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Tuesday, July 04, 2017

Project 86 -- Truthless Heroes


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 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

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