In 2004, Project 86 released their fourth record, Songs to Burn Your Bridges By on Tooth and Nail. Songs To Burn... was an amazing album that gave the band the release of the anger that had been so prevalent on Truthless Heroes (and their dealings with mainstream label woes). But it also marked their halfway point to this seventh studio album, Picket Fence Cartel. With each subsequent release since Songs... they have grown more spiritual and optimistic, but this time it's taken to a whole new level.
Picket Fence Cartel is a beautiful mix of ...And the Rest Will Follow and Rival Factions. This is by far their most spiritual record and also their boldest. It may be easy to pen a lyric of spiritual substance, but it's another thing to pen a lyric of spiritual courage. Picket Fence... is riddled with lyrics of spiritual courage, songs of spiritual warfare and, more importantly, the spiritual victories attained through the "Creator, Immortal, Eternal."
The album is bookended by two very bold tracks, first "Destroyer" and finally "To Sand We Return." "Destroyer," an opening track on par with "Spy Hunter" and "Sincerely, Ichabod," opens with subtle but menacing guitar chords in a mesmerizing rhythm and kicks in after the intro when Andrew Schwab commands the Destroyer to "Ready yourself for the end, Ready yourself cause you cannot pretend..." In the third verse, Schwab declares, "Witness the pain, let it rain on the beast, for the serpent is slain in a blaze of defeat." The vocal style, whether intended or not, sounds as if Christ is sentencing Lucifer and the church is echoing His sentiments. It's a very powerful opening track and is spiritually stimulating as to what the rest of the album holds.
"The Butcher" picks up on this theme as well by disguises the spiritual battle through a metaphorical fictional story. "There is no weapon, there is no blade, you'll never kill Him that lives inside of me," talks of the power of the Holy Spirit over any foe and reminds us of who we belong to, a theme that will be brought up again before the end of the record. "The Spectacle of Fearsome Acts" sings about how we only get one chance to live this life and how our actions breed consequences. "Dark Angel Dragnet" follows as one of the bolder tracks on the record and declares "...cancel my ticket booked to fire, choirs of angels sing my name...". The assurance of the believer's final resting place shoved back in the face of Satan emits strong images of a final confrontation at Judgment as Satan is imprisoned and we declare "enjoy your sips of sour poison, and say hello to death for me...". Lyrically, it's among the boldest on the record.
"Cold and Calculated" has a heavy punk guitar and drum feel, mixing well with Andrew's shouting vocals and its catchy verses that finish strong. "Cement Shoes," a personal favorite on the record, opens with a simple guitar lick that slowly leads into a layered guitar and drum setup with a solid baseline. Vocally, it's catchy and smooth yet strong. The first verse ends on a rhythmic note that leads us into the chorus, "And so we bow it to, bow it to, kneel before You, just like a child here I'm not ashamed...". The background vocals declare at the same time, "No, we're not ashamed" making it a clear statement on the firm foundation that Project 86 declares is its own. This track is the pivot point in the record as it takes a turn and focuses more on the power of Christ and how that power holds us, yet convicts us.
"A John Hancock With the Safety Off" boldly states that the airwaves and radio need to be cured, as Project recalls from their past heartbreaks in the music industry. But through it all, their former angst and anger is replaced by their hope in Christ that they came out alive and He is their "only reason to live." Musically, it's underlaid with synths that replace the guitars in the verses but fit well. "Two Glass Eyes" is a heavy hitter whose main theme is not being dragged down by the enchantments of the world and shouts out to God for rescue, much like a Psalm would. Although the themes of greed,
jealousy and selfish ambition are prevalent throughout, the blame for falling into these traps isn't placed on the backs of the "machine" but on our own sin as the song closes out with Andrew stating, "...the very act of jealousy, has sealed your fate to slavery." This leads us into "Cyclonus," an interesting track with a simple guitar progression with slowly introduced drums and a preacher reciting a passage from Ephesians 6 - a passage that seems to be what Project was heavily influenced by in making this record. "The Black Brigade" sets us up for the finale and emphasizes the previous track with a theme about "straining to extend my lead as every evil chases me..." It's a beautiful picture of repentance as Schwab declares, "Straining on to run without remorse. Casting off mistakes that came before. In my mind I see a hallowed door. Open arm embrace, I'm reaching for..."
The final track, "To Sand We Return," closes out the album with the same themes that have been throughout, but its difference is in the approach. The victory that we have over the Destroyer and The Butcher is in God's absolute Sovereign rule. The imagery of the track is in its silent moment and that we are obsolete men when separate from God. "We've lost all our control, our faces fall to the ground. We're powerless to Your voice, surrender to the sound" is a great chorus of recognition of God's victory. But the coup de grace is in its acoustic guitar bridge that bring us into a worship chant that recalls to mind our lives. And just as our life flashes in front of our eyes, Andrew boldly asks, "Who do I belong to?" and answers that it's "not earth, not world, not evil, not mortal, not wretches, not horrors." One might think that's a convicting enough question, but Project would do a disservice by not finishing the thought. So Schwab asks again, "Who do I belong to? Unchanging. Unbreaking. Unfailing. Creator. Immortal. Eternal." And as the track closes, and Andrew pleads with the listener to "Surrender to the sound," I can't help but think that not only is this a worship track, but it's an evangelistic one at that. With all the pleasures of this world, only one constant and unchanging Rock remains and that is Jesus Christ.
It's fitting that their seventh record is also their most spiritual. It's the number of perfection, and not to say that this is a perfect record, but it is quickly becoming a favorite. If you are a long time fan of the guys from O.C, you will not be disappointed as the heavy hitting and quick paced tracks are back after a brief hiatus from Rival Factions. And for newer fans of Project 86 and for critics of the band, Picket Fence Cartel offers an abundance to chew on and ponder. The Spirit is most assuredly hovering over Project 86.
- PReviewed: 7/6/09, Review date: 7/12/09, written by Kevin Chamberlin of Jesusfreakhideout.com