giving it absolutely everything and making an equally important contribution. Gavin and Yatim make a powerful rhythm section, Jon and Paul on keys and guitar perfect foils for each other, especially with a set that alternates between guitar-led and keyboard-led numbers. And of course Anne-Marie demonstrating just why she was voted Female Vocalist of the Year by readers of Classic Rock Presents Prog. And while their music has plenty of depth and complexity to satisfy progressive rock audiences, many of their songs are direct enough to give them crossover appeal.

Much as on their tour last autumn, the bulk of the set came from “Satellite”, with just two or three songs from their debut album. They’re still playing their as-yet unreleased swamp-blues cover of ELP’s “Bitches Crystal”, which I find far superior to the original. Since several songs from “Satellite” had become live favourites long before the band went into the studio to record them, there was the feeling that it was about time some new material started appearing in the set. And we got two brand-new songs, of which one, a twin-guitar prog-metal epic with a working title of “Song for Tomorrow” has all the makings of a future classic. My only regret is they’ve retired the lengthy epics from the first album. I’m not suggesting they exhume “The Dreaming”, which never really worked that well live, but “Endgame” used to be a live highlight, and it’s a song that means a lot to me personally.

One annoying thing about both venues was the way they turned into nightclubs after the gig, and the DJs started up at a volume at least twice as loud as the band had been the second the band finished playing. In this respect The Factory was far worse than Fibbers in that they started letting clubbers into the venue while the band were still on stage, which meant fans had to fight their way through the crowd to reach the exit at the end. And this was after a truncated set due to of a very strict curfew. I’ve since been told they started letting them in a good half-hour before the band finished, and their chatter was drowning out the band for those towards the back. Some were even making juvenile attempts to take the piss out of band and audience. The atmosphere as I was leaving the venue felt vaguely threatening; it certainly wasn’t the sort of place I wanted to hang around for any time. I would recommend that Panic Room, and other bands in the same scene, give venues like this a wide berth in future. No band should be playing in a venue where their own fans do not feel safe.

Panic Room have one more gig on this leg of the tour, at The Peel in Kingston on Saturday 26th. I know the place is a bit of dive, but at least it won’t be full of lagered-up yoof at the end. Be there and see a band who I believe are now on the edge of something bigger.

Tim’s Year of Live Music

My musical year has been defined more by live music than by albums, with something like 40 gigs this year. It’s almost impossible to chose the best of these, but here are a dozen of the most memorable, in chronological order.

Mostly Autumn at Leamington Assembly

This gig on Good Friday was Heather Findlay’s farewell performance with the progressive rock band she’d fronted for twelve years, the whole thing superbly captured on the DVD “That Night In Leamington”. It was an extremely emotional night for those of us who were there, but also one of the best performances I’ve seen by the band to date; certainly a fitting close for an era of the band.

Breathing Space at Bilston Robin 2

Two days later, on Easter Sunday, Olivia Sparnenn played her last gig with her old band Breathing Space before leaving to replace Heather in Mostly Autumn. The Robin is always a great gig for any band and this one was no exception; Olivia certainly ended her time with the band on a high. The whole thing had a great vibe and I can remember how positive everyone was after the gig.

Protect the Beat at the Mumbles Jazz Festival

When a gig is billed as jazz-fusion played by top rock and pop session musicians, one could be excused for fearing the worst. But the energy and enthusiasm of the five musicians made this instrumental set one of the gigs of the year. The key factor was that it was abundantly clear that they were enjoying every minute on stage, and that enthusiasm was infectious. This is what live music is all about.

Transatlantic at Manchester Academy 1

The prog-rock supergroup featuring members of Marillion, Spock’s Beard and Dream Theater proved every bit as enthusiastic about being on stage as had Protect The Beat a couple of weeks earlier. The three and a half hour set comprised just seven songs of grandiose swirling epic prog, including their 70-minute “The Whirlwind”. The word “progtastic” is the only way to describe an evening like this, even if the song to set length ratio was enough to give Alexis Petridis the vapours.

Mostly Autumn and Panic Room at Shepherds Bush Empire, London

Just a week after those two farewell gigs Mostly Autumn took to the stage with Olivia Sparnenn fronting the band. I saw them a number of times on that tour; the best of the lot was when they and Panic Room supported Wishbone Ash in London in mid-May. Panic Room played a short and sweet opening set, then Mostly Autumn went absolutely full-tilt for a special guest spot of just under an hour. The headline act just could not follow that; the consensus was that they ended up the third-best band of the night.

Fish at The Band on the Wall, Manchester

After taking the best part of a year out, the former Marillion frontman has been touring with a stripped-down acoustic show in small intimate venues backed by just Frank Usher on guitar and Foss Patterson on keys. Despite having suffered from throat problems in recent years, Fish proved that he’s very much still got it as a live performer both as a singer and a charismatic frontman. Most memorable moment was when he looked me in the eye when he mentioned an earlier gig in York, and didn’t make any mention of his ex.

High Voltage festival at Victoria Park, London

While this big commercial festival had it’s downsides of long queues to get in, overpriced beer, and a yawn-inducing Saturday headliner, the upsides were some superb bands, of whom Touchstone, The Reasoning, Martin Turner’s Wishbone Ash, BigElf, Zappa Plays Zappa, Opeth and Transatlantic stood out. The whole thing ended with a gloriously ridiculous show by Emerson, Lake and Palmer, which was probably the only way to end such a festival.

Cambridge Rock Festival

This small friendly festival was a complete contrast to the commercialism of High Voltage. No big name headliners, but the vibe of the festival was such that it didn’t really need it. The best day was undoubtedly the Sunday, headlined by Mostly Autumn (them again!) and also featured great sets from Panic Room and Breathing Space, the latter being the début for their new singer Heidi Widdop. But it was the special guest, prog veterans The Enid who stole the show with an utterly mesmerising set.

Therion at Shepherds Bush Empire, London

I went to this gig having heard a couple of their albums, not really knowing what to expect. Seeing a band whose lyricist apparently heads a magickal order on Halloween night makes you wonder if they would attempt to summon Great Cthulhu at some point in the show, but what we got was epic symphonic metal with elaborate but hugely melodic multi-part vocal arrangements from four classically-trained singers. An amazing gig, quite unlike anything else I’ve heard all year

Steve Hackett at Shepherds Bush Empire, London

The Godfather of prog guitar gave us one of the most prog gigs of the year, mixing material from his excellent recent album with 70s Genesis classics like “Watcher of the Skies” and “Firth of Fifth”. Nick Beggs (of Kajagoogoo fame) on bass and Chapman stick managed to make himself the centre of attention as a cross-dressing steampunk Gandalf, but it was Hackett’s distinctive liquid guitar playing that reminded us just how influential his guitar sound has been in the progressive rock world.

Mostly Autumn at The Fleece and Firkin, Bristol

I got to see Mostly Autumn several times on their Autumn tour, when they laid to rest many of their old standards to play a set drawing very heavily from their superb new album “Go Well Diamond Heart”. Of the shows I saw, their return to Bristol after an absence of several years was the best; good sound, spirited and enthusiastic performance, and a lengthy set ending with some Christmas standards. I do love their rockier take of Greg Lake’s “I believe in Father Christmas” in particular. Also great to see CaroleBristol at this gig.

Panic Room and Touchstone at Bilston Robin 2

Some people don’t like the idea of double headliners where both bands play 70-80 minute sets instead of a full-length headline set, but this female-fronted prog double bill pulled a vastly bigger crowd than I’ve ever seen either band draw on their own. And they got their money’s worth; both bands pulled out all the stops and gave as good a performance as I’ve ever seen them play. High spot, if there was any single one, was Anne-Marie Helder’s spine-tingling rendition of “O Holy Night”.

Tim’s Albums of the Year

2010 doesn’t seem to have been quite as strong a year as 2009, when I did a top 15 on my own blog – this year I struggled to name ten, with some albums getting a lot of hype in my musical circles doing nothing much for me at all.- Iron Maiden and Pineapple Thief being two of them. There is utterly zero overlap with The Guardian’s own top 40, or even the top 10s of any of The Guardian’s writers. Somehow I don’t think any of the RR crew will be surprised by that…

10: Rhapsody of Fire – The Frozen Tears of Angels

More Dungeons and Dragons operatic pomp-metal from the Italian quintet, again featuring narration from Sir Christopher Lee and a corny plot featuring a Dark Lord called “Necron”. All good fun in a cheesy sort of way, even if it doesn’t really break any new ground for the band. Twenty-sided dice are not included.

9: Parade – The Fabric

Parade is the brainchild of Fish guitarist and former Mostly Autumn keyboard player Chris Johnson, with the collaboration of Anne-Marie Helder, Gavin Griffiths, Patrick Berry and Simon Snaize. It took me a few listens for this one to click; on the surface it’s an indie-sounding album with it’s sparse chiming guitars and clattering drums; but listen more closely and there’s some real musical depth there.

8: Anathema – We’re Here Because We’re Here

The former doom-metallers return after a lengthy absence and drop just about all traces of metal from their sound in favour of atmospheric soundscapes. It’s a musical journey that works far far better as one continuous listen than as a collection of individual songs.

7: The Reasoning – Adverse Camber

The Cardiff band’s third album continues in a similar prog-metal vein as 2008’s “Dark Angel”, albeit with Rachel Cohen handling the majority of the lead vocals. A solid piece of work with some great songs, even if it doesn’t (for me at least) quite reach the heights of their first two albums.

6: Pure Reason Revolution – Hammer and Anvil

PRR describe their third album as “Disco-prog”, meaning they’ve put electronic dance, prog and metal into a blender. At times atmospheric, at times sounding like The Prodigy at their most mental, it puts the progressive back into prog.

5: Therion – Sitra Ahra

Not quite as bonkers as their last album “Gothic Kabballah”, this one is the slightly more accessible side of Therion’s choral metal. It’s still filled with complex multi-part vocal arrangements using multiple classically-trained singers, which when combined with twin lead guitars makes for a very rich sound indeed.

4: Black Country Communion

The combination of Glenn Hughes, Joe Bonamassa, Jason Bonham and Derek Sherinian is in danger of giving supergroups a good name with this album of classic 70s-style hard rock. Hughes, despite his age is on fine form vocally, Bonamassa shows he can do hard rock as well as blues, and Jason Bonham is in the same league as his famous father. Sherinian really only has a supporting role given that cast, but still delivers some great Hammond playing. The best album Led Zeppelin never recorded in the 70s? Maybe.

3: Karnataka – The Gathering Light

Five years in the making, the second incarnation of Karnataka finally deliver an album of old-school symphonic prog on a truly epic scale. Features heartfelt female vocals from the now-departed Lisa Fury and some fantastic guitar playing from Enrico Pinna, as well as guest appearances from Troy Donockley on Uilleann pipes, and Hugh McDowell, formerly of ELO, on cello.

2: Panic Room – Satellite

Compared with it’s complex, multilayered predecessor, Panic Room’s second album is made up simpler, more direct songs. The very different musical backgrounds of the five members combine in an alchemical mix which results in far more than the sum of the parts. Elements of hard rock, prog, pop, folk and jazz contribute to a sound that defies easy pigeonholing, with some very thought provoking lyrics from Anne-Marie Helder.

1: Mostly Autumn – Go Well Diamond Heart

OK, so you all know I’m a huge fan of this band. But this is the first time since I’ve been blogging that they’ve come up with my album of the year. It’s an immensely varied album containing atmospheric celtic moments, belting hard rockers, shimmering four-minute pop songs, and soaring ballads. They’ve managed to take the spirit of 70s classic rock and made it sound relevant for the 21st century with great songwriting, singing and musicianship. And they’ve done it straight after the departure of a much-loved lead singer too.

Four Days, Four Gigs

My name is Tim, and I’m addicted to live music.

It’s been one of those bank holiday weekends – four gigs in four days, which I think is the greatest amount of music in the shortest time I’ve ever done outside of a festival.

Things started a day early on the Thursday, with The Reasoning at The Met Theatre in Bury. Support band Morpheus Rising are a five piece band shamelessly citing the 1980s NWOBHM as a principle influence, now reclassified as hard rock following boundary changes. Entertaining high energy stuff.

I’d seen The Reasoning a week earlier in London, where a very poor sound mix really hadn’t done the music justice, and the performance suffered badly as a result. Tonight was far, far better. Bury Met is always a great gig whoever is playing, and The Reasoning I know and love were back with a vengeance, now expanded to a seven-piece with new members Jake Bradford-Sharp on drums, ex-Fish keyboard player Tony Turrell and vocalist Maria Owen. The new album “Adverse Camber” features heavily, which takes a slight step back from prog-metal in favour of some elements of the atmospheric melodic music that Rachel did with Karnataka. Not that the twin guitar attack of Dylan Thompson and Owain Roberts doesn’t still rock hard plenty of times, but the overall effect is to make their live set a lot more varied and multi-dimensional, which cannot be anything other than a good thing.

On Friday I travelled down to Cardiff to see Hawkwind supported by Panic Room at St David’s Hall. I’ve seen Panic Room many times before at their own shows, here they made the most of their five-song 30 minute slot, naturally including a great version of “Apocalypstick”. Blessed with a good sound mix for a support, they seemed to go down well with Hawkwind’s audience, and told me they sold a lot of albums after the gig.

Hawkwind themselves I hadn’t seen since 1980, and had lost track of what they’ve been doing since the mid-80s, so I really didn’t know what to expect.

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Panic Room, Swansea and Kingston

If Abahachi wonders if he’d have been better off seeing Panic Room on Saturday, I started my live music for 2009 by seeing them twice, in two completely different cities.

While Friday night’s gig in Swansea was really a warm-up for the high-profile London show the next day, it also featured a one-off guest appearance from violinist Liz Prendegast, who’d played on several songs on the album “Visionary Position”.

The Garage is quite a nice little venue; capacity of perhaps 200, although it was nowhere near full. Unfortunately the gig did suffer from a disappointingly high level of background chatter which was noticeable during the quiet bits. And everyone hung at the back of the room despite Anne-Marie Helder trying to persuade people to move forward.

Panic Room’s set suffered badly from technical glitches, the worst of which was Anne-Marie’s microphone not being switched on at the very beginning, resulting in a false start to ‘Electra City’. But the band managed to rise above the gremlins, and played an entertaining and varied set lasting not far short of two hours. While they played some favourites from their debut album, such as the atmospheric epic ‘Endgame’ and the arabesque ‘Apocalypstick’, those amounted to something like a third of the set.

Some of the newer material they’d been playing at the end of last year have already become live favourites, such as the spiky guitar-driven rocker ‘Go’ and the industrial-sounding ‘Black Noise’, and they added another couple of brand new songs for their first live airing; of those ‘5th Amendment’ was the most impressive. Anne-Marie did her customary mid-set acoustic solo spot, of which the a cappella ‘Hadditfeel’ was the highlight. They ended with their groove-orientated cover of Led Zeppelin’s ‘No Quarter’, including a few bars of ‘Kashmir’ for good measure. When she joined them on stage, Liz’s electric violin added an extra dimension to the sound, especially on the ‘Apocalypstick’ and ‘No Quarter’. I’d love to see her accompany the band for a whole tour.

Saturday’s gig at The Peel was the replacement for the show in April cancelled due to power failure, and this rescheduled gig attracted the largest crowd I’ve seen at a Panic Room gig to date, while I don’t think they quite sold out, the place was pretty much full. Support was prog veterans Jump, who delivered a highly entertaining set; a band I’m getting to like more and more every time I see them. John Dexter Jones is a great frontman; while he looks a bit like Morrissey, he sounds more like Fish; you can certainly hear the influence of both Marillion and Fish’s solo material in their sound.

Panic Room then delivered the best performance I’ve seen them play to date. Playing a shorter set than the previous night, they went pretty much full tilt all the way through, high energy levels, fantastically tight, and hugely appreciated by the crowd.

What I love about this band is that while they’re all clearly virtuoso musicians, they always play exactly what the songs need and no more; they never descend into the sort of self-indulgent noodling that ‘prog’ is all-too frequently accused of. And I think the fact that I’ve got several of their new songs stuck in my head means they’re capable of writing memorable songs that ought to appeal to mainstream audiences. And after many years as a backing singer to Rachel Jones in Karnataka and more recently to Heather Findlay in Mostly Autumn, Anne-Marie Helder more than proves she’s now in the same league as either of them when it comes to fronting a band herself.

Their next gig is in Stocksbridge near Sheffield in March.