FEAR FACTORY - AGGRESSION CONTINUUM
CYBER METAL TERMINATORS SIGN OFF WITH THE LAST SHOT
In 2021 it might be requisite to approach a new Fear Factory album with the discipline of expectation management. It is, after all, far from 1995 and the chromed, bio-mechanized and – at that time – novel cyber metal of the titanic Demanufacture album. That release elevated Fear Factory to the forefront of a pack of hungry new metal acts angrily revolting against a music industry dominated overwhelmingly by jangly indie and grunge. It was an era when metal enjoyed barely any dedicated festivals and was largely excommunicated from any media exposure. Fear Factory’s micrometer-precision, cyber industrial metal with its piledriving heavy guitar sound, machine-gun double pedal percussion and Burton C. Bell’s idiosyncratic vocal delivery – one of the first to interface harsh death metal vocals with huge clean melodic choruses – helped to reinvigorate the scene with fresh energy, re-formed credibility, and impetus. Demanufacture, a classic with its bleak futuristic aesthetic, was packed with Fear Factory’s biggest anthems while they developed a reputable name for their blistering live performances.
But while the band welded their image and sound to dystopian Blade Runner-esque themes of futuristic AI domination, bio-engineering and population control, their own problems were nearer in time. One issue that became evident was their signature sound which, despite distinguishing them so well from peers, also proved to be stylistically restrictive and tricky to maintain without losing the cutting edge. Obsolete (1998) was a more than decent follow up to Demanufacture though the narratives of cyborg sci-fi were starting to max out and Digimortal (2001) – again a quality release with some punchy classics – had poor sales and a mixed reception. The more accessible choruses were a turn off to hardcore elements in the fanbase and it failed to gain momentum. With rot setting in, what followed was a ruinous rock ego circus with the band dissolving in 2002 only to re-unite the following year with founding guitarist Dino Cazares kicked out. The 2000s were a wasted decade of dreary lawsuits, personnel changes, and forgettable albums. The metal scene, which Fear Factory had helped resuscitate, had seemingly moved on and left them behind.
Between then and now, however, there has been some poetic reclamation in the 2010s. After Cazares re-joined in 2009 and with silly squabbling seemingly past, Fear Factory released a couple of quality records in The Industrialist (2012) and Genexus (2015). While not repeating their late 1990s peak, it was a sort of return to form. But with Burton C. Bell announcing his permanent departure in 2020 it looked like they had signed off with some credibility intact. Like Arnie’s cyborg thumbs up as he lowered himself into the industrial furnace.
So while the arrival of Aggression Continuum is a surprise, its content is not. There is no experimentation, deviations or radical upgrades but it is pretty damn convincing. Recode is replete with the core latter day Fear Factory noise of pneumatically driven percussion, steel container riffs and an uplifting melodic chorus that guarantees inclusion on Best Of collections in years to come. Surely one of their classics, it sets out a blueprint that forms the rest of the record. The first single Disruptor goes for a more savage mixture of early era industrial metal and big Digimortal melodies.
The good, reassuring news is that Aggression Continuum is heavy, gloriously, blisteringly heavy in parts. It is these clanking, industrial crusher elements that are reminiscent of the band’s early murky, despairing death metal Concrete-era origins. Collapse has the slow, nightmarish assembly line vibe of that early underground work. The title track, meanwhile, is just pure dead furious and heavy has a concrete pillbox. Bell is incandescent “No more will I be a victim, no more will I stand!” is the seething refrain. There is palpable wrath and galvanised energy at play and the album is littered with dense metallic clink clanking, brutal cyber racket breakdowns, and deranged AI manufacturing plant industrialism.
It is necessary to report that Burton C. Bell puts in a veritably commanding and rejuvenated performance. Generally, he was always a distinctive and reliable performer with an appreciable vocal range. He could rage with the cream of death metal growlers but his sweeping stentorian, sometimes plaintive, cleans were unmatched. Here he sounds vivified, combative and genuinely committed. Aggression Continuum has big choruses by the vat load such as those that decorate Fuel Injected Suicide Machine and Manufactured Hope. The widescreen melodious choruses soar – sometimes with pseudo-pop catchiness and at times with an edge of forlorn fatalism.
Since Obsolete, though, Fear Factory have been fond of cinematic embellishments as much as, if not more than, out of control robotic samples and bloops. It was initially trialled to compliment Obsolete’s overblown futuristic conceptual backstory that was narrated in terms of a movie script. Here such as on Recode and Aggression Continuum the strings add swashbuckling triumphalism thats evoke the epic end credits of an action film. It can work neatly sometimes but occasionally it is over-dressed when a less bombastic approach might have fitted better without losing any impact.
Burton C. Bell can no longer rightfully bellow “we are the new breed, we are the future” – and in any case he no longer will. The world might not be as aware as it once was, but after all these years, Fear Factory have gone out firing the last shots. A point has been proven. While their musical niche has been a challenge to maintain consistently at a high level over three decades, nobody has ever done it like them.