Panic! at the Disco’s “Viva Las Vengeance” will never get filed in the comedy section, but shuffling through its 12 tracks, your instinct may be to chuckle and laugh, and then laugh some more. It’s a natural, admiring reaction to how Brendon Urie has brazenly fashioned the album as almost a parlor game of Spot the Classic-Rock Callback. Nearly everything here is designed to evoke a fond remembrance of specific bands and sounds from the 1970s — give or take a late ’60s or early ’80s allusion. Being a mere lad of 35, Urie must’ve been tuning in to all these period FM sounds from some celestial, prenatal dimension. Or maybe he’s getting high on some glam-rock or new-wave ghost’s supply. It’s not something he’s remotely inclined to bogart anyway; Urie comes off as a real fan of the stuff he’s channeling and wants to give you a secondhand ’70s buzz, too.
“Viva Las Vengeance” sounds at times like the late, lamented ’90s power-pop band Jellyfish on speed — or like a far less self-serious Muse, to name maybe the only other two groups to ever have been as obsessed with Queen as he is. You hear their vocal stacking in the constant falsetto background harmonies that threaten to soar even higher than Urie’s already operatic lead vocals. The homage gets almost comically overt in the track “Star Spangled Banner,” which almost sounds more like “Bohemian Rhapsody” than “Bohemian Rhapsody” sounds like “Bohemian Rhapsody” (you’d swear it was Brian May playing the sound-alike guitar) and packs more tempo-changing, suite-like segments into 3 minutes and 10 seconds than Queen did into 5:55 back in the day.
Killer queens are the most clear and present reference, but there are dozens more that turn “Viva” into an enjoyable puzzle of allusiveness. Sometimes, interpolations are credited, from Janis Ian’s “At Seventeen” figuring into the power ballad “Don’t Let the Light Go Out” to Russ Ballard earning co-writing credit for “God Killed Rock and Roll” just because the title seems to be a clever, slight takeoff on the Argent/Kiss oldie “God Gave Rock and Roll to You.” “Banger” breaks into a mid-tune Thin Lizzy tribute; “Say It Louder” owes a debut to the early reggae-loving Police; “Sugar Soaker” segues from a glam-era hard-rock riff through a discordant ELO orchestral moment to a couple of nearly subliminal Beatles nods. (It’s not really possible to copyright the one-note riff from “Getting Better,” is it?)
You may start to think that just about the only ’70s figure Urie hasn’t evoked is Meat Loaf — until the closing track, “Do It to Death,” arrives and assures you that, no, he’s got that niche covered too. Urie has a lot in common with Mr. Loaf, actually, given their mutual association with the legit stage. (Meat started as a theater actor; Urie became one later in his career, doing “Kinky Boots” on Broadway.) “Viva Las Vengeance” is nearly as much a testimonial to rock musicals as it is to the ’70s. Urie’s hybrid of “Rocky Horror,” “Bat out of Hell,” the Knack, Cheap Trick and Freddie Mercury has already managed to turn off some existing PATD fans, as derisive comments on their social media have indicated. For those of us who love both power pop and musical theater, though, and haven’t been as much enamored of their previous emo, this is Panic!’s best album.
The paradox is that this may be one-man-band Urie’s hardest-rocking collection, as well as his most stagy. The estimable behind-the-scenes figure Mike Viola has come aboard as co-writer and co-producer, and it’s partly his inherently gritty participation that makes these almost entirely guitar-based songs feel as weirdly earthborn as they are grandiose. And if all the touchstones we’ve called out make it sound like an unoriginal pastiche, Urie’s distinctive lyrical voice transcends the “Name That Insinuation” gamesmanship. His historic sense of whimsy hasn’t completely been subsumed in the hard-ish rock, but if Panic! still comes off as twee at times, it’s surprisingly muscular twee.