In recent years I have abandoned the Rock in the middle of the musical spectrum for more creative offerings on both the hardcore and indie edges. But as I’ve left behind the likes of Kutless and Pillar (and slowly, possibly, Skillet), I realize they’ve also left a hole in my musical landscape. The enjoyment of a driving rock sound ceases for me when it all begins to sound the same, which is why I’ve left those bands in my past – but that enjoyment has still been locked inside, waiting for a release. With Picket Fence Cartel, Project 86 satisfies that void in my soul for a driving rock that’s just creative enough to keep me interested while it keeps me pumped.
This is Project’s seventh studio album, and they’ve been a Christian rock staple for over a decade. I’ve been aware of them for years but have only recently started to really listen to and gain respect for them. The turning point for me was probably their Cornerstone 2007 midnight show, where Andrew Schwab’s intimidating presence helped create an impressive night. I like the way Schwab sings his vocals, with an intensity akin to shouting or screaming, yet still with discernible melody. My friend Sam calls it “putting heat” on his voice, and it leads to an ideal mix of accessibility and intensity that I can’t pinpoint to any other vocalist.
Picket Fence Cartel brings a driving rock sound similar to much of their earlier material, decorated with some experimentation that keeps you interested while the guitars drill memorable riffs into your head. There’s not much slowing down here, and the only deviation from the driving rock might be “Cold And Calculated,” which actually picks up the tempo with a fast punk style that I can’t decide whether or not I like. It’s not a perfect album, and towards the latter half some of the tracks start to sound familiar or forgettable. But there’s enough fun, pounding excitement to color me impressed and satisfied.
The highlight for me, though, is Schwab’s hard-hitting songwriting. He’s always been churning out quasi-epic refrains about good and evil and justice and heroes and all that, but many reviews note that this is Project’s most openly spiritual album to date. Schwab explains the theme on the band’s myspace:
“This is an intense record for us musically, which is the perfect vehicle for the ideas we are trying to present,” explains frontman Andrew Schwab. “Picket Fence Cartel is a picture of irony–of an entity with a shiny exterior with a corrupt core. This album is about how power corrupts even the most pure hearts. This is especially true in the area of fame… in the end we are the ones controlled and owned by the very things that we treasure. Our souls hang in the balance, and Picket Fence Cartel asks one simple question: Who do you belong to?“
As the band builds this theme, they explore hard-hitting concepts such as Satan’s eventual demise (“The Destroyer”), unwavering courage in the face of spiritual persecution (“The Butcher”), the destructiveness of sin (“The Spectacle of Fearsome Acts”), and the rescue of salvation (“Dark Angel Dragnet”).
The closer, “To Sand We Return,” sums up the theme of the album. After the anthemic refrain and the enticing bridge of guitar picking and an organ under ghostly vocal wails, Schwab leads the forceful coda, asking: “Who do I belong to? / Not Earth / Not world / Not Evil / Not mortals / Not wretches / Not horrors / Who do I belong to? / Unchanging / Unbreaking / Unfailing / Creator / Immortal / Eternal.”