The current popularity of bands like Anathema and Gazpacho points to the likelihood that universal truths are best expressed via big melodies and a shimmering cloak of melancholy. Once you’ve grabbed people by the heartstrings, it seems, there’s really no need for all that excessive technical wizardry. Panic Room are resolutely allied to this idea too. SKIN is not an album that ever strays far from a traditional rock format: its power lies in the simplicity of the tales told, the inclusive sweep of its melodic core and the exquisite combination of strength and fragility that is Anne-Marie Helder’s unique voice.
Increasingly acknowledged as frontrunners in the British prog firmament, Panic Room arrive at their third album knowing that a huge audience is there for the taking. What they do so brilliantly here is gently expand and augment the sound they established on Visionary Position and Satellite while cranking up the emotional volume.
Song For Tomorrow is a sumptuous and beguiling opener; all somnambulant lead guitar melodies and spine-tingling crescendos, it owes a considerable spiritual debt to Marillion but never sounds like anything other than a fiercely distinctive statement of intent. Similarly, Chameleon offers a gorgeously restrained blend of pathos and power. Driven tastefully along by a persistent rhythmic pulse and the shadowy thrill of distant violins, it sounds simultaneously familiar and subtly odd.
If there is a flaw in the plan here, it’s that more straightforward songs like Chances and Promises verge on the timid next to the dynamics and deft atmospheric touches displayed elsewhere. The beautifully sinister Tightrope Walking, with its rippling analogue keys and air of oppressive sobriety, provides a glorious showcase for Helder. She has an extraordinary gift for inhabiting her lyrics and allowing melodies to pour out directly from within. It’s a jaw-dropping seven minutes and quite possibly this band’s finest moment to date.
Sparse and faintly unhinged, the sublime Velvet And Stars again emphasises that Panic Room are at their best when taking an experimental punt or two. The folk-hued shuffle of Freefalling mixes another delicate Helder performance with twinkling pianos and minimal upright bass. By the time the melodramatic title track drifts by SKIN has already peaked.
The final two songs – the surprisingly muscular Hiding The World and mournful closer Nocturnal – are affecting and beautifully played, but you may find yourself skipping back to the album’s more daring moments. It’s these that affirm that Panic Room are edging ever closer to being something very special indeed.