Fear Factory are in a mess. Burton C. Bell left the band last year saying he cannot work with somebody he no longer trusts or respects. The ire of his damnation, Dino Cazares, purchased the Fear Factory trademark at considerable cost in a divisive lawsuit and then went on a crowd-funding drive to stave off bankruptcy. They recorded and completed the album in 2017, and Nuclear Blast had to convince Dino to keep Burton’s vocals on the record. We could fill this review with the shenanigans distracting from the music, but we’ll do something different. Instead of mourning the death of a great band, let’s celebrate this record as the last time we’ll hear a Fear Factory record with Burton roaring into the microphone. More Fear Factory albums will come out over the next decade, but the one that interests us is Aggression Continuum, the band’s tenth studio effort in front of us now.
When you think of Fear Factory, you think of Demanufacture and the Bell-Cazares partnership that saved metal from irrelevance as a fringe concern of the mainstream in 1995. Of course, Fear Factory have predecessors – the aggression of Napalm Death, the industrial beats of Godflesh, the cold thrash rhythms of Ministry, the groove of Helmet. But nobody took the syncopated riffs and double-kick drum triggers and combined them with hardcore roars and gothic choruses like a sci-fi version of Metallica merged with Frontline Assembly. Fast forward twenty-five years and everybody uses their double-bass drums and guitars in this fashion. Yet there’s still something unique about a crushing Fear Factory stomp. One listen to the first eight bars of ‘Recode’ transports you to the idiosyncratic world of man vs machine dystopia they’ve been creating since 1992’s Soul of a New Machine debut. The ominous dialogue at the beginning warns that “If you are listening to this, you are the resistance” before launching into a surprise symphonic blast of sinister string bows and seven-string guitar grooves. You’re still arching your eyebrows when the familiar muscular distillation of Burton C. Bell takes over and Mike Heller’s burrowing beats remove the earth from underneath your feet. It’s like everything they’ve done before, yet it still retains an urgency that’s impossible to resist.
Of course, the sci-fi metallers are famous for the strength of their opening album tracks, yet this time the most rewarding fruits lie in the songs that follow. ‘Disruptor’ is like Prong undergoing a remix by Al Jourgensen, full of jangly detuned rhythms and a wonderful switch between chest roars and head voice clarity in the chorus. The title track is just as powerful and as menacing as the Demanufacture days. Fear Factory always had the confidence to stick to verse-bridge-chorus structures without the worry of being predictable, and they manage to do it again here with a smorgasbord of stomping syncopated thrash riffs and keyboards that could be from the original Terminator soundtrack.
For reasons unknown, Fear Factory have waded into the debate on the legacy of nu metal as if they were one of the originals that saw their ideas watered down by lesser artists. Burton gave a recent interview about how Linkin Park were a lighter version of the band, and Dino talks about Korn ripping off his guitar work. How anyone, including the band themselves, can associate Fear Factory with nu metal is inconceivable when you consider the brutality of the music and the technicality of the drums. It’s true that ‘Collapse’ exercises a groove riff that plays to the mosh pit, but no one can doubt the heaviness of the composition. You won’t find a better execution of syncopated thrash than ‘Manufactured Hope’ or a more violent head-banger than the excellent ‘Fuel Injected Suicide Machine.’ Yet over the top of the sonic destruction are the colossal lungs of Burton C. Bell, always waiting to wipe the slate clean with a harmonious slither of light weighed down by the sinister reality of the bleak future ahead. You can identify with the pathos of his voice on ‘Monolith’ and will nearly choke when you hear the rarity of a Dino Cazares guitar solo towards the end. Wow!
Few bands have such a recognisable sound as Fear Factory, and few can imitate it with any success. They might sometimes stray into predictable territory in their transition from bridge to chorus and recycle the odd riff from previous albums, but there’s far too much to enjoy for these minor concerns to cloud your judgement. Aggression Continuum reminds us that Dino Cazares still has the ‘it’ factor and Burton C. Bell is one of the finest vocalists of the last three decades. We should be pleased that Dino wants to carry on after this album, but we might also sleep easier at night knowing that Bell gave us one last treat.
Release Date: 18/06/2021
Record Label: Nuclear Blast
Standout tracks: Disruptor, Collapse, Monolith
Suggested Further Listening: Prong – Cleansing (1994), Northmaan – Northmaan (2021), Meshuggah – Destroy Erase Improve (1995)