Friday, January 27, 2017
Plankeye -- Strange Exchange
When I am done with this review series (2019?), I'd like to write an entry titled, "The Most Underrated Christian Rock Albums of the Last 20 Years." I'd mention Brave Saint Saturn's little-heard 2003 space-rock concept album The Light of Things Hoped For. I'd list Newsboys' (who are essentially now a dance-pop band) greatly misunderstood and much ignored 1999 album of 70's/80's rock, Love Liberty Disco. I'd also add Plankeye's 2001 experimental-indie-rock album, Strange Exchange.
Plankeye are known for an energetic, punk-influenced alternative sound, particularly from their mid-90's work, when they were fronted by Scott Silletta. Silletta (along with the band's original drummer) left in the late 90's, before the remaining members recorded 1999's Relocation. That album featured the surprise hit "Goodbye," and then people just kind of forgot Plankeye existed. Sadly, in the modern age, many people have forgotten that many of the great 80's and 90's Christian Rock bands existed. However, Plankeye did contribute one full-length album of new material to the 21st century. That album, their last of original material, is Strange Exchange. For this endeavor, Plankeye's two remaining members, guitarist/vocalist Eric Balmer and bassist/vocalist Luis Garcia enlisted second guitarist, Kevin Poush, and drummer, Louie Ruiz. Then they got to work.
Honestly, before the release of Strange Exchange, I had kind of forgotten about Plankeye, myself. My conception of the band involved Silletta on vocals and Bill Clinton in office--this was a new millennium, and Plankeye existed in the old one. Then, one night in 2001, while calling in to the radio station where I would soon DJ, I won a pre-release copy of Plankeye's new album. As I mentioned, I wasn't even aware of Plankeye's continued existence, but as I was always ready for a new musical experience, I went to the cooperating store, flashed my ID, and got my CD. What came out of my car speakers several minutes later didn't sound like the Plankeye I remembered.
This sounded like the experimental college rock I listened to in my latter years of high school. More complex guitar lines, more varied effects on the guitars. Poetic lyrics. A rhythm section that valued space. A wide spectrum of emotion. A song that neared the ten minute mark and another one that hit six minutes. This wasn't the Plankeye of old. This was something entirely new.
This was something the Christian market was not and has possibly never been ready for. It's not hard to look at the secular market, and find popular rock bands who at some point went in the studio and just experimented, not caring about previous work or fan expectations, then came out with an excellent, non-definable piece of work. Radiohead did it just a year before Strange Exchange was released. The Beatles did it more than 30 years before. But a band in the Christian Rock market? It hadn't ever really happened. In 2001, though, Plankeye did it.
Strange Exchange is an incredible display of artistic and emotional expression. Co-frontmen Balmer and Garcia show little regard for the past, kicking things off with an upbeat, yet lyrically aggressive number, as Balmer assures, "This is the last piece of me you'll own." The band then dive into two deep, yet up-tempo meditations on life on Earth before unleashing the six-minute guitar storm, "Let Me Be Near You." This is then followed by an under two-minute acoustic song, a daring move, yet one that gives Strange Exchange an unpredictable dynamic range full of color, like the colors crashing into one another on the album cover. The next four songs continue to explore inventive guitar textures and rhythms. Garcia has always been an inventive bassist, and it's fun to pick out his clever lines throughout the album. Ruiz, as a drummer, brings an entirely new rhythmic feel to the band, his style more laid back and fill-reliant than that of punk-influenced former drummer, Adam Ferry. Through these penultimate four tracks, Plankeye builds to a more desperate emotional place, with Balmer intoning by track nine, "The Way of the Earth," "I don't want to live like this anymore/Just for the heartbeats that you feel/ Can't restrain what you think is real/ Takes just a moment then pretend/ The rest of your life you'll be faking it." This all builds to Strange Exchange's haunting, epic, eight-minute closer, "Untitled," a song of such staggering emotional weight and beauty, it is a crime that only a few thousand people have heard it. Indeed, if a popular rock band in the secular market had released this song in 2001, it would have been a cover-story on magazines. Instead, "Untitled" is relegated to languish at the end of its should be classic album, which sits in bargain bins and sells for one penny on Amazon.
"This is the night/of my daughter's last rites," sings Garcia in his throaty tenor, "And we are below/crushed by the waters of love." The lyrics for this song have never been released, and many in the latter half of the song are washed out by walls and walls of ghostly, wailing guitar lines, Garcia's own Earth-moving bass-line, and Ruiz's drum rolls. When the instruments take over halfway in, it is as if they have been handed over to spectral beings, as this kind of power can surely not have been wielded by humans. The emotional catharsis, the movement from life to death to ascendence has reduced me to tears numerous times, and I hope that, wherever they might be today, the four guys who recorded it can be secure in the fact that the people who actually have heard it were deeply moved.
1. This Is 4:12
2. The Meaning of It All 4:29
3. Chemicals and Sleep 4:15
4. Let Me Be Near You 5:59
5. My Wife 1:43
6. By Design 4:27
7. Remind 4:34
8. Bring It Down 3:44
9 The Way of the Earth 4:10
10. [Untitled Track] 8:00