Twenty years as a band is a long time and to celebrate their 20th year, Project 86 have released Sheep Among Wolves, their 10th album and show that while their sound has matured over the years, none of the original ferocity has been lost.
While Sheep Among Wolves was kicked off as a crowdfunded campaign to celebrate the band’s 20 year existence, we’re now in 2018, which will mark the 22nd year since being formed in Orange County, California in 1996. From a career standpoint, the band has released 10 albums, two DVDs, two Eps and one live album, with over 500,000 units moved worldwide. Demonstrating the longevity of the band and faithfulness of fans, the crowdfund campaign for Sheep Among Wolves brought in 160% of the target. As one would imagine being around as long as they have, the band has seen all sides of the music industry. After getting their start on Tooth & Nail Records, the band was briefly signed to Atlantic Records for one album, Truthless Heroes, where nearly everything went wrong for the band. Following that rough period, the band self-released one album then rejoined Tooth&Nail for a few years, leaving at the end of a contract in 2011 to use Kickstarter to fund their Wait for the Siren album that was released in 2012. The band self-released Knives to the Future in 2014 and began the crowfund campaign for Sheep Among Wolves in 2016. At this point in the band’s history, singer Andrew Schwab is the only remaining original member, but throughout the band’s career, Schwab’s distinct vocals and the band’s driving, emotional music has made their songs recognizable and retained the loyalty of fans. This time the band recorded in Nashville at Legion of Boom and DK Studios with Darren King and Andrew Schwab handling production and Jeremy Griffith taking on the mixing duties. Lyrically, Andrew Schwab has taken a bit of a different approach this time out. While Knives to the Future was a concept album with all the songs contributing to a story, the tracks on Sheep Among Wolves stand on their own and address a host of subjects and stories ranging from escaping a religious cult to addressing the concept of using surgery to create a new self. Upon reflection, the overall themes on the album lean toward the darker, similar to those of Truthless Heroes, but underlying it all is a sense of hope. Since Andrew Schwab is also a writer with the gift of insight, one should not be surprised that an entire review could be written on the lyrical content of the albums to discuss the imagery, allusions, and poetic devices employed. As has been the case with previous P86 albums, the songs remain catchy, with anthemic choruses, and great phrasing that keeps the listening experience open to all, even those not looking for deeper meaning.
When I reviewed Knives to the Future, I pointed out how I consider singer Andrew Schwab as a similar figure in music as Henry Rollins and I think it’s worth noting that again. While Schwab’s Christianity sets him apart, the two share vocal styles that make their contributions instantly recognizable, both are authors, and during their careers, both have been front men in band’s that never got the attention and appreciation they deserved.
From the opening moments of “MHS”, those familiar with Project 86 will certainly recognize this sound as it is entirely consistent with the rest of their catalog. Andrew Schwab takes an audible deep breath and then launches straight into the first verse of song, barking out the words with his unmistakable forceful/cutting/piercing/authoritative vocal style. The inclusion of the breath at the beginning is a touch of genius and adds to the intensity of the song. The fast, staccato delivery of the verse sections hit the listener repeatedly while the chorus turns more melodic the message does not relent one bit “From the gallows to the grave, from their halos the guilty will hang.” This sound is vintage P86.
“Dead Man’s Switch” about a train on the way to ruin, keeps the intensity up but takes a bit of a different approach than the in-your-face one used in “MHS”. In this case the song makes use of the contrast between the loud and soft to demonstrate power, and uses a louder, more soaring chorus another tactic common to P86 throughout their career. This is the first song where I began to notice the importance of the bass guitars on this album. Not only does the bass guitar provide an unrelenting driving backdrop for the songs, but sprinkled throughout various songs on the album the bass comes to the forefront and becomes the integral part of the song. “Imaginary Me” calms things down a bit but again shows the importance of the bass guitar in the overall sound, while also incorporating some great drum work by Abishai Collingsworth. The mixing and production on the album really bring out the best in the songs and performances. Vocals which are such a key aspect to P86 songs are clear and distinct, and the gang vocals are powerful but still have that Andrew Schwab tone within them, and the guitar, bass, and drum are all distinct within the mix.
On many of the P86 releases over the years are those songs that start out quieter and remain so for much of the song but often end up being the ones that are most remembered and “Freebooter” may fall into that category. With its swaying rhythm much like the seas that are the focus of the lyrics and the way the songs ebbs and flows from the calm to thunderous, the music perfectly pairs with the lyrics.
The album continues in a similar fashion with “By Constantine” and “The Great Escape” being some of the heavier songs from the outset, while songs like “Copper Wish” and “Sheep Among Wolves” vary the intensity throughout, alternating between the quieter and louder. Both “Sheep Among Wolves” and the quite different sounding “Into Another” also showcase the bass guitar work of Darren King driving the songs along. The album closes with “Metempsychosis” a song that is the most radically different sonically from the rest of the album, relying strongly on keyboards and near-whispered vocals describing the plight of one looking for a physical transformation to “escape this rejection… Reaching for a soul to tell me I am more than white noise static…One who has the shining to prove I’m not a ghost in this machine.” The haunting, quieter, and somewhat dark music and emotion in the vocals pairs perfectly with the lyrics in this song, conveying the longing and underlying sense of hope.
Undoubtedly, comparisons will be made between Sheep Among Wolves and Truthless Heroes as both albums are the darker ones lyrically in the P86 discography, but for me both fall into my favorite albums from the band for that reason. Both carry an underlying sense of light and hope, while not ignoring or minimizing the darkness and despair found in life. From a songwriting perspective, there is a good bit of variety in how the various subjects are approached on Sheep Among Wolves and yet all remain very identifiable as P86 songs. Over the course of their career, P86 has managed to deftly apply a heavy guitar-driven approach to deeply imaginative lyrics and complex arrangements that appeal to the hardcore and casual fans alike and Sheep Among Wolves is another great addition to their collection.
Written by John Jackson
2. Dead Man’s Switch
3. Imaginary Me
5. By Constantine
6. Copper Wish
7. Sheep Among Wolves
8. Into Another
9. The Great Escape
Andrew Schwab – Vocals
Darren King – Guitars, Bass, Keyboards
Abishai Collingsworth – Drums
Record Label: Team Black Recordings, Dec. 2017
Lyric Video for ‘MHS’