Gold Key – ‘Panic Machine’

By Ash Bebbington

When the time came to record the follow-up to 2017’s ‘Hello, Phantom’, the members of Watford-based Gold Key bundled into a van and got dropped off at a cottage in Gwynedd, North Wales. With no car, no phone signal, and nothing within walking distance, they were completely off-grid as they began work on what would become ‘Panic Machine’. It’s tempting to wonder if the rental fee for the cottage also included access to a crystal ball. Not only is ‘Panic Machine’ an uplifting tonic to these bizarre times we live in, the record’s lyrics feel uncannily relatable too. Some major themes include our over-reliance on technology to stimulate our minds, and the feeling of being alone and isolated, while we have – in theory – never been more connected. Sound familiar?

If you’re looking for a record that offers escapism though, don’t be put off. Despite the weighty lyrical content, ‘Panic Machine’ is a hell of a lot of fun. The melancholy of the lyrics does often bleed into the music, but it never feels suffocating or all-encompassing, and the album’s darker moments are almost always tinged with hope. On the other hand, many songs have an unashamedly feelgood sound, and it’s only once you start to learn the lyrics that you find the anguish hiding in plain sight.

The choruses on this album get stuck in your head after one listen and refuse to budge, while the music is colossal, never failing to get your foot tapping or your head banging. Simply put, no matter what genre of rock music is your favourite, you’re going to have a wonderful time with this record.

The guitars on the record are impeccable and varied, from chunky, low end riffs, to slow, expansive picked sections and everything in between. On the faster, heavier songs they relentlessly drive the songs forward, while on the slower, more contemplative tracks, they provide a lush – and at times eerie – musical canvas for guitarist and vocalist Steve Sears to sing over. Sears works with the musical variety on offer to deliver various differing vocal performances. On some tracks he boldly projects his vocals, and on others he creates a more reserved, intimate sound. The versatility of his performances is impressive, and adds to the record’s varied sound.

It’s well documented that Gold Key contains members of a number of revered bands on the underground UK rock circuit. The band’s collective CV lists Gallows, Sikth, Spycatcher, and Milk Teeth, among many others. However, Gold Key benefit greatly from not sounding too much like any of them. This allows the music to stand alone on its own merit, and not draw direct comparisons to the previous work by each of its members.

Despite this, you can certainly hear the variety of musical experience and taste from the members’ previous work on the record. This is perhaps best shown on ‘Sweet Darkness’, a track that encompasses many of the different sounds to be found on the record as a whole. The song opens with a slow, fingerpicked guitar part, before giving way to a chugging, metallic riff. In the choruses, the vocals absolutely soar, while they’re much more downbeat and considered in the verses. If you’re wondering whether this record is for you, this track should give you a pretty good idea right off the bat.

Second single ‘Don’t Sleep’ is one of the standout songs on the record. The track is built around a chunky riff and a brilliant chorus that gets lodged in your head before you’ve even finished listening to it once. With the riff, you can hear the through line from guitarist Laurent ‘Lags’ Barnard’s work with Gallows – this riff, however, is much more fun and upbeat than the typically bleaker sound that brought Gallows such high acclaim.

‘Shallows’ is a haunting, downbeat track, and one of the rare examples on the record where the sound of the music completely matches the anxiety and anguish of the lyrics. Both musically and vocally, it’s a stunning track that builds to a massive climax. It couldn’t be more different to ‘Mechanical World’, another of the album’s standout tracks, which was initially released as a standalone single in 2018; a flamboyant, catchy rock song built around a mammoth chorus.

At six minutes, ‘Trick of the Light’ is a slow burn, opening with a lush, spacious sound before exploding into life towards the end of the track, while ‘Enceladus’ brings a cleaner sound to the table and features some outstanding bass work from James Leach. On ‘Strain’, Sears delivers perhaps his best vocal performance of the record. On the choruses you can almost feel the emotion in the words he’s singing, while the guitar work only adds to the emotional weight of the track.

There’s plenty of competition across the album, but ‘Fly into the Sun’ might just have the best riff of the lot. The huge, stomping guitar parts in the last minute are absolutely joyous, and guaranteed to put a smile on the face of any riff hound. The record wraps up with ‘The Best of Luck’, a slow, winding song that’s easy to get lost in, tied together with yet another stellar chorus.

‘Panic Machine’ is a superb rock record that’s being released into the world at exactly the right time. Its lyrical content and sound, which meld melancholy with positivity, make it the perfect record to soundtrack your summer.

ASH BEBBINGTON

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