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Monday, August 14, 2017

Wednesday, August 09, 2017

Star Fox Adventures -- The Review You Never Knew You Wanted!

Slowly following up on my promise to dedicate more time to reviewing Nintendo GameCube games (even more slowly now that I have a Breath of the Wild-fueled Switch), here's a review for the unfairly maligned Star Fox Adventures. You can check it out at either The GameCube Archives or Classic Video Game Reviews.
Also, I just realized, after sixteen years, that it is "GameCube," not "Gamecube." Poor GameCube.

Friday, August 04, 2017

So Now What Do You Think About Project 86? Well, I'll Tell You! Reflections on a Month of Reviewing the Most Underrated Band in Christian Hard Rock.

Okay, why are you so high on this band?
Project 86 have existed through plenty of heavy music fads. They came up in the era of rap-rock and nu-metal, then existed through screamo, and metalcore, through whatever it is is existing right now. They've always sounded different from the pack, no matter what they're doing. I don't think you can pin them to any of those genres. They've changed their sound from album to album. None of their albums sounds like another--not by them or anyone. They constantly experiment. When they broke up, their frontman still managed to create a great album in the band's name. They have one of the most bizarre and winding stories in modern rock history. They deserve vastly more attention for successfully pushing the envelope, particularly in the hard rock world.

Twenty-one years of existence isn't anything to shake a stick at? How has this band created music for this long?
Because Andrew Schwab is crazy. No, seriously, the guy has kept this band alive through sheer force of his will. The first decade of this band's existence is marked by the unique elements each of its four members brought to the table. All but Schwab left shortly into the second, and he's still consistently putting out albums under the band's name. One of them is even better than the majority of albums the band made with its core quartet.

Okay. That's cool. Now rank their albums from best to worst. Do it now!
How about from favorite to least being subjective and all.

I knew you would say something annoying like that. Alright, go ahead.
Well, wait this is hard.

I believe in you.

Okay, now give me the list.
1. Songs to Burn Your Bridges By
2. Drawing Black Lines
3. Wait for the Siren
4. Rival Factions
5. Truthless Heroes
6. Self-titled
7. Knives to the Future
8. ...And the Rest Will Follow
9. Picket Fence Cartel

Do you think Project 86 will ever get the recognition they deserve?
No. I think a small group of core fans will always cherish and remember what Project 86 have given us, and another contingent who only noticed who the band was touring with will remember them as "that late 90's rap-metal Christian band with the afro-singer." Everyone else, in the face of a never-ending avalanche of new music, will remain indifferent.

What's next?
Even though I've got at least another couple of years left in this "Every Album I Own" series, I feel like I'm entering the home stretch. Six years of reviewing, and I'm almost through "P." Feels pretty good. Excited about the letter "S," particularly.

Cool. Anything else you want to say?
A lot, actually, but I'll say it later.

Tuesday, August 01, 2017

Project 86 -- Knives to the Future


Darren King is the guitar player, and I am assuming primary songwriter, for the rock band The Overseer. I saw the cover artwork for their 2012 debut album, We Search, We Dig, and got really excited. However, upon listening, I was a little disappointed. King's guitar playing is unique, and very enjoyable at times, but it also has no recognition of the term "space." His style is angular, by which I mean if you were drawing a line to attempt to correspond to the frequently changing sounds coming out of King's guitar, you would be making a lot of angles--it's like his hands have ADD. It's like he's trying to create a tango with a heavily distorted electric guitar. This can get tiring, and it is extremely difficult to create a song in this style that can run for longer than three minutes.
For Knives to the Future, Project 86's second crowd-funded album after the incredible Wait for the Siren, frontman (and only remaining member), Andrew Schwab, enlisted King's talents on guitar. Andrew Schwab doesn't play any instruments, which left King to write Knives to the Future's music. Unfortunately, in this case, King's style is so singular, Knives to the Future ends up sounding like an Overseer album with Andrew Schwab on vocals. Added to these problems, whoever mixed this album almost completely forgot about the bass, and the low end of the drums. The first couple of songs sound like cymbal hell, trebly distorted guitar and no bass to speak of. This, after the much lower-budgeted Wait for the Siren killed it in the mix--you could feel the low end in your gut. Thankfully, Knives to the Future's bass and non-cymbal/snare drum pieces get turned up in the fifth track's bridge, and hang around the majority of the time after that, but how could the mix, overall, be so bungled? Considering Schwab got the same bassist from ...Siren to return, and that that bassist presumably has the same rig, here, there is absolutely no excuse. And there's no way new drummer, Ryan Wood, wants his kit to sound like this. In the album's worst moments, it's like someone is just spraying a hose at the cymbals and mic'ing it. Just dreadful!
I am being more abusive in my verbiage because of how disappointing all those factors are, after the absolutely perfect Wait for the Siren. After piecing together such an absolutely stunning album out of parts for that one, Schwab conditioned me for greatness. Knives to the Future is nowhere close to the level of ...Siren.
With all that said, Knives to the Future is not a terrible album. Despite the lousy mix, and the fact that King hasn't yet learned that he doesn't have to constantly strum his guitar and change chords every second, Knives to the Future is solid. A major reason for this is the consistency of Schwab's concept, lyrics, and performance. Knives to the Future tells the story of a soldier who wakes up on a battlefield, surrounded by corpses, with no memory of who he is. Schwab's passion permeates every line, going from screams, to howls, to quite respectable singing. Many times, the songs work, even if it isn't on a consistent basis. The album also get better as it progresses, peaking at the stunning eighth track, "Genosha." Schwab used some of the crowd-raised Indiegogo funds to pay for strings in a few songs, just as he did with celtic instrumentation on Wait for the Siren. While the strings aren't utilized as well, and aren't as memorable of Siren's additional instrumentation, they are still appreciated, particularly in the intro of the powerful "Genosha," which describes a dysfunctional father-son relationship.
 With the album's protagonist finding peace in death at Knives to the Future's end, the album actually feels like a fitting swansong for Project 86, even if it doesn't come anywhere close to the peaks of some of their previous work...but it's not. Andrew Schwab, with what looks like the same players featured on Knives to the Future, has crowdfunded yet another Project 86 album, in time for the 20th anniversary of Project 86's founding. He got yours truly to donate yet again. The album is coming this autumn. We'll see how it stacks up.
I wrote this review at a Starbucks.

2014 Team Black
1. Intro 1:10
2. Spirit of Shiloh 3:47
3. Acolyte March 3:12
4. Knives to the Future 3:17
5. Son of Flame 3:38
6. Captive Bolt Pistol 2:32
7. Ambigram 2:36
8. Genosha 3:38
9. Pale Rider 3:47
10. Valley of Cannons 2:55
11. White Capstone 3:40
12. Oculus 6:43

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Project 86- Wait for the Siren


What the heck? After a lackluster 2009 album, and a subsequent label-dropping, and a period where all of the members but the vocalist left, yet the vocalist still continued to refer to the band as "we," Project 86 releases one of, if not the best album under their name, Wait for the Siren. To make Wait for the Siren, that vocalist, Andrew Schwab, now missing a guitarist, bassist, and drummer, enlisted some friends to help, and created a crowdfunding campaign. I backed it, not expecting much, and feeling conflicted about Schwab keeping the band going without its original musicians. Eight months later, the CD arrived in my mailbox.
It's lovely to find that something you weren't even anticipating to be good is excellent. From "Fall Goliath Fall"'s opening seconds, Wait for the Siren shows itself to be a special album. A variety of celtic instruments play out a surprising intro, before crushing guitar and booming drums, featuring energetic fills, take over. The bass, as in Project 86's heyday, is turned up loud in the mix. Schwab's vocals are as solid as ever, lending inspiring lyrics to this inspired instrumentation, as the celtic instruments weave in and out of the song. What follows over the next twelve tracks is a brilliant mix of Project 86's heavier side, with a more diverse offering of straightforward rock, as well, and some surprisingly emotional softer songs.
The pacing is perfect, with neither side of the Project 86's sound wearing out its welcome, and the band never settling in the middle too long, either. I say "band," but here in the playing and songwriting, it's a miraculous mix of Living Sacrifice/Evanescence's Rocky Gray on drums, and The Wedding's Cody Driggers on bass, with A Plea for Purging's Blake Martin, Disciple's Andrew Welch, and newcomer, Dustin Lowery, all passing around the guitar. This shouldn't work, and it certainly shouldn't sound like Project 86, but somehow it does and it does. I won't even try to understand how.
Somehow, Schwab willed a quintessential Project 86 album into existence without the participation of any of the original band members, despite the fact that Schwab doesn't even play an instrument. His voice, though, is in top form, sounding great in his trademark yowling for the heavier songs, but belting out some surprisingly fine singing in the instrumentally lighter songs. His decision to bring in the celtic instrumentation also pays off brilliantly--the mandolin, dulcimer, and pipes only pop up on four songs, but they're done and spread out in such a way that they feel ever-present.
With that that added touch, Wait for the Siren takes on the high honor of sounding like Project 86, and yet having its own unique aural identity in the Project 86 catalogue. It might be the most diverse album to the band's name, the most interesting, the most affecting--and it's also received the best critical reviews of any album under the Project 86 banner.
Being at a crossroads in life when Wait for the Siren was released, I found the album vital (it topped my best of 2012 list--and I think that was a pretty great year in music). I still do. Sometimes you just take a miracle without question.
But there is a question. Randy Torres, Steven Dail, and Alex Albert had nothing to do with the creation of Wait for the Siren. Before it was released, I was of the opinion that the album should have been put out under a different band name. I am quite sure those three men feel the same way. However, upon listening, this album sounds uniquely Project 86. It contains an autumnal, epic feel that only that band can conjure. This is a Project 86 album. And it's a great one.

2012 Team Black
1. Fall Goliath Fall 4:16
2. SOTS (featuring Bruce Fitzhugh) 3:16
3. Omerta's Sons 3:34
4. Off the Grid 2:58
5. New Transmission 3:08
6. Defector 3:40
7. The Crossfire Gambit (featuring Brian "Head" Welch) 3:15
8. Blood Moon 4:10
9. Above the Desert Sea 4:14
10. Ghosts of Easter Rising 3:45
11. Avalantia 4:15
12. Take the Hill 5:08
13. Wait for the Siren 2:11

Monday, July 24, 2017

Project 86 -- 15. Live


In 2010, Project 86 ended the weirdest, most mysterious phase of their career with a live album performed by an anonymous band. I'm not exaggerating on the "weird" part. Project 86 recorded five albums with the same four members, announced the departure of their drummer, recorded another album, and then...the guitarist and the bassist left the band to no announcement. An album, Picket Fence Cartel, was recorded with the vocalist, maybe the bassist, and several anonymous players. And then, for some reason, remaining member Andrew Schwab decided this would be the perfect time for Project 86 to release their first live album.
I'll get this out of the way first: 15. Live is an extremely enjoyable live album, featuring rousing hard rock performances of a greatest hits melange from six of the seven albums Project 86 had released up to this point. It's an extremely fun listen, and I've spun it plenty of times. The instruments are incredibly clear in the mix, and Schwab's vocals sound solid. I love the song selection, even though it would have been nice to add just one number from the self-titled debut (it's the only album not represented here). The song order flows together almost perfectly. But who the heck is being called Project 86 here?
The album artwork features awesome stylized portraits of Andrew Schwab on vocals, a faceless guitarist, a faceless bassist, and a faceless drummer. It also notes that the album was recorded on the band's summer 2010 tour, but doesn't list any shows, making it even more difficult to pinpoint who is performing here. It's so strange that Schwab would not only want to record a live album at this moment in the band's careet, but name it after the amount of years Project 86 have been making music, when the guys who wrote all that music are no longer in the band...then again, he wrote all of these lyrics, and I'm sure he wrote them in a Project 86 headspace. He may feel just as much ownership for the songs as the original musicians.
For a fan, 15. Live is a strange, conflicting experience. This is one of my favorite bands because of the contributions of each member...all but one of those members are gone...and yet, this album sounds great. I really enjoy it. Two years later, this juxtaposition of emotions would only become more stark.

2010 Team Black
1. Sincerely, Ichabod 4:31
2. Safe Haven 3:29
3. Oblivion 4:09
4. The Butcher 3:03
5. Last Meal 3:50
6. Me Against Me 3:34
7. SMC 3:03
8. Illuminate 3:02
9. Evil 3:05
10. Destroyer 4:51
11. Stein's Theme 4:15
12. The Spy Hunter 4:20

Friday, July 21, 2017

Project 86 -- Picket Fence Cartel


2009, for The Nicsperiment, was a disappointing year in music. The Nicsperiment hated all of the critical darlings of that year--Animal Collective, Grizzly Bear, Dirty Projectors--and others' interest in those bands seems to have been quite ephemeral considering none of these acts have never been heard from again. When all your fans are hipsters, they won't be fans for long. Unfortunately, a lot of my favorite bands also put out disappointing music in 2009. With little interest in the new music of the year, and my own favorites disappointing me, my top nine albums list from that year is extremely lackluster. Outside of my top three (which I think are legitimately good), I had to insert filler like I've never had before or since. With youtube making a multitude of music so easily discoverable, I don't think that will ever happen to me, The Nicsperiment, again. However, even under those 2009 circumstances, Project 86's Picket Fence Cartel barely made my list.
On first listen to Picket Fence Cartel, I had a strange sensation: This does not sound like Project 86. Yes, the music is heavy. On a pure genre level, this is more in line with Project 86's past work than their previous album, Rival Factions. However, that album still sounded like Project 86. This does not sound like Project 86.
Listen after listen, I could not shake this feeling. Vocalist, Andrew Schwab, guitarist, Randy Torres, and bassist, Steven Dail, were all in the promotional photos, but outside of Schwab's vocals, a completely generic band could have played Picket Fence Cartel's music. Where were Steven Dail's thick, dominant basslines? Completely absent. Where were Randy Torres' increasingly frenetic guitar lines and his distinct background vocals? Completely absent. What about Jason Gerken's steroidal drumming? Completely absent. Instead, it's a mix of fairly generic hard rock with keyboard adding dark atmosphere. But what about Andrew Schwab's deep, introspective lyrics? Absent. Schwab has never hidden his faith (well, maybe a little during the Truthless Heroes phase), but instead of racking up J's per-minute, he's managed to use it as a lens in which he lyrically interprets life--causing most of the band's previous albums to be deeply spiritual experiences. Picket Fence Cartel's lyrics are straightforwardly religious, and on a pretty basic "I just got saved" level. This is a disappointment not only for non-Christian fans, but for longtime Christian fans (like myself) who want something deeper, and have grown to expect it from Project 86. Lame.
So what's the deal? How did Project 86 go from a career peak to a career valley over the course of just one album? Why doesn't Picket Fence Cartel even sound like Project 86? I've spent the last eight years pondering that question, and now I finally know the answer.
I recently came across an interview of Randy Torres by Stavesacre's own Mark Salomon, for Salomon's podcast, Never Was. Turns out, Torres did not play or sing a note of Picket Fence Cartel. He left the band months before Picket Fence Cartel's recording sessions even began. He only appeared in the promotional photos for the album at Schwab's request, to keep up appearances. Outside of those who were in the recording sessions, no one knows who actually played guitar on Picket Fence Cartel. My guess is co-producer, Jason Martin. Martin's main act, Starflyer 59, is a favorite of mine, but hard rock isn't exactly his style, and the fairly generic nature of the guitar-playing would make sense--Martin playing in a genre he isn't comfortable with would produce unremarkable work for that genre. Plus, on the standout moments, like the call-and-response guitar line of "The Black Brigade," the guitar sounds like 2009-era Starflyer 59, not Project 86.
Indeed, it's these definitely-not-Project 86 moments that are truly standout. I'm thinking specifically of the aforementioned guitar in "The Black Brigade," the echo-laden guitar of "Dark Angel Dragnet"'s verses, the punk rock fury of "Two Glass Eyes," and the old southern spiritual vibe that shows up early in the album's keyboards, and pays off in the final three tracks in background vocal form. This conjures images of the devil chasing Schwab along the Mississippi bank at midnight, full moon coming in through oak boughs. The sheer force of will in Schwab's vocals is also a plus, even if his lyrics aren't up to scratch. These combined factors make Picket Fence Cartel a listenable, slightly above average rock album...but they do nothing to make the album sound like Project 86. And where is Steven Dail? His bass is completely subdued, background noise. Maybe he was busy focusing on the guitars? Who knows. So much of this album is a mystery, and will remain so until those who played on it offer more information. As it stands, Picket Fence Cartel is my least favorite of Project 86's albums, if it's even a Project 86 album at all.

2009 Tooth & Nail
1. Destroyer 4:49
2. The Butcher 3:02
3. The Spectacle of Fearsome Acts 3:12
4. Dark Angel Dragnet 3:23
5. Cold and Calculated 3:38
6. Cement Shoes 3:56
7. A John Hancock with the Safety Off 3:16
8. Two Glass Eyes 3:28
9. Cyclonus 3:46
10. The Black Brigade 2:54
11. To Sand We Return 4:35