Some bands early in their careers release an album that is so great that the rest of their careers often seem like awkward attempts to recapture that early greatness. Some manage to do it and become legends; others fail and become a bit of a depressing joke. While I've never been disappointed in a Project album - in fact, I have truly enjoyed each and every album they have released - I have always been forced to compare their new releases to Truthless Heroes (2002), their magnum opus, and have always found that they don't quite compare to that early greatness.
That being said, Rival Factions is perhaps their most immediately arresting and interesting album since 2002. It is not so much a re-invention as a re-tooling of the band's sound and they seem to be experimenting with a few things. The songs are shorter and more focused: each word, each chord, each note is deliberate, honed and razor sharp - there is no excess here. This is a leaner, meaner Project 86. The songs come quick and hit hard with some massive hooks. Andrew Schwab, the band's frontman, also seems to be playing around with what he can do with his voice. Vocally, this is his most diverse outing. He is singing and being melodic more than he used to be; at the same time, though, on some songs (such as the wonderfully titled "The Forces of Radio have Dropped a Viper into the Rhythm Section") he screams even harder than he used to. And on "Molotov" he even seems to be channeling a bit of David Bowie, which is an amusing and very pleasant surprise. Most band's need to progress or they run the risk of becoming stale; Project 86, far from becoming stale, have progressed in a logical manner, one that does not feel forced but natural. There's enough growth here to inspire confidence and enough similarity to remind fans why they loved them in the first place.
Unlike Truthless Heroes, which is concept-oriented (and so works best as a complete album), Rival Factions is song-oriented. There does not immediately appear to be a running concept stringing the songs all together (though perhaps as I listen to it more a theme will emerge); rather, these songs seem more to be individual efforts. I've always been bothered by the feeling that, since Truthless Heroes, Project 86 has been trying too hard to find their next concept. With Rival Factions, I think they have finally shed the last bits of that attempt and have settled into a more comfortable style of songwriting, one that does not feel as if it needs to be epic and grandiose. This does not mean that the album, taken as a single creative effort, lacks cohesion; far from it. It only means that the album is not thematic and does not tell a story, which is fine by me.
As anyone who has ever listened to them knows, Project 86 is quite cynical and angry but, to me at least, their cynicism and anger is the lamenting and heartbreaking voice of the prophet, the voice that calls in the wilderness to an unhearing, uncaring generation. Rival Factions continues that acerbic, unrelenting criticism of half-truths, of wolves in sheeps clothes, of corrupt and corrosive culture. Some songs, like the opening "Evil (A Chorus of Resistance)" unflinchingly punches holes in the humanist dream that all people are good and can save themselves while a song like "The Sanctuary Hum" continues Project's critique of false leaders, especially church leaders, who prey on the weaknesses of those they should help. "Caveman Jam," which is a story-song of a conversation between the band and their fans (and non-fans), even examines this tendency to violently criticize: "Yo, I don't understand your agitation / Why can't you write a track that's sensitive?" asks a persona in the song; "Little man / I wish I could" is the reply. Project 86 (more precisely, Andrew Schwab) feels the prophet's compulsion, the need to speak the truth in spite of resistance, in spite of hurt feelings, in spite of the neurotic democratic desire live and let live. The unfiltered, unadulterated truth saves lives, repairs broken hearts. As the story-song concludes: "I made my way back to the merch booth after / A man confronts me, smiling ear to ear / The sweat is dripping from his face in gallons / And all he wants to do is shake my hand / (Then he) stops to tell me he'd be six feet under / That's if it wasn't for our caveman jams."
In the end, I suppose the best thing to say is that I really like this album. I really like it. Their agitation refreshes me, since it is for the most part an agitation that I share. Project 86 is one of the few bands whose moral and religious vision I almost completely identify with. That sort of identification is powerful and compelling and I can only hope that Project 86 continues to make records for a long time yet.