Panic! at the Disco meets Kid A Radiohead? Strange as that sounds, the Panic Division's debut breathes fresh air into a genre that desperately needs it.
According to their own press package, the Panic Division was a long shot to ever even exist; the only reason they're here is by "overcoming the daunting reality that bands in the San Antonio scene just don't survive." But the fact is, they're here, and judging from the press and popular buzz they've been receiving, they're here to stay. Hopefully, their success paves the way for the San Antonio scene. If their debut release is any indication, there's something about the Texan sun that helps stimulate the creative mind.
At first glance, there's little to distinguish the Panic Division. It's true, they seem like little more than your typical emo, post-hardcore band -- you know, the kind where the songs are composed with spiraling riffs and screaming first, melody and lyrics an afterthought, and there doesn't seem to be any semblance of verse or chorus in the chaos. If that was all they were, Versus would be a pointless exercise in a beyond-tired genre.
Happily, there is more, as the electronic textures and keyboards are woven deeply but firmly into the music. Like I said, maybe it's the stark beauty of the Texas landscape acting as inspiration, but by incorporating such influences into their sound, the Panic Division are able to elevate their music from random, slightly-tuneful yelling to atmospheric soundscapes. There are times in the album when they sound more like U2 circa The Unforgettable Fire than the band they are bound to be confused with, Panic! at the Disco. Particularly notable are the use of drum machines and warm feedback in "Little Child" to create a strikingly creative sound that wouldn't feel out of place in a hip-hop producer's collection; the blazing riffs, electronically layered in "Automatic Synthetic", which sound like a pretty good representation of an emo machine gun; and "Delta", a song that deserves a paragraph all by itself.
Of course, they haven't been able to completely revolutionize the genre. For one thing, lyrics and melodies are still an afterthought. The words are all generalities, and can barely be heard over the wall of sound -- no particular loss there, anyway. The boldest lyrical approach is on "Songs of a Dead Poet", which attempts to channel Dylan. And even then the only interesting part is how well the words "Songs of a dead poet!" form an anthemic chorus.
Melodically, the album is more of a mixed bag. The talent they have for atmosphere doesn't always carry over to hooks; "Goodbyes" and "DWI" are catchy stuff, but aside from that, there's not much to keep you humming. This turns out to be a problem for those tracks that lack both the electronic dimension and the hooks. Songs like "Paradise" or "Versus" aren't bad, but they're hopelessly mediocre and forgettable.
All these petty complaints melt away with the first listen of "Delta", though. Like a sunset on the shore, the song washes over you more than it hits, drenched in hues of Stereophonics-esque wah-wah guitar sound and uplifted by angelic harmonies. "Talk to me / tell me I'm just fine" raises its level from an otherwise ordinary lyric to almost something of a mantra, a promise to transport anyone under its spell away. The rest of the album is above average; "Delta" is amazing. And that balances out to make Versus a pretty damn good deal.