Words: Brian Giffin
Latest release: The Industrialist (Riot!)
"It wasn't our intention to make it sound like those records," says Fear Factory vocalist Burton C. Bell when I put it to him that new album The Industrialist slots neatly next to early masterpieces Demanufacture and Obsolete. Both sonically and conceptually, it is the closest the band has yet come to those two albums, and Bell puts it down to a key element he wanted to see restored in their music.
"One thing that was intentional: before we went into the studio, I discussed with Rhys and I discussed with Dino that I really wanted to introduce an industrial element back into Fear Factory," he says. "For the past few years over the past few records it seems to have been just glossed over, and for me that was always one of my favourite parts of Fear Factory. So, with that in mind, it was intentional with that mode of thinking. Also, the fact that the title, The Industrialist, seemed to influence not only the sonic theory but also the conceptual theory as well."
Right from the beginning, the concept behind all of Fear Factory's music has been the battle between humanity and self-aware machines, into which they have often woven other subtexts and ideas. The Industrialist, of course, follows the usual storyline but this time Bell has put a new angle on it.
"The twist this time is that, obviously, this time it is from the viewpoint of the machine," the singer explains. "The Industrialist is how a machine becomes sentient, and with this new-found knowledge it has found the will to exist, the will to survive. It's basically teaching other models of its kind, that have become sentient as well, how to survive. How to fight man. How to take down the establishment that man has created. The establishment that is also trying to disassemble them at the same time. So The Industrialist is the protagonist, but it's also our antagonist."
Resistance and fighting the establishment are themes that recur throughout Fear Factory's catalogue - it was central to Obsolete, for example - but with song titles like "Virus of Faith", "God Eater" and the instrumental track "Religion is Flawed Because Man is Flawed", it's apparent that disdain for religion has a strong presence on this recording.
"It's all from the viewpoint of the machine, and it's seeing that man and its faith is flawed," he says. "Because man is not a god, man is not a king. Man is only man. This is the mantra that The Industrialist is teaching the other automatons. ‘They're only men. And they are flawed.’"
Bell does concede that most of the band’s lyrics reflect his personal views, no matter how he much he dresses them up in elaborate saga.
"All the albums are my thoughts, and they are the story of Fear Factory in a lot of ways. Even though I put them into a third person perspective and try not to make them very personal, it's still my thoughts so there's a lot of my own personality throughout Fear Factory," he says. "My opinion of religion is never gonna stop. It's always gonna find its way into my lyrics some way or another. So the lyrics definitely are spawned from my own thoughts and my own beliefs." He laughs. "I am The Industrialist!"
His writing may be rooted in fiction, but much of it has since been paralleled in reality. Fans can find similarities to Bell’s dark visions of the future in films like Robocop, Hardware and most obviously the Terminator series - which Demanufacture sampled - and some of the technologies that Fear Factory was hinting at on albums like Obsolete have since evolved.
"When you write science fiction, you have to have vision, you have to be able to see the reality and to see the innovations moving forward... see what the world is coming to," Bell says. "That's true for most science fiction writers. Most fiction writers in general. It's pretty awesome that some of things we've discussed in our Fear Factory stories are coming true, or have come to pass."
While The Industrialist doesn’t veer too far from Fear Factory’s established style, it isn’t without invention. Even though guitarist Dino Cazares has again abandoned soloing, he gets plenty of noises out of this instrument and the focus on electronics and background ambience has returned.
"Fear Factory has always been experimenting with sound, ever since the first record. That's how ‘Fear is the Mindkiller’ came about. On the first album, Soul of a New Machine, there's an industrial piece called ‘Natividad’ that was all just noise. Each album has a bit of experimentation within it and I don't think we've experimented this much since Obsolete really."
It was those experimental aspects that helped Fear Factory stand out from the death metal crowd in the early 90s: ditching solos, adding cyber elements and crushing rhythmic breakdowns and, most notably of all, Bell’s then pioneering vocal approach combining death-style growls and barks with traditional melodic singing. They were ground-breaking innovations that quickly became standard elements for much of the following generation of metal bands and continue to be copied to this day.
"I feel flattered that Fear Factory, a band I've been a part of for twenty years, has offered something to the music establishment" says Bell. "That something we have done has inspired other young minds and other young artists to take a little bit of what we've done and use it for their own artwork."
Since 2010’s Mechanize, Byron Stroud and Gene Hoglan have moved on from the band and The Industrialist was recorded by Bell and Cazares alone with the assistance of producer and long-time collaborator Rhys Fulber, who once again added the industrial elements Bell was looking to bring back. Cazares played all the bass parts as well as guitar, which he did previously on Soul of a New Machine. Finally, the group mechanised their sound further by embracing drum-machine technology completely, with some early input from Devolved’s John Sankey – another of Dino’s consistent colleagues.
"Drum software and drum programming has moved so far, beyond just a simple drum machine," Bell says. "It really made the process of writing easier, a lot more efficient, expedited the writing process so quickly. We were able to write with a drum program and not have to kill our drummer. And once it was done, we were like, ‘Oh man! We should have done this a long time ago!’"
It seems both ironic and fitting that a band that has always written about a struggle between the organic and the cybernetic would eventually dispense with a human drummer in the studio.
"On the past records, we've always had a drummer to record, but when does a drummer stop being a drummer? Because everything that person records goes into ProTools and it's fixed perfectly and the sound that was recorded isn't even used," Bell continues. "All the sound is sampled. It basically becomes the program. So we basically eliminated the drummer. And we thought, if we're gonna do that anyway, let's just use a drum program. So we did it."
On stage however, Fear Factory is still a four piece with a fully human rhythm section, now comprised of Matt DeVries and Mike Heller.
"It's tighter than ever and sounding really awesome now," the vocalist says of the new live band. "Matt DeVries is just a wicked bass player. He's really a guitar player, so he's able to play exactly what Dino's playing, and then Mike Heller is just right for Fear Factory. He's super precise."
Two years ago Fear Factory toured Australia with the Big Day Out for the third time and then went around with Metallica a few months later. It's been a very long time since the band has toured here under their own steam, however. Now attached directly to an Australian label in the shape of Riot!, Burton Bell is hoping that will change soon.
"Right now there hasn't been any promoters who've wanted to get Fear Factory out there and make it cost effective. I think that will change after this record's out. We're definitely trying to get out there this year. Both Dino and I are very proud of the work we've done and we're very excited for our fans to hear it."