There’s some bands for whom their perceived level of quality speaks for itself, and Gold Key are and always have been one of them. Members of Gallows, SikTh, Nervus and Spycatcher is an obvious mark right off the back, as is the signing to Venn Records who, while a bit quieter recently, have always been a go-to for great, exciting rock music. That’s all topped off by their impressive 2017 debut Hello, Phantom, an album shying away from the punk and post-hardcore that a lot of its creators are regularly associated with, in favour of deeper tones reminiscent of post-punk or stoner-rock. That album might not have held up in the public’s mind (though it didn’t make much of an impact beyond set circles to begin with), but it’s one that still really holds up today, and to see Gold Key looking to make a return and dispel any notions of this being a one-time side-project is a genuinely interesting proposition. It’s the sort of thing that never typically happens with collaborative efforts like this, and given their pedigree, having Gold Key stick around as its own entity could make for a supremely healthy addition within British rock.
What’s more, Panic Machine seems to hold steady on that notion, albeit perhaps not quite as strongly as their debut. They’ve gone in a more progressive direction that’s not as wholly robust as what they’d been doing previously, but that’s generally a pretty minor complaint on what’s otherwise another really strong offering. The fact they’ve attempted to undergo any sort of evolution at all is more than would’ve been expected from a side-project like this, but a number of interesting ideas and a keen focus on weaving in a good amount of variety keeps an unequivocally dense album moving at a solid pace overall. Even if it’s not totally a standout release, it’s even further from being middling or mediocre, and Gold Key have the consistent talent to ensure that’s always engaging.
The issues that this album suffers from do hold some fairly noticeable weight though, largely because they tend to be present in Steve Sears’ vocals above all else. He’s definitely not a bad singer, especially when he’s bolstered to a slightly nasal rasp that, when placed inside a more cavernous space like on the opener Sweet Darkness, can make it feel all the bigger. It’s a bit like Muse in a way, where those sharper twinges serve as an anchoring point for music that can feel a lot grander and more expansive, but it’s also a case where the vocals are the weakest element about it. The mix isn’t exactly flattering when it places Sears a bit further back to subsequently flatten his vocals by a less-than-ideal amount, and when there’s a lot of falsetto and vibrato that, again, places him that Matt Bellamy role, it’s not the best beyond the more outwardly swooning prog moments like Shallows or Trick Of The Light. It’s not a huge shortcoming and doesn’t do a great deal to knock the album back, but the fact that it’s the only real element that noticeably cools upon multiple listens makes it worth bringing up, if only to draw attention to it.
The fact of the matter is that Gold Key are just overall a solid band in all aspects that a dip like that does feel uncharacteristic within what is effectively an album that gets everything else pretty right. For all the sonic ground they cover on Panic Machine, it’s all done with an impressive degree of stability; Gold Key move rather swiftly around the alt-rock landscape here, and get whatever they land upon rather consistently right. The instrumental production helps a lot with that, giving it all a nice rich sound that has a sturdy presence to it, especially in the case of James Leach’s bass work which always lends an audible quake and muscle to these tracks, whether that’s in more conventional rock cuts like Mechanical World or the slow burn of Strain, or especially A Crack In The Earth where there’s plenty of much-appreciated detail in the low end set alongside the slower acoustic guitars. It’s an album that has a recognisable core identity despite traversing across multiple different sounds, and it’s what gives Panic Machine a profound sense of flow. Again, it’s very comparable to Muse; writing touching on paranoia, self-destruction and turning to space for the answer feels lodged extremely deeply within that wheelhouse, and it continues to work when soundtracked by a good balance of its expansive, bolder moments, and moments that are more outwardly poppy and widescreen, like the mid-paced sway on Enceladus or the glittering prog-pop-rock of Human. The Muse comparison holds up insofar as their later material is effectively sidelined, but Gold Key’s take on it is easily superior and more interesting to anything on their last couple of albums. There’s still the excitement and rambunctiousness of a new band here, and it’s incredible to see how much of a positive impact that has on the overall creativity here.
And as such, when that’s the driving force of an album like this – an album that retains the value in being exciting and unafraid to try new things – that goes a long way on the whole. Even with its flaws that prevent it from reaching the same heights as its predecessor, Panic Machine is exactly what Gold Key needed to show that neither moving into a proper band status nor a fairly sizable amount of time has dulled their overall intent. It’s definitely its own thing, with recognisable building blocks arranged in such a way to highlight just what Gold Key are capable of, and how good they really are. Even when they aren’t at their peak, there’s a solid-to-the-core rock band here that it’s absolutely fantastic to have around.
For fans of: Muse, Queens Of The Stone Age, Black Peaks
Words by Luke Nuttall
‘Panic Machine’ by Gold Key is released on 1st May on Venn Records.