Around the same time that flash-in-the-pan music was coming out from bands like Hanson and Chumbawamba (remember them?), a little band called Project 86 would begin a musical journey that would still be gaining steam over twenty years later. While all but a select few musical acts from their advent have long since faded from memory, Project 86 still remains as arguably one of the most underrated acts in musical history.
The word journey is perhaps a most apt word to use here. Trace the threads woven through the career of Andrew Schwab and company across two decades and what you are likely to see when you pull back is something of a beautiful, yet dichotomous, tapestry. One thread, forged in moments of desperate hope, betrays a band in love with the Eternal and raging against the dying of the light in our broken world. Another thread, equally as prominent across their work, has been beaten and shaped by the grave injustice and pain found in these shadowlands.
Each album across P86’s career has been shaped by the weaving of these threads, yet some have tugged more from one ream than the other. Drawing Black Lines and Picket Fence Cartel for instance, pulled more at the string of desperate hope and the faith-filled vibrations of a rebel yell. In contrast, the band’s Truthless Heroes phase, while bringing some of their most memorable fare to that point, dominantly wove in dark threads of pain, doubt, and wandering.
Sheep Among Wolves draws more prominently from the threads that fueled Truthless Heroes, yet with some important distinctions to be made. It is a noticeably darker album than they have produced in years. You will not here find a faith-filled anthem like “Stein’s Theme,” “Fall, Goliath, Fall” or the hell-defying “The Butcher.” Instead, Dante’s “abandon hope all ye who enter here” rings throughout.
Sheep Among Wolves is not the bleak dystopian fare that TH was, however. With hope as the underlying theme of the album, it certainly is not absent of it. Still, this album never seems to reach the hope-filled defiance of songs like “Sincerely, Ichabod,” though “By Constantine” comes closest to this. In much the same way that Schwab’s lyrics go deep, this is a hope that must be uncovered in layers.
Just as with his lyrics, musically, Schwab has both stripped back and deepened the layers this time around. While you will not find the varied instrumentation of Wait For the Siren, P86 purists will relish in the fact that this is one of the overall heaviest albums the band has put out. This heavy tone is set in motion with the fittingly deep breath Andrew takes right before blasting into “MHS,” is pushed even further with the heavy “Dead Man’s Switch,” and it rarely lets up through the rest of this album’s all-too-short run time.
I believe the Rosetta Stone to understanding the thematic element of this experience is found in “Copper Wish” and the title track “Sheep Among Wolves.” “Copper Wish” proclaims “we drain the water with the babes. To drown the grief, we drown the gain.” The swap from “throwing the baby out with the bath water” to throwing the dirty water out with the baby is powerful. We see a visceral image of how our culture tries to medicate our souls by ignoring our pains, unfollowing those we disagree with, and pretending that our shadows don’t exist or purposely hiding them where we recognize that they do.
With this track, the promise of hope shines through the darkness and is personified in a heavenly manner. “Wishing that we could take it back, but just wait for Me. I come not to erase, but to be… wait for me… the purpose from the pain.”
Though many moments in the band’s discography have utilized darker threads in songs like “Sanctuary Hum” or “SMC”, each album overall seemed to increasingly pull from the threads of hope and blessed defiance. Perhaps this reached its peak with Picket Fence Cartel, but Wait For The Siren certainly had its fare share, as well. The final three tracks of this album, however, are woven from some of the darkest threads Schwab has employed in some time.
“The Great Escape,” like “SMC” before it, it spits right in the face of false religion and, in this case, cultic control. Schwab has never been one to soften his words when it comes to false prophets and those who come in the name of God with murder in their hearts; just look at how he gives homage in “MHS” to the book of Revelation where God promises to remove the lamp stands of false churches.
“The Great Escape” is really as dark as the subject matter it runs through. “You filled my cup with holy water, I swallowed everything… my hope is now found in this revolver, to make my great escape.” The honesty of what a person in this mode would feel in the depths of their desperation is powerful… but the song certainly leaves the listener with a shocking image of this person who seeks revenge on this cult leader.
NOTE ON EDIT: Schwab mentioned to me that I had mistaken the lyrics. I had taken them as a person in a cult who sees suicide as the only way out, he notes that it is about assassinating a cult leader who has threatened to murder his “sheep.” He also noted with a smile, “so much more lighthearted.” I love it.
This is then directly followed by “Metempsychosis,” which Andrew noted to those who backed the album on PledgeMusic “addresses a pertinent issue – physical transformation via surgery as a means to fix a broken soul.” It is fitting that this is one of the more hauntingly beautiful songs on the album, given the price of beauty is the message. Yet, once more the underlying theme of hope makes itself known as Andrew powerfully croons “my hope will lie in this Metempsychosis. Reaching for a soul to tell me I am more than a white noise static. One who has the shining to prove I’m not a ghost in this machine.”
In this, Sheep Among Wolves leaves its listener in as dark a place as the subject matter of the album perhaps deserves. This is not an upbeat album, nor does its focus lend it to be one. Where this album differs from Truthless Heroes, however, is the core of hope it presents and the light-through-the-cracks faith Andrew weaves into them. To this end, he even reassured fans in a recent post (in a humorous way) that he is still definitely in love with Jesus.
Veiled places on this album point to this blessed source, though certainly not as directly or as powerfully as previous ventures have done. Perhaps this disconnect would be lessened had the album ended with the title track. While “Sheep Among Wolves” still pulls in from the darker of the threads at its disposal, as I mentioned above, I believe it is the other half of what is needed to understand the infiltrating hope that creeps through this album’s experience.
The struggle – paralleled by the Biblical imagery of the title’s very same words – that this song goes through would be a fitting end to the dark battle preceding it. “When the moonlight fades away and I shapeshift back to me… what I would not give for just one more night, one more night to be changed.”
As before, hope is the underlying theme. “When we lived for the kill without hope for the cure from the beast…” Perhaps it is just me, but the album would leave me in a different place were the last words spoken the haunting “you howled at the thought before you knew The Spirit still lives inside of you, too.”
Hope is in as short of supply in our days as it ever has been. The Bible points out that love is superior to either faith or hope, however, most people feel they know where to go to get something that they define as love. This is not as readily the case with hope. In light of this, I can’t help but wish this album had ended with its own “To Sand We Return,” or “Open Hand.”
Still, even Dante took a full three epics before he could begin Paradiso. Perhaps, in this manner, Sheep Among Wolves is simply The Empire Strikes Back of this phase of the band’s journey. If nothing else, it certainly provides more than enough “Caveman Jam”s to reach out into the darkest places. I simply hope those sweaty bodies in the mosh pit dig deep enough to find the only true source of lasting hope that shines through the cracks.
Sheep Among Wolves is a powerful album with poignant imagery that seeps into your soul through beautifully written lyrics which require multiple listens to fully grasp, yet the songs are sung in such a way that even a casual listen will bring the blood to your veins. It is a return to some of P86’s heaviest fare, both in its message and the chugging of its guitars. The classic, even steam-punk aesthetic, brought on by uses of Dante, allusions to locomotives, steam engines, and copper pence in a wishing well, beautifully contrasts the very in-the-moment issues of our day and struggles the album takes the listener through.
Sheep Among Wolves is as brutal an experience as the Biblical allusion it draws upon. Though it is one of the darker albums of Project 86’s career, fans and new listeners alike are sure to find solace in the hope shining through the cracks.