For years, Red has been a pillar of my musical library. In fact, one could say that this hard rock band launched me on the musical journey of my life, and though I have for the most part moved on from their angst-ridden genre, I still find much to laud about Red’s music. Innocence & Instinct still holds its ground as the band’s defining work, seamlessly melding melody, aggression, massive guitars and haunting strings in a stimulating and moving exploration of the duality of man and the “Fight Inside”. Their debut, End of Silence, still rides the emotional weight of the prominent orchestrations and Michael Barnes’ powerful vocal ability, while Until We Have Faces, though a weaker overall album, still contains moments of genius with a dash of social commentary. It is with high hopes and high standards that I approached Release The Panic, but the effort of the band on its fourth record is far more mixed, complicated, and ultimately perplexing and disappointing than anything previously released.
In advance of the album’s release, Red, along with new producer Howard Benson, hyped that they were trying something new and different for the new record. Significant to note is longtime producer Rob Graves’ complete absence from the production and songwriting. Clearly the band wanted to move forward in a different musical direction, and so it is no surprise that the formerly prevalent string and piano accompaniments that defined Red’s sound are only occasionally present. Instead various electronic elements replace them. Lyrically, as well, the band changes face, diving into more substantial social commentary, akin to that present in “Feed the Machine”. Unfortunately, the sonic changes prove far less effective than the lyrical shift, and the album flounders because of it.
Red continues, for the most part, their competent lyricism, and turns their focus away from specifically personal struggles, and broadens the focus to encompass greater societal and human issues. “Perfect Life” is a scathing indictment of modern popular American culture, bluntly calling out materialism and sensationalism for the lie that it is. “Damage” and “Same Disease” examine the fallen human condition, laying the blame for disaster at the place it belongs: at man’s own feet. “Glass House” eloquently describes how God sees through the facades we are so prone to put up, and how, in fact, He alone, because of it, can “take away the pain”, and “break through the glass house of our souls”. “The Moment We Come Alive” is a satisfying anthem for change. “Love Will Leave A Mark” examines how true love will change a person, and also how it is not always a pleasant experience. The mournful poetic imagery used on “As You Go” is also particularly stirring and moving.
There are a few misfires though. The title track, “Release the Panic” is shockingly vague in its aggressiveness, with repeated shouts of “release the panic, oh, release the panic” that could be a call for just about anything. “Die For You” has a cringe-worthy inclusion of “I ain’t gonna change”. “So Far Away” features generic lyrics throughout. However, what damns the track is the bridge, in which Barnes pretentiously demands “yeah give it back to me”. One wonders if these flaws have something to do with the producer, Howard Benson, who has a track record of trivializing lyrical content (Skillet’s Awake anyone?). In fact, it has been reported that Benson wanted to limit the band to eight words on the song “Damage”, an inexplicable move that would have robbed the song of most any meaning.
Overall though, the lyrical and thematic material is satisfactory. The musical content itself, however, is far inferior to any previous Red release. The primary culprit is the substitution of strings with electronics. Now, I would like to make clear, I am not condemning Red simply on the fact that they moved away from their former established “sound”. My issue is that the replacement is not done well. Formerly, string arrangements accompanied the songs to provide melody, contrasting the heavier and harsher elements of the music with delicate beauty. The electronic elements that replace the strings do little to contribute to any melody or emotion. In fact, the electronics do not even have a significant enough presence to truly affect most songs in a meaningful way other than to provide general static and distortion.
Compare “Release the Panic” to “Feed the Machine” from Until We Have Faces. Both songs are, at their core, extraordinarily heavy and hard-hitting tracks, but “Feed the Machine” proves far more powerful thanks to a genuinely beautiful contrast in melody to the screams and industrial discordance. Without the string and choral elements underpinning the clean vocals, “Release the Panic” is robbed of its emotional impact and becomes simply a cacophony of angry noise. Similarly, “Same Disease” does nothing necessarily wrong, but the electronics appear only for a brief moment at the outset, and otherwise disappear, providing nothing unique to the number. “Damage”, likewise, contains one of the most interesting and complex riffs Red has ever crafted, but the song’s anger and frustration only beats the listener repeatedly over the head, as it contains no delicate finesse. Only so many emotions can be evoked through distorted guitar tone, and the window-dressing electronics do little to fill the void throughout the album. Brief piano bits, though, show up on several songs (“Hold Me Now”, “The Moment We Come Alive”) but are too generic and not impactful enough to make a significant difference.
The vocals however, continue to only improve. Barnes’ vocal prowess carries the otherwise mediocre “Die For You” into infectiously catchy territory, blends magnificently with the strings that make their sole prominent appearance during the powerful chorus of “If We Only”, and takes on an achingly ethereal form on “As You Go”, which closes out the Deluxe Edition of the album. “Glass House” also briefly features strings, and proves one of the stronger numbers.
Ultimately, Release The Panic proves to be a disappointing album, and another step down from the band’s pinnacle reached with Innocence & Instinct. Red takes another step towards generic hard rock. The band should be commended for taking a risk and moving away from the string and piano based melodies. However, the replacement electronics prove to be insufficient to carry the load once so adeptly handled by the orchestral elements.