By Justin C. Sometime in the early 2000s, I was seduced by a deal from rock/punk/indie label Deep Elm Music. Give them $30, and they'd send you 30 CDs, but the catch was that you couldn't choose which 30. While I'm sure I got $30 worth of listening enjoyment out of the whole wad of CDs I receivedBy Justin C.
Sometime in the early 2000s, I was seduced by a deal from rock/punk/indie label Deep Elm Music. Give them $30, and they'd send you 30 CDs, but the catch was that you couldn't choose which 30. While I'm sure I got $30 worth of listening enjoyment out of the whole wad of CDs I received, I know only one CD actually survived in my collection to this day: the self-titled debut of Planes Mistaken for Stars. Vocalist/guitarist Gared O'Donnell's voice is the hook that pulled me in. Call it sandpapery or gravelly or even Rod Stewart with a hefty dose of MEAN added in, but it's raw and unmistakable.
I've seen the band itself tagged with all manner of genre labels, from "indie rock" (fair, but not descriptive) to "screamo" (not really) to "emocore" (I don't even know what that is), but maybe we can make that simpler: let's just call it good old-fashioned, gut-punch hard rock. I think that works for what is arguably their best album, Mercy, which came out in 2006. Their label folded shortly after the album came out, denying this masterpiece the promotion it surely deserved, and Planes disbanded shortly thereafter.
For 10 years, Mercy has been a mainstay in my rotation. The riffs, the rock-solid rhythm, and that voice. The album opener, "One Fucked Pony," starts with a far off-sounding guitar before the main riff kicks in, so propulsive that it sounds like it's trying to outrun itself. The first line of vocals, "Here lies pestilence feeding on the flesh of our discontent", gives you a pretty good idea of the mood of the album, and it's PISSED. "One Fucked Pony" heads straight into "Crooked Mile," with another chunky riff and the vocals, "We beat west / It beat us back". If this album were a character, I'd say it's a brawler, but one who's on the verge of losing the fight, whether it be to a couple of loudmouth jerks at the bar or life in general. But losing or not, he's sure as hell going to take a piece of his enemy with him when he goes down.
Mercy rarely lets up in intensity; most of it makes me feel like running around and lighting things on fire. "To Spit a Sparrow" offers the tiniest reprieve in its opener before an angular riff and almost-painful-sounding vocals take over. The title track does the same, but it's not until the closer, "Penitence," that the band gets quiet, although the recitation of sins in the lyrics offers little emotional respite. I never tire of this album; some days I know are just going to be "One Fucked Pony" days, and I need to hear it. So when I found out Deathwish was re-releasing it as prelude to the band's first new music in 10 years, I was pretty psyched. The question, of course, is how could the new one possibly stand up to the band's peak album?
The answer is slightly tricky. On first listen, Prey didn't draw me in like Misery did. "Dementia Americana," which as a phrase is as good a description of the current political climate in the U.S. as any, seems to start the album in mid-song, with a bit of aural chaos and the repeated bellow, "Taker / You faker / Motherfucker / Who the fuck are you?" It’s like being thrown into the middle of an argument that started before you arrived, but maybe this in medias res opener makes sense for a band that was interrupted for 10 years.
Still, I wasn't sure this album was for me. Bands and people grow apart, and I thought that might be the case here. But over the course of many listens, I realized I had to let this album grow on me, or as a critic once said about Tomorrow the Green Grass by The Jayhawks, "These songs wanna crawl into your closet and live with you till next fall." If Mercy was the brawler, maybe Prey is the same guy 10 years along. Still fighting, but with a few more scars and maybe a little more perspective.
The shift announces itself almost immediately, in the second song, "Till It Clicks." The guitar is quiet and eerie, and those raspy vocals stay low to match. But near the two-minute mark, we get a quick blast of that old fire. "Clean Up Mean" follows a similar path, with low-down menace at the start, ratcheting up to the chorus of "I don't wanna love you no more". "Black Rabbit" goes the stripped-down route, sticking to dissonant acoustic guitar, piano, and electric organ.
That's not to say the band is all slow and no go. "Riot Season" is pretty much exactly what the title says--a propulsive punk track made deeper by some excellent moody bits. It's an unsubtle statement on the current political climate, as O'Donnell said in an interview with CLRVYNT, "It’s a scary time; it’s a time where we’re on the cusp of, 'holy shit, this could go tits up any second,' you know? That’s where we are right now. I wasn’t shying away. 'Riot Season' is called 'Riot Season' for a reason. That’s not coded."
So Prey has plenty of piss and vinegar, even if it isn't the non-stop freight train that Mercy was, but you know what? That's O.K. There's no great template for aging rockers. For every rock or metal band that manages to stay relevant past their initial burst of youthful creativity (like Bowie), there are 100 that utterly fail to age gracefully (like Metallica). There's plenty of fight here, and if this is Planes Mistaken for Stars getting a little older, than I'm happy to go along with them.