Vices & Virtues: Panic! At The Disco’s True Beginning

All things considered, Vices & Virtues is the first true Panic! At The Disco album. The tribulations of Brendon Urie and Spencer Smith in not only writing the record, but exceeding expectations and forging a new path for the band are legendary. Not only was the album Urie’s first experience acting as lead songwriter, he essentially played every instrument except percussion. While A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out made the band a household name, Vices & Virtues made Panic! At The Disco artists.

You can buy or stream Vices & Virtues on Apple Music.

Vices & Virtues came out the first year that I was finding my way in the world. College roommates had ventured off into the world while I worked a lowly job, feeling left behind and in some ways betrayed to sit with what remained of our previous lives together. I played mixtapes we had all made, many of which included many Panic! songs, to remind myself of the fun we used to have on summer nights that I now spent in my bedroom at home. It wasn’t until after the album’s release did I realize how much Vices mirrored that feeling of abandonment and looked out over the horizon for something bigger that I could scarcely imagine at the time.

A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out was the epitome of a breakout record. Stylized, edgy, wrapped between multiple genres and engrossed in a circus-like visual flair, it launched Panic! from would-be opening band to headliners over night. “I Write Sins Not Tragedies” became such a staple single that it’s still the song everyone knows by the band. Panic! At The Disco were the rare overnight sensation that stayed. For years after their debut’s release, audiences demanded the next album. Although it’s looked at more favorably in retrospect, the immediate reaction to 2008’s Pretty. Odd. was mixed at best.

Pretty. Odd.’s retro style rock was so jarring, that 13 years later I still know people who refuse to listen to the band because of it. That’s why for many, the news in mid-2009 that guitarist and songwriter Ryan Ross and bassist Jon Walker were leaving Panic! At The Disco was met equally with a sigh of relief and a fear that the group was dead and out of its misery. 

Just months after the split, I watched a neutered Panic! open for Blink-182 on their reunion tour. Vocalist Brendon Urie paced back and forth slowly across the stage in a suit and tie, seemingly dazed and uninterested. Shortly thereafter, one-off single “New Perspective” released in the summer of 2009. While catchy, it proved to just be a safe, lackluster pop song. 

“The Ballad of Mona Lisa”, released a year and a half later, is arguably Panic!’s most underrated song of all time. It was the first real single from the new version of the band, now consisting of only Urie and drummer Spencer Smith. Returning to the “masquerade rock” sound of Fever, “The Ballad of Mona Lisa” ushered in the true era of Panic! At The Disco. Harsh power chords, a sprawling anthemic chorus and rampant walls of percussion found a seductive mix between punk rock and radio pop. 

The song was made all the more impressive after the fact: Urie revealed that he had become lead songwriter after Ross’s departure, and that he sang, played guitar, bass, and the keys all while sporting a steampunk ensemble in the music video. He continued this blistering commitment throughout the rest of the album (sans the steampunk). 

Vices & Virtues wasn’t just a rebirth for Panic! At The Disco. It was an album of catharsis, anger and forgiveness that utterly cleared the path for Brendon Urie to become a global superstar. Despite having just become a “songwriter,” no two songs on Vices sound alike. Sweeping choruses and intricate instrumentation (“Hurricane”) permeate the album entirely. The inclusion of the defining genre sounds of Fever felt like a rebranding more than it did a retread. 

It’s hard to find a track that truly shines brighter than the others throughout the record. “Let’s Kill Tonight”, with its aggressive pop riffs teetering on the edge of new wave, stands just as brightly against “Memories”, a dance track describing the downfall of youthful love. However, “Sarah Smiles”, a song for Urie’s now wife is a lusciously haunting track teeming with layers of aggressive folk rock and punctuated with trumpets.

Hidden in the mix is “The Calendar”, arguably one of the band’s most important and often forgotten songs throughout their entire discography. Although the song is framed around a relationship, it is a direct reaction to Ross and Walker’s departure. The song balances the regret and sadness at how things ended for the full group and the shock of inspiration that spurred Urie and Smith forward. (“Don’t wanna call it a second chance, but when I came back, it was more of a relapse. / Anticipation’s on the other line, an obsession called while you were out.”)

Vices & Virtues was a redemption and reaffirmation of Panic! At The Disco that almost no one expected. Vibrant, emotional and utterly energized, it was worthy of the restored “!” in the band’s name. Although Smith left the band shortly after release as well, the confidence from Vices & Virtues gave Urie more leeway to experiment with less rock and more synth on Too Weird to Live, Too Rare to Die!, and explore the burlesque and crooner sounds on Death of a Bachelor and Pray For The Wicked, Urie’s (current) pop magnum opus.

Vices & Virtues seems to be more or less hidden in the background of Panic!’s discography at this point, now that there are several high profiles albums that have dominated the pop world. However, the emotional energy behind this album allowed Urie to not only vent the feelings of betrayal and loss, but also test the waters of who he was as a songwriter. Despite already being two albums deep, Vices & Virtues served as the true start of Panic! At The Disco’s conquest to become one of the world’s top tier pop artists, and Urie’s journey toward becoming a superstar.

by Kyle Schultz

kyle_cat

Kyle Schultz is the Senior Editor at It’s All Dead and has worked as a gaming journalist at Structure Gaming. He lives in Chicago and ate a reuben sandwich with such vigor that he still feels guilty for the “slaughter” three days later

Review: Panic! At the Disco – Pray For The Wicked

No one has had a career in show business quite like Panic! At the Disco. After being the biggest band in the country, they fell into near obscurity until Brendon Urie reforged the band’s direction to that of pop super stardom. Show business has always blossomed from P!AtD in extravagant measure. Pray For The Wicked is a loose concept album about the trials and tribulations of not only the music industry, but show business as a whole. In doing so, Brendon Urie has crafted the most thematic album of the band’s career and reinvigorated themselves amongst pop’s elite.

You can buy Pray for the Wicked on Apple Music.

Death of a Bachelor didn’t sit well with me. While the direction was enviable, there was something that didn’t feel genuine about it. However, Pray For The Wicked follows a similar sonic arc. Crisp percussion and powerful pop beats dominate the music. While the record is powered by synth, R&B elements, disco-style guitar and wicked bass lines, there is a shockingly adept orchestra that adds incredible life to the music. It’s a near perfect mixture that makes the music sound, in many ways, timeless across eras and genre.

Similarly, elements of almost every Panic! at the Disco album can be heard. Though it may not seem like as big of a leap stylistically as something like Pretty. Odd., Pray For The Wicked actually sounds like the culmination of everything the band has done up until this point. In many ways, the album reminded me of Taylor Swift’s 1989, when it finally dawns on you that not only did they make the full switch to pop superstar, but did it tremendously.

While the album is a massive pop banger, the musicianship is astonishingly good. No two songs sound alike, but each is ready to make you dance just as much with the beat as they are with the brass and string instruments soaring over the intense bass. But while these songs celebrate the glamour of modern music, they take an equally harsh dig at the industry as a whole. Themes of celebrating the party carry over from Death of a Bachelor, but they carry the weight of industry that sits just beneath the surface.

“(Fuck a) Silver Lining” starts by showing the frustration and obsession with writing a new hit, having an album go gold and settling for nothing less. Urie seems jubilant as he sings, “Fuck a silver lining / cause only gold is hot enough, hot enough / One more, one more”.

“Hey Look Ma, I Made It” is the most direct attack on the industry. Urie begins lamenting working for a label and the pressure of living up to fan expectation. “Cause I’m a hooker selling songs / And my pimp’s a record label…..Are you ready for the sequel? / Ain’t ready for the latest? / In the garden of evil / I’m gonna be the greatest”. Then, as soon as the severely upbeat chorus kicks in, Urie bellows, “Hey look ma, I made it / Everything’s coming up aces, aces / And if it’s a dream, don’t wake me”.

Tried and true staples still exist, such as second shots at ill-fated relationships (“The Overpass”), flamboyant parties reeking of youth and liquor (“Roaring 20’s”) and the longing for simpler times that comes with age (“Old Fashioned”).

However, every song ties back to the glamour and heartbreak of show business. Nothing shows it more, or ties it all together, quite like the closing ballad, “Dying in LA”. The song describes both the dreams of up-and-comers and the sacrifice of a normal life anyone hoping for success must endure. There is a heartbreak as Urie finds his inner Regina Spektor and croons, “Every face along the boulevard / Is a dreamer just like you / You looked at death in a tarot card / And you saw what you had to do”.

Pray For The Wicked is arguably the most cohesive album Panic! At The Disco have released. The “emo” angst has been replaced with the brutal truth of finding success. Where other bands would sing about following your dreams of punk rock, Urie chooses instead to forge a warning for the prices that have to be paid to be more than a one hit wonder. In the end, that could be the most panicky thing Panic! At the Disco has ever done.

4/5

by Kyle Schultz

kyle_catKyle Schultz is the Senior Editor at It’s All Dead and has worked as a gaming journalist at Structure Gaming. He lives in Chicago and has spent over half of this writing session shoving the cat away from his glass of water. What a cretin.

Reflecting On: Panic at the Disco – Pretty. Odd.

Pretty. Odd. may be the biggest upset in music that I was alive to see. In 2007, to say that Panic! At the Disco were on top of the world is an understatement. Their debut album, A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out, was a massive hit. The band had more or less overtaken Fall Out Boy as the poster child for record label Fueled By Ramen, and their live shows had become the things of legend. The anticipation for their sophomore release was ravenous, especially after hearing reports that the band had scrapped an entire record themed around fairy tales. Pretty. Odd. caught absolutely everyone off guard except the band that created it.

You can buy Pretty. Odd. on Apple Music.

Pretty. Odd. was a true gamble. Leveraging the fame of Panic!, the band decided to completely and utterly change who they were. Gone were the live stage shows, emo-infused lyrical wordplay, electronic beats and cabaret inspired rock. Even the exclamation point in their name was removed. What took its place was a mock version of The Beatles. It pissed off everyone I knew, and it almost destroyed the band completely.

In retrospect, Pretty. Odd. is a glorious masterpiece. It is a solid rock record, inspired by classic British rock and folk music. It is utterly unique. Nothing like it has been created since, and the current version of Panic! has more or less swept it under the rug. However, while almost everyone (that I know of) prefer any other album from the band, Pretty. Odd. has held up considerably well and has never gotten the full respect it deserved.

The shift in the album’s sound is a stark one, so much so that the opening song, “We’re So Starving”, actually has to tell the audience, “You don’t have to worry, cuz we’re still the same band”. Looking beyond the shift in sound though, is an album that, in almost any other circumstance, would have been regarded as an uncontested indie cornerstone. The pop anthems are expertly crafted, backed by an absolutely massive orchestral piece. Harmonica, violins, mandolin, saxophone and flutes bring a life to the music that is rarely found outside of movie scores.

What they enhance, though, is a series of secretive fairy tales and stories hidden beneath the shock of classic rock. The surreal imagery within the songs is second to none, such as in “Behind the Sea” (“Like bobbing bait for bathing cod / Floating flocks of candled swans / Slowly drift across wax ponds”). Or in the tuba encrusted “From a Mountain in the Middle of the Cabins”, as Brendon Urie sings, “Lying there, with a halo in her hair she cried / There are feathers everywhere, but it’s fine / You do this all the time”.

The legacy of Pretty. Odd. is one of gambles that paid off in ways that no one foresaw. Guitarist and songwriter Ryan Ross allegedly had a large hand in controlling the band’s direction for this release. Removing everything that made Panic! famous in the first place moved the attention aimed on them to the opposite spectrum. The shock was that they weren’t shocking.

Ross threw his full weight behind this direction for the band. It was an utter rebirth of the sound of pop rock from the 60’s, both paying homage to and inspired by the bands of the era. In many ways, Panic! surpassed the bands that inspired this record. When Ross and bassist Jon Walker eventually left to form The Young Veins, they carried this sound with them. Unfortunately, their biggest sin was nothing but timing.

Following A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out with this new sound was a dire mistake. The fan base craved the dark electro-pop that the band had created and the showmanship that oozed from it. As a result, a large portion of fans rebelled. Especially after the near dissolution of Panic! At the Disco, the blowback followed The Young Veins and never gave them the chance that they deserved.

On the other side of the split left by this record, Brendon Urie suddenly had an allowance to literally do anything he wanted. With Pretty. Odd. already in the band’s catalogue, he was free to explore nearly any sound he wanted to going forward with Panic! at the Disco. Without the restraints of fan expectation, Urie wrote some of the group’s biggest hits afterwards.

The sad irony is that had Pretty. Odd. been released as the band’s third album or later, after establishing their sound, they would have had a fan base loyal enough to take the journey with them. There wouldn’t have been the worry that the band had severed ties with what made people love them in the first place. Similar to how My Chemical Romance took on a new persona with each new album, Panic! at the Disco would have had an easier time rallying fans to Pretty. Odd. if they had a firmer grasp of who the band actually was. The shock wouldn’t have kicked in nearly as hard.

Pretty. Odd. is an amazing album that will truly never receive its due credit. The diversity of sound and surreal, dreamlike paintings throughout the record are mesmerizing in ways that no other band has been able to replicate. It is a shame that instead of having an anniversary celebrating this unique entry in their history, Panic! At the Disco has more or less hidden Pretty. Odd. beneath a mountain of top 40 pop songs and dance beats.

by Kyle Schultz

kyle_catKyle Schultz is the Senior Editor at It’s All Dead and has worked as a gaming journalist at Structure Gaming. He lives in Chicago and first listened to Pretty. Odd. in a car full of groaning college kids. They have all since been eaten by alligators and small cats. The album survives.