Friday, July 21, 2017
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
Wednesday, July 19, 2017
The Kane Mutiny EP puts a bow on the trio + Jason Gerken on drums phase of Project 86, with three previously unreleased songs recorded during the Rival Factions sessions, plus two remixes of ...And the Rest Will Follow songs...creating an interesting, if non-cohesive five-song listening experience. Also, I've always wanted to put both a plus-sign, and the word "plus" into a sentence together. Mission accomplished.
The three songs from the Rival Factions sessions are all great, just about as good as anything on that excellent album. However, I can't see where any of them would have fit on Rival Factions. "The Kane Mutiny" is not quite on par with Rival Faction's other faced-paced songs, "Lucretia, My Reflection" is a cover song (an awesome cover song), and would have stuck out like a sore thumb as the only one on an album of originals, and "Rte. 66," though a total stunner, nevertheless features a straightforward declaration of faith completely lacking in Rival Factions' ten tracks--it just doesn't fit the theme of the full length. Thankfully, these three songs are collected here for the Project 86 fan's listening pleasure.
It's a curious choice to follow these three with remixes of songs from two albums before, but it seems the band wanted to give listeners more bang for their buck. The first is a cover of "Something We Can't Be" by Echoing Green cult legend Joey Belville, and it's just fine. The second is possibly longtime band guitarist Randy Torres' final contribution to the band (it's extremely difficult to tell exactly where in the band's discography Torres left), a remix of "From December." It's not bad, and helped launch Torres into a pretty storied sound design career.
If you're a fan, you should pick this up (it's only available digitally). If you're only a casual listener...eh...Youtube the first three songs...this isn't really a great place to start. Then again, if you're a fan, you probably already on The Kane Mutiny EP.
Here is where things get murky. No one knows for sure who is playing the instruments on the This Time of Year EP, outside of whoever was in the studio recording it. The drums no longer sound like they're being pounded by Gerken, and the feeling of the music doesn't bring to mind Torres work (he could have been there and phoning it in, I guess). It is known definitively that Torres left before the band recorded their next full length, but this EP is a bit of a mystery. Bassist, Steven Dail, likely played here, even though his distinctive style is absent. The band's style in general is actually fairly absent, making the prospect of Project 86 doing Christmas music less promising. What's here is murky, fairly generic sounding hard rock, with a creepy abandoned mall throughline, highlighted by plenty of haunting keyboard. Most of the songs here are originals, and none stick much, outside of "Misfit Toys," whose music and lyrical content click just right. Someone made a video for the song with footage from Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer that fits its atmosphere and themes perfectly. I'd almost say this EP is worth it just for that song. If you like "Misfit Toys," you'll probably be okay with the rest. The other songs aren't bad, just a bit boring, though I do enjoy the atmosphere. I think it's at least worth a listen. Though it doesn't tickle my fancy as much as I'd like it to, this feels like one of the more subjective listens in Project 86's discography, mystery musicians or not.
2007 Tooth & Nail Records
1. The Kane Mutiny 3:31
2. Lucretia, My Reflection (The Sisters of Mercy cover) 3:41
3. Rte. 66 3:52
4. Something We Can't Be (Joey B. Remix) 3:40
5. From December (Randy T. Mix) 4:08
2008 Team Black
1. This Time of the Year 2:46
2. Wrought on This Holiday's Eve 3:14
3. Shiny Skin 3:46
4. Misfit Toys 3:26
5. What Child? 3:54
Friday, July 14, 2017
After listening to Rival Factions, Project 86’s sixth studio album, it’s clear what went wrong with their fifth, …And the Rest Will Follow. On album number five, the band clearly wanted to experiment, but instead of diving in, the band skittered around a sound not quite committed to experimentation or their more emblematic hard rock…crafting music that seemed, for a band known for its passion, a little half-hearted. On Rival Factions, the band, now a three-piece, dive headfirst into a deep-sea of experimentation.
The Nicsperiment thinks that most great albums have a clear, decisive palette of sounds. Rival Factions is a great album, blending an aggressive guitar tone from Randy Torres that bounces from deep crunch to high-frequency freak-outs, fluid, crunchy bass by Steven Dail, keyboard that ranges from 80’s nostalgia to Halloween creep house, and a truly inspired vocal performance from Andrew Schwab, who balances some of his most aggressive shrieking with his most powerful singing to date. However, the true star of the album is Jason Gerken, filling in on drums for the recently departed (from the band, not life) Alex Albert. Albert’s drumming was one of Project 86’s most distinctive features, so for Gerken to come in and do something completely different and have it work so well feels like a minor miracle. Gerken’s fast-paced, highly energetic drumming takes every song to an unprecedented level. The production, aided by Dail and Torres, is clear and punchy. With these weapons at their disposal, Project 86 pares the tracklist down to the shortest since their debut, with shorter track times, creating a lean, mean, unpredictable snake of an album. This sound caught many listeners off guard, causing some to dismiss it outright. Considering this might just be the definitive work of Project 86’s career, that’s a shame.
Rival Factions opens with three of the more aurally vituperative songs of the bands career, culminating with the insane “The Forces of Radio Have Dropped a Viper into the Rhythm Section.” This latter song lyrically posits the band as an indestructible analog force in a digital world, ironic as Live Free or Die Hard premiered three days later (ten years ago…and man, can my facebook-less, smartphone-less self still relate to that theme!). This somehow segues perfectly into the soaring 80’s dance-influenced “Molotov,” a shocking juxtaposition with the last song, and yet somehow the only logical thing that could follow. The album only gets weirder from here, flirting with aggression again on “Slaves to Liberty” before unleashing the bizarre, dark, yet fun goth-pop of “Pull Me Closer, Violent Dancer.” These are all true things I am saying.
The final four tracks get even stranger, with the dance-mosh of “Illuminate,” the razor-sharp riffing of “Sanctuary Hum,” the sounds-like-what-it’s-called “Caveman Jams,” and the new-wave contemplation of album-closer, “Normandy.” None of these songs should work alone, and especially not in conjunction with one other, but somehow they do, and they do so perfectly. Each song complements the next ones, the former ones, it’s like this came from some alternate dimension. Yet this strangeness is not alienating, but creates a strange feeling of intimacy. Schwab’s lyrics, possibly the best of his career, discuss conflict (hence the album title) in relatable terms, matching the conflict of the disparate sounds that make up Rival Factions. Even the album artwork, featuring a sort of decoder jewel case, is some of the best of the CD-era. It’s all too good to be true.
Randy Torres, who names this his favorite of the band’s work, left after Rival Factions. Steven Dail was soon to follow. Gerken was just a temporary, hired hand. Nothing gold can stay.
2007 Tooth & Nail Records
1. Evil (A Chorus of Resistance)3:03
2. Put Your Lips to the TV 2:49
3. The Forces of Radio Have Dropped a Viper into the Rhythm Section 2:51
4. Molotov 3:12
5. Slaves to Liberty 3:02
6. Pull Me Closer, Violent Dancer 3:56
7. Illuminate 2:40
8. The Sanctuary Hum 5:01
9. Caveman Jam 3:18
10. Normandy 5:03
Tuesday, July 11, 2017
It's hard to think of anything more 2005 than purevolume.com (no it's not, but I needed an opening sentence, and I've been battling a virus that I'm not unsure is West Nile for the last week, so this is the first sentence of this review), a website where bands released new tracks to whet listeners appetites for their upcoming full-lengths. Now, in 2017, there are only two websites, youtube and facebook, so everyone just does everything through those. In 2005, though, I excitedly visited purevolume.com every week in the month leading up to September 27, 2005, to hear a new track from Project 86's then upcoming fifth album, ...And the Rest Will Follow. In each of the consecutive four weeks leading up to the album, as each of the four tracks was released (one a week, every week of the month), I was a little more befuddled. What was this sound the band was pursuing? Only a year before, Tooth & Nail had released the band's triumphant Songs to Burn Your Bridges By. Then, Project 86 had subsequently announced that they were re-teaming with GGGarth, producer of their landmark Drawing Black Lines, for a new album. All seemed to be right with the world, except these new songs from this upcoming album didn't feel like Drawing Black Lines at all.
All was not right with the world. When the band had showed up at GGGarth's studio, the famed producer was dealing with a personal matter, and had to pawn the band off on an associate. Also, that feeling of band unity from 2004 turned out to be short lived--this would be Alex Albert's last album as Project 86's drummer. I don't know how much these factors came to play in ...And the Rest Will Follow's creation. I can say that it is one of their least focused, least consistent efforts. The album adds a polish to the band's hard rock sound--in fact, the production screams 2005 just as much as purevolume.com does. The songs do not flow into each other. "Sincerely, Ichabod," the violent opener, which proclaims in its opening lyric, "We once drew some lines in black/right now its about time/we took them back" backs right into the Anberlin-esque pop-rock of "All of Me," which then backs into the strange, yet strangely by-the-numbers hard rock of "Doomsday Stomp," to the...I dunno "soft rock(?)" of "Something We Can't Be." Then there's the dance-metal of "Subject to Change," the lumbering rock of "Necktie Remedy," and on it goes. I hesitate to say any of these songs are bad, but together they just don't work. This is a shame, as there are some great songs here, especially the bizarre "My Will Be a Dead Man," and the swedish-metal ballad "From December," but the title of the album is disappointingly apt...there's always a feeling that something better, something that will tie things together will follow, but it never does. It doesn't help that usually winning lyricist, Andrew Schwab, seems to be facing a little writer's block--these are easily the weakest words he's put to tape. There's a part in "Cavity King" where he rhymes "crimson" with "crimson." It's not like him at all.
I think this album likely matched my confused state of mind in late September of 2005. Hearing it now, it feels like a product of its time even more than the band's Rage Against the Machine-inspired 1998 debut. But Project 86 did, can, and would do so much better than this.
And finally, speaking of 2005, here's Project 86 in their only live TV performance ON THE SHOW I WATCHED EVERY WEEKNIGHT OF THE YEAR IN 2005 IN MY OLD ROOM AT MY PARENT'S HOUSE BECAUSE I GRADUATED COLLEGE IN 2004, COULDN'T FIND A JOB, AND LIVED WITH MY PARENTS FOR THE ENTIRETY OF 2005. WOOHOO!!! I REALLY NEED TO GO TO THE DOCTOR. Also, twelve years ago, I listened to "My Will Be a Dead Man" right before entering a personal confrontation I blogged about here. Surreal to reflect on stuff that happened over a decade ago and see that I blogged about it here. Especially since that confrontation ending up being so epic and life-altering. So as much as I seem meh on this album, I am still giving it a "7/10," and it has still been integral to my life experience. Awesome.
2005 Tooth & Nail Records
1. Sincerely, Ichabod 4:22
2. All of Me 3:59
3. Doomsday Stomp 3:52
4. Something We Can't Be 4:16
5. Subject to Change 4:31
6. Necktie Remedy 5:13
7. My Will Be a Dead Man 4:35
8. From December 4:48
9. The Hand, the Furnace, the Straight Face 3:15
10. ...And the Rest Will Follow 2:17
11. Cavity King 3:30
12. Wordsmith Legacy 4:10
Friday, July 07, 2017
[Editors Note: This is a review of the 2004 Tooth & Nail Release of Songs to Burn Your Bridges By, not the, by comparison, incomplete self-released 2003 version]
After the release of 2002's Truthless Heroes, Project 86 found themselves at a crossroads. Recently dropped by Atlantic Records, the band had no label. All but their core fans had deserted them after Truthless Heroes' music and lyrics seemingly signified a major shift in philosophy. A band that just a year before seemed poised to take over the word now seemed to be on the brink of disaster--or right in the middle of it. From this place, Project 86 composed Songs to Burn Your Bridges By, possibly their best work to date.
However, I also need to say, part of Songs to Burn Your Bridges By's perfection is also found in the way that it serves as a companion for its predecessor. Indeed, the bridge of its opening track, "The Spy Hunter" contains a bellowing repetition of the phrase "I do not need anymore Truthless Heroes!" Its five-minute centerpiece is titled "Breakdown in 3/4," both a reference to the chaos of being label-less between their third and fourth albums, AND the time signature of the ridiculously heavy breakdown at the end of the song. If Truthless Heroes shouted out what Project 86 didn't believe, Songs to Burn Your Bridges By is a voice in the desert calling out what they do--and this isn't just an over-emotive descriptor. The rousing "Safe Haven," with its The Matrix-esque imagery, blatantly states this.
However, one does not need any knowledge of Truthless Heroes or Project 86's past to enjoy Songs to Burn Your Bridges By. It is fun, angry, heavy hard rock, perfectly-paced, full of space, clear in its imagery and emotion, following a definite emotional arc, exploring myriad sounds and textures, while never-flagging in consistency. All instruments are given prominence like they were on the band's first two albums, meaning a song is just as sure to begin with one of Steven Dail's dirty, nasty bass-lines as it is one of Randy Torres' inventive guitar riffs.
As a fan of this band, as a fan of hard rock music, as a fan of this extremely under-rated album, which came at a time when all eyes were seemingly off Project 86, I cannot praise this music enough.
For a full picture of everything that makes the 2004-version of Project 86 so great, check out the below music video, and then the below live video, proof that a return to Christian rock festivals was all Project 86 needed to return to legendary status:
For me, the summer this album was released is a special moment in my history, and a time when I felt unique connection to this band's position. Thirteen years removed, my listens to Songs to Burn Your Bridges By are just as potent.
2004 Tooth & Nail Records
1. The Spy Hunter 3:37
2. Oblivion 4:05
3. A Shadow on Me 3:30
4. Safe Haven 3:29
5. Say Goodnight to the Bad Guy... 3:54
6. Breakdown in 3/4 4:58
7. The Great Golden Gate Disaster 3:42
8. Breakneck Speed 3:42
9. Sioux Lane Spirits 4:43
10. Circuitry 4:02
11. 3 Card 2:18
12. A Fruitless End Ever 2:58
13. A Text Message to the So-Called Emperor 1:02
14. Solace 5:02
Tuesday, July 04, 2017
If you want a clear pre and post-delineation for pop-culture and 9/11, look no further than the discography of Project 86 (actually you can, and should look further, and in fact, I plan on doing a rather academic series on that very topic, at some point).
Their classic 2000 release, Drawing Black Lines, dark as it is, is still optimistic and fun, clear in its goals. Truthless Heroes is darker, not optimistic in any way, shape, or form, and if not muddier in its goals, more bleak in them as well as their delivery, mired in moral confusion. I didn't say "not fun" because it is really difficult for Project 86 to create an album without any fun moments...but I'm getting ahead of myself.
Truthless Heroes is a concept album about a human who grows up attempting to find meaning and fulfillment in every aspect of human activity, particularly in American culture, and comes up snake eyes and hollow--also metaphorical for how empty the band have found the major label experience of recording this very album. After Drawing Black Lines was released, Project 86 were scooped off of indie label Tooth & Nail, for major conglomeration Atlantic, and while the band may not have been overjoyed by their time at Tooth & Nail, the experience at Atlantic seems traumatic.
However, the first lyrics of Truthless Heroes are, "Out of the playground's ashes, come little men with little games/they're playing war, they're playing new crusades like new arcades." So, yeah, 9/11 didn't have any impact on this album's creation at all...
that was sarcastic. It very much did--the societal confusion immediately after that event is very much clear, but it also dovetails with Project 86's own confusion. Amidst the label upgrade, the band's manager unwisely recommended them to completely drop out of the Christian music circuit. The band played main stage at Cornerstone Festival in 2002 (yours truly was there), and vocalist, Andrew Schwab, made a big show of declaring that this would be the last Christian festival or show the band would ever play. When 75% of your audience are Christians, that might not be the best idea. Stavesacre, another great band who played the same Cornerstone stage just an hour before, made the same blunder. This was a confusing time, and these awesome bands unfortunately made it more so. So did "Little Green Men"'s chorus, from which Schwab belted to the huge crowd in front of main stage, "I don't need anybody/I don't need anyone!" A Minnesotan festival friend I'd made in the tent next door to mine was genuinely pained by this, lamenting the sudden downfall of the band. His tent-mate (also a new friend) and I tried to argue with him that Schwab was not singing from his own perspective. Indeed, we were correct: I've already mentioned Truthless Heroes' concept. And just two years later, Project 86 were jamming at Christian festivals again (and Stavesacre returned a few years after that). But unfortunately, the damage was done. A negative stigma spread around the band, and after they'd sold truckloads of their previous album, Drawing Black Lines, Truthless Heroes debuted with a paltry 7000 sold the first week of its release, even though it was available in Wal-Mart. A controversial new band website didn't help, either, featuring some rather edgy counter-cultural links, and a message board that at one point essentially devolved into people posting softcore and this one guy continuously spamming about the sex life of bonobos, even though Schwab himself often made appearances. Like the "no Christian festivals" declaration, the website and message board eventually bit the dust. All that remains of that period is the album itself.
Atlantic Records somehow spent over one million dollars on Truthless Heroes, a staggering figure that boggles the mind--where did this money go? And why did Atlantic spend it when they unceremoniously dropped the band months later without even promoting the album (not one music video made!)? Why does everything have to be so confusing? I miss the pre-9/11 world!
I guess I should actually talk about Truthless Heroes musical content, though. Under the stern hand of a major label, screamer Andrew Schwab is forced to sing (not exclusively, though--that scream/spoken word hybrid is thankfully still lurking), and guitarist and part-time singer, Randy Torres, is forced to sing more. The production is more polished, less heavy. The songwriting is more straightforward, verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus. The lyrics, once meditative, defiant, and triumphant, now remind of late 90's U2, essentially proclaiming what the band does not believe. And once you can accept that this is what Truthless Heroes is going to be...it is actually a pretty great album.
The songwriting is strong. The performances, even though they are reined in, particularly Steven Dail's once dominant bass, are excellent. The mode is consistent, and the song sequencing, broken up by some scary new broadcast vignettes, is absolutely perfect--the emotional flow and growing desperation is incredible (from a conversation I had with Schwab after that Cornerstone set, NIN's The Downward Spiral seemed a big influence). The dark, oppressive atmosphere is permeable. And yet, amidst all this darkness, select moments are even fun: the wild verse of "Little Green Men" Schwab's sarcastic delivery in "S.M.C," the surprising sexiness of pitch-black "Bottom Feeder," the surf-guitar solo of "Last Meal," along with that song's guest appearance by Stavesacre's Mark Salomon, the medieval sounding melodies found in some of the sung vocals, further accentuating a certain autumnal feeling the album nails--fitting as Truthless Heroes came out at the end of September (also gives me a memory of the movie, Signs, which came out the month before...even more little green men). Wow, that sentence had some punctuation.
So in the end, Truthless Heroes is a misunderstood beast. Its lyrical themes are dense and myriad. Its music is more straightforward, yet oxymoronically just as well-written, as the band's past work. It isn't in any way what fans of the band's previous music wanted. It even planted the seeds of Project 86's original lineup's eventual destruction. In fact, it is most likely the reason Project 86 went from a band millions could remember fondly, to a band thousands remember fondly, even while an even smaller group of thousands actively listens, knowledgeable to the fact that music is still made under the Project 86 banner today. It is Truthless Heroes.
Seriously, this song needs a video!
2002 Atlantic Records
1. Little Green Men 3:25
2. Caught in the Middle 3:33
3. Know What It Means 4:16
4. Salem's Suburbs 3:38
5. ...A Word from Our Sponsors 0:44
6. S.M.C. 2:49
7. Team Black 3:26
8. Your Heroes Are Dead 3:55
9. ...To Brighten Your Day 1:12
10. Another Boredom Movement 3:56
11. Bottom Feeder (featuring Holland Greco of The Peak Show) 5:13
12. Shelter Me Mercury 3:09
13. ...And Help You Sleep 1:44
14. Last Meal (featuring Mark Salomon of Stavesacre and The Crucified) 3:51
15. Soma 4:12
16. Hollow Again 4:31
17. ...With Regards, T.H. 1:59