"This has meant more than anything in the past two years," Brendon Urie earnestly told a sold-out crowd at New York's Bowery Ballroom on Feb. 1. The Panic! at the Disco frontman's sentiment was matched only by the excitement of the revved-up crowd of die-hard fans that turned out on the bitterly cold evening to welcome the band back into the spotlight.
Panic! at the Disco first broke out in 2005 with the dramatic synth-pop record "A Fever You Can't Sweat Out," which has sold more than 1.8 million copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan. In 2008, the group ditched its teenage circus routine for the Beatles-esque follow-up, "Pretty. Odd.," which debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard 200 and has sold 422,000 copies.
Now, after 18 months away from the U.S. stage, Panic! at the Disco has reinvented itself again. Gone are the flowers and hippie-themed decorations from 2009; in their place is a plain black backdrop with the band logo written in a dramatic yellow script. Also missing are bassist Jon Walker and founding member/primary songwriter Ryan Ross, who left Panic! two years ago to start the Young Veins, leaving Urie and drummer Spencer Smith to pick up the pieces.
Following the departure of half the band, Urie and Smith have emerged with third album "Vices & Virtues," due March 22 on Fueled by Ramen in conjunction with Decaydance Records. Together, the two seem to have found a middle ground between their previous releases, but the journey had left fans-and even Urie and Smith-questioning whether they'd make it.
"There were a few months of not really knowing what we wanted to do, and Brendon going through a bunch of demos from writing stuff on his own," says Smith, sitting in the Atlantic Records dining room the day of the Bowery show.
While Walker and Ross' exit left a hole in the Panic! songwriting regime, the experience became the catalyst for Urie finding his own voice and the confidence to take over as the band's principal songsmith.
"It was a huge growing period for me to come into my own. The hardest thing was just getting up and writing, saying, 'OK, I'm writing today. If the song ends up being bad, I'll have a good one sooner or later,' " Urie says. "I feel more confident, definitely. I was more easygoing in the past, and I really had to get out of that habit. I had to pick up the slack and be a go-getter."
"[Brendon] had been sort of a bit of a pawn and told what to do by other people up until this record," says producer Butch Walker, who co-wrote four of the new songs. "I noticed that he had confidence and swagger in the last few songs that we wrote together. He finally was able to not denounce himself and say, 'Fuck everyone else. This is me and this is what I'm saying.' "
To prepare for the new release, Panic! announced a presale on Feb. 1 for five different versions of the album on its website. The ultra-premium package-which includes a hoodie, necklace, vinyl album, DVD and other memorabilia-was limited to 300 copies and sold out in 15 minutes, while smaller bundles, featuring fewer items at various prices, are still for sale.
Panic! also capitalized on fan excitement with teaser videos for the first single, "The Ballad of Mona Lisa," which was released Feb. 1; the clip premiered on MTV and YouTube on Feb. 8. Shane Drake, who has directed all of the band's videos, teamed up with Panic! to film "The Overture," a short film previewing four tracks from "Vices & Virtues," that debuted on March 9.
The band will tour to support the new record, starting with a trek in Europe and the United Kingdom in late April that lasts until mid-May. A headlining North America tour will be announced around street date and run from late spring into summer.
"They took a lot of time trying to get it right, [but] it differentiates itself and takes a step forward," says Fueled by Ramen president John Janick, who signed Panic! in 2005.
"After seeing how their attitudes shifted toward everything and how they sort of took everything in over the last year-and-a-half," Janick continues, "they're so confident in this album and what they're doing. They're more creative than ever."