by Al Kaufman
Opening up with a grandiose drum solo from Myles Wootton, Australia’s The Panics leave little doubt that this is not another lo-fi CD that their fans have come to expect. On Cruel Guards, their third CD, the quintet has gone for broke. In an effort to expand beyond the borders of their island continent, they have abandoned their sparce sound for a more lush, orchestral one.
It works. Think The Verve. The music swells and the sounds of organs and pianos wash over you, like a wave of honey.
Cruel Guards is an enchanting blend of ’70s and ’80s alt-rock (Imagine music from The Church funneled through the twisted mind of Robyn Hitchcock.) with a very 21st Centruy feel. While Jae Laffer’s vocals sometimes recall those of Al "Time Passages" Stewart, the production offers enough jangly guitar and layered keyboards to offer a wonderful pillow on which to place his words. The end result is both modern and timeless.
As is usually the case orchestrated music, Cruel Guards has a melancholic feel to it. But not all is dour and one dimentional. The first Australian single, "Don’t Fight It," (which should never be confused with the Kenny Loggins/Steve Perry single of the same name) is perfectly pleasing pop complete with horns, while the title track gets back to the band’s original stripped-down sound.
But it is the final cut, "Sundowner," that is most intriguing. About a man on the brink who refuses to give up, the song sounds almost exactly like INXS‘ "The Devil Inside" — if Michael Hutchence had written it after spending time with the Maharishi and slowed it down to 2/3 speed. It gives the song both a familiar and mystical quality.
This is the CD that should make a name for The Panics in the US. If it doesn’t, it’s not from lack of trying, or talent.