For Fans Of
Knowing that you missed the boat on something is a truly awful feeling.
By the time I had heard of Planes Mistaken For Stars in my late teens, the Illinois-via-Colorado-based group had already disbanded after releasing their criminally-underrated, third album ‘Mercy’. They had also become caught up in the dissipation of their then record label, the ill-fated Century Media imprint Abacus Recordings. For music fans, moving from adolescence to adulthood during the period of sonic upheaval that defined the mid-2000’s, 2006 represented a year where many were almost spoilt for choice in terms of burgeoning musical directions and new paths to follow.
Produced and engineered by audio mastermind Matt Bayles — former member of indie crossover act Minus The Bear, and producer of choice for the likes of Norma Jean, ISIS, Mastodon, and Vanna — ‘Mercy’ was a gritty and explosive mix of textured post-hardcore, jagged yet melodic punk rhythms and alternative, almost-grunge worthy hooks. With the charging riffs of ‘Crookedmile’, the throaty screams and aggrieved delivery of ‘To Spit A Sparrow’, and the emotional crest of ‘Killed By Killers Who Killed Each Other’, ‘Mercy’ was an album that successfully demolished my understanding of how music could become a complex vehicle for genuine, enthralling catharsis.
I spent the better part of the next decade picking at the remnants of my brain, digging through the band’s back catalogue, urgently searching for every demo track and split, before finally embracing the true genius of record’s like 2001’s vitriolic, proto-screamo ‘Fuck With Fire’, and now one of my favourite LP’s of all time (also arguably the greatest Planes Mistaken For Stars album), 2004’s masterwork ‘Up In Them Guts’. I was completely enamoured with what this band had achieved throughout their short career and was desperately trying to clamber on board that boat, but unfortunately, that ship had already sailed away, leaving me on the shore by my lonesome.
After returning to the live circuit in 2010 (of which, I was lucky enough to experience first-hand in 2012, during a special set at the famous Saint Vitus venue in Brooklyn, New York), PMFS announced in 2015 that ‘Mercy’ would be remastered and re-issued by the legendary hardcore label, Deathwish Inc. This set long-time fans into a frenzy at the prospect of the band “quietly and persistently working on new music.” ‘Prey’, the group’s fourth LP, is the fruitful product of that blossoming relationship and the much-anticipated return of PMFS.
It’s a record that, on the surface, has two defining attributes. Firstly, ‘Prey’ once again makes use of the dynamic, slow-burn foundations featured on ‘Mercy’, which is logical given that the album functions as both the sequential and spiritual successor to their third album. Secondly, it develops and builds atop these same foundations, with the kind of confidence and self-assured direction that could only come about from solemn reflection and the irrevocable passage of time, something which appears self-evident, given that ‘Prey’ was released a little over ten years to the day of ‘Mercy’s release back in October 2006.
From the opening moments of ‘Dementia Americana’, it becomes immediately apparent that PMFS aren’t so much quietly walking through the door again after a protracted absence, as much as they’re revelling in violently and destructively kicking said door down. It’s the type of controlled chaos as a signature that made older tracks like ‘Sicillian Smile’ or ‘Belly Full Of Hell’ fan favourites; a backbiting cocktail of gnashing guitars, whirlwind drum attacks and guitarist/vocalist Gared O’Donnell’s unmistakable, whiskey-soaked, Mid-Western drawl howling in bloody fury. And before this maelstrom can completely take hold, the listener is dropped straight into the brooding, alt-country twang of ‘Til It Clicks’, which feels like PFMS are all-but-done with door-bashing, instead opting for some casual, finger-picked guitar and laboured percussion from drummer Mike Ricketts.
Pre-released singles ‘Riot Season’ and ‘Fucking Tenderness’ line up back-to-back, and work much better in sequence on ‘Prey’ than they did as stand-alone tracks, showing that PFMS material should always be appreciated as a cohesive whole, rather than in staggered morsels. Guitarist Chuck French brings his flair to ‘Riot Season’ with walls of screeching feedback and sliding riffs, as O’Donnell launches into a blistering tirade on political rhetoric and the idealised American dream. Speaking with Stereogum about the track, O’Donnell mentions:
“Every generation has a crucial time, a violent time, a time of dread. This is our time. Read between the lines, it’s vital we draw a line in the sand regarding control of ourselves, our dreams, our rights, our spirits. It is clear we are all privy to the puppet show, it’s up to you to decide if you are gonna pay for the ticket.”
There’s always been a sense of authenticity and realism to PFMS, and it’s certainly more pronounced on ‘Prey’ than ever before. Talking to A.V. Club, O’Donnell describes how he felt like he “needed to do some sort of pre-midlife crisis bullshit.” An experience which culminated in being “wound up in a fucking Motel 6 trying to start fistfights with truck drivers.” Rock-bottom it may be, but it makes the huge, triumphant lead in ‘Fucking Tenderness’ sound even more euphoric, a song O’Donnell himself describes as “straight-up Thin Lizzy worship.” Keeping themselves in a near-constant shift of gears, PFMS grind through the harrowing ‘She Who Steps’ and the lover’s dirge ‘Clean Up Mean’ with almost religious zeal.
Recalling O’Donnell’s efforts in acoustic side project Hawks and Doves, the record slows down for the dark, fragile and heart-wrenching ‘Black Rabbit’. With a simple arrangement of acoustic, plucked guitar and piano, O’Donnell lays his chest wide open, with lines like “I found luck/What a fucking mess” withering away by pure utterance. It’s a sombre turn, that sets the tone for the squealing build-up of ‘Pan In Flames’, the angular ‘Enemy Blinds’, and restless closer that is ‘Alabaster Cello‘.
‘Prey’ is another spectacularly high-calibre addition to the band’s already impressive discography, and a true testament to their ability to write original and daring songs, which simultaneously embrace and defy a plethora of genre conventions. When asked about the genesis of material for ‘Prey’, O’Donnell is brutally honest and admits, “I’ve already been on the road for a good chunk of my life. I don’t need to borrow trouble. I’ve got enough of it. I need…catharsis. It is what it is.” To say that this album was highly anticipated is a grand understatement; fans absolutely fucking craved it. To say that this album is a good record is also a form of understatement; ‘Prey’ is fucking incredible. If you’re a fan of Planes Mistaken For Stars, then I highly doubt you need my long-winded descriptions and emphatic pleading to convince you on just how great this record actually is.
As Gared O’Donnell sums up beautifully: “You don’t sell something you love. You fucking own it.” In short, there simply isn’t another band putting out heavy music in 2016, that sounds as fresh, as creative or as distinct as Planes Mistaken For Stars. Do not miss them this time around, or you will deeply regret it. Trust me.
- Dementia Americana
- Til’ It Clicks
- Riot Season
- Fucking Tenderness
- She Who Steps
- Clean Up Mean
- Black Rabbit
- Pan In Flames
- Enemy Blinds
- Alabaster Cello
‘Prey’ is available now through Deathwish Inc., and can be streamed in full from their Bandcamp page. Also, if you happened to see them play at Fest 15 this year, I hate you very, very much with every fibre of my god-damn being.