The last time Panic Room played York, back in September last year, I bemoaned the size of the audience who came out to see them and wondered whether playing here was sustainable. Subsequent news that the band had signed to a record label and might, therefore, be a little more constrained in where they could choose to perform increased my concern. So, it was both a pleasure and surprise to learn that, not only would they be playing here again, but that the first date of the mini-tour to promote Skin, the band’s third album and first to be released on the Esoteric Antenna label, would be at Fibbers. Wild horses would have had a job keeping me away.
The other slightly surprising thing was that there was no support listed for tonight, especially given that the next night, at the Robin2 in Bilston (the home of live prog in the Midlands) had Howard Sinclair also on the bill. In hindsight, however, this was probably due to the fact that, when live performances have finished, Fibbers turns into a nightclub and, with Panic Room playing a near two-hour set, there just wouldn’t have been time for two acts without either starting earlier or finishing later, neither of which seems to be an option.
Apparently, there had been a few technical problems prior to the gig and, sadly, they continued throughout the evening. Most annoying was a loud hum coming through the PA. Admittedly it was only noticeable between songs (and even disappeared for a short while, only to return with a vengeance…) But with one guitar refusing to give out any sound and microphones, particularly Anne-Marie’s, refusing to stay in place, the band seemed to be a little up against it. Not that they let it bother them. In fact, we could only watch in amused awe as Ann-Marie combined singing, playing guitar and constantly re-adjusting her mic (until it finally gave in and stopped trying to put her off) without missing a beat or dropping a note.
Skin had only been posted out to those of us who had pre-ordered it a few days before tonight’s gig and wasn’t officially released until the following week, so it was perhaps appropriate that the first forty-five minutes of the set were given over to more familiar songs from the previous albums. Kicking off, as has been usual recently, with Freedom To Breathe. The sound gremlins reared their heads during 5th Amendment, with Anne-Marie’s vocals sounding very strange. Thankfully, this was sorted out in time for eco-song Yasuni but it was at the beginning of Reborn that Anne-Marie had to quickly swap guitars and yet, even then, she still managed to sing with a huge smile, showing just how to deal with adversity. The band’s superb cover version of ELP’s Bitches Crystal followed and, for the first time I noticed Paul playing this “bottleneck” style. For one who is usually a bit of a quiet man on stage, Paul not only seemed to be being a bit more playful (for want of a better word) with his guitar work but also came to the fore a bit more than usual, engaging with the audience while Anne-Marie was otherwise engaged trying to work through the guitar problems. Next up was Apocalypstick and then The Fall which, apparently, wasn’t due to be in tonight’s set but had been specially requested by one family group in the audience.
The band then moved on to the new material, well mostly. Fifty minutes of songs from Skin started with Song For Tomorrow, which they have been playing live for over a year, ever since they started work on the latest album. The full album wasn’t played live, but we were treated to Screens, Chameleon, Freefalling, Promises (another song that was first played at the beginning of last year) and Skin itself, all of which were given snappy little introductions by Anne-Marie, telling the story behind them where possible – Freefalling was inspired by Anne-Marie’s recent foray into Sky-diving while Skin tells of the impact of a friend’s premature death. All the new songs sounded superb, technical issues notwithstanding.Many have the unmistakable underlying Panic Room sound, while being just different enough to show that the band are progressing creatively. As usual, Yatim’s bass playing was incredible – here’s a man who clearly enjoys being on stage – and, together with Gavin’s drumming, provided a solid back-line for the songs throughout the set. I have sometimes, in the past, struggled to pick Jonathan’s keyboards out but they seemed to be much more prominent in the mix tonight, giving the songs a lot more depth than I usually hear. Even the string arrangements, provided on the album by The Larkin Quartet, were used, albeit in the form of recorded backing tracks. This portion of the set ended with Hiding The World, with the band going out with a bang – much heavier sounding guitars and a more active light show.
The inevitable encore, which itself lasted another twenty minutes, consisted of two more new songs – Tightrope Walking, with Anne-Marie adding yet another instrument to her repertoire by playing some sort of hand-drum, and the brilliant album closer Nocturnal.
Thankfully, tonight’s audience was larger than last time (or it seemed to me to be, anyway) so perhaps my worries about not being able to see one of my favourite bands in York for much longer are unfounded. On the strength of tonight’s performance, and Skin itself, they are only getting better. Hopefully they will be back and, finger-crossed, without the gremlins.