Fear Factory – Aggression Continuum
Released: June 18, 2021
Burton C Bell I vocals
Dino Cazares I guitarist
Tony Campos I bass
Mike Heller I drums
I first heard Fear Factory in the late 90s, thanks to their video for ‘Replica’, a song that used what I would come to know as staccato (drums playing along to the guitar riff) with such devastating impact that it was a shock to the system. I smashed and devoured both Demanufacture and Obsolete, finally seeing them live at The Palace (RIP) in St Kilda in early 1999. It seemed almost impossible that they could craft a sound that was both industrial and organic, that combined sci-fi synths and drum triggers with some serious picking on guitar and bass. And of course there was Burton C Bell’s voice – the originator of the growl/sung dynamic that would become popular with the rise of Slipknot and Killswitch Engage almost a decade later. Here was a band that had a raft of influences – metal, grunge, hard rock and sci-fi films – but had created something that didn’t sound like any of them. Australia was hooked too, they made national news when fans trashed a Sydney venue after the band cancelled during a mid-90s tour. Obsolete actually went gold here before anywhere else, and they have consistently toured – both headlining, supporting bands like Metallica and Korn, and playing festivals like the Big Day Out and Soundwave. Even between founder Dino Cazares leaving and returning, and the rotation of bassists and drummers, the band have released ten albums in almost thirty years, codifying an industrial death metal sound that remains the standard bearer for the subgenre.
The reason I begin a review of a new album with such a lengthy prologue is that a band with Fear Factory’s history and influence carries a certain weight when reviewing new material. This album is particularly significant as it was initially recorded in 2018, only to sit aside while the band of Dino and Burton dealt with a multitude of legal and financial issues. After significant drama that included Dino buying Burton’s rights to the name, Burton quitting and Dino finishing the album with Mike Heller recording live drums, we finally have Aggression Continuum to add to the FF discography. It is an album that is faithful to that sonic legacy without being a slave to a template. At times though, it is overly familiar (especially compared to 2015’s Genexus) and will have some fans pondering where the band might go next.
The album features the hallmarks of nearly all Fear Factory albums: there is sample dialogue to explore the dystopian narrative the band (and fans) love. Opener ‘Recode’ invites listeners to join the resistance with the familiar Cazares guitar style over Heller’s precise drums. The synths add to the soundtrack feel, with some particularly orchestral sounding work, before Bell’s gets on the attack. The second verse adds an anvil hit (another FF staple) that just adds to the intensity. Bell sings of denying dreams, he’s the antagonist on this one, taunting the audience to “break away.” First single ‘Disruptor’ shares a lot in common with Genexus’ equivalent track ‘Soul Hacker’, with an acapella shout to kick start a driving rhythm from Dino and Mike. Again it is a powerful anthem of resistance, with hopeful inspiring lyrics to “follow your own way”. Live audiences will get a kick out of shouting “I am the disruptor!” Heller’s kick drums get an absolute blasting on the bridge too.
The title track also starts with some spoken word, and military soundtrack synth, before the head banging begins again. The riff this time is much more ragged with Heller thumping it out on kick drums. The chorus is a great melody and ups the tempo as it goes, and Bell really does sound fantastic. It is a great song, but one that Fear Factory have written a lot over the last 30 years. ‘Manufactured Hope’ is similar. Cool song but hardly bringing much new to the cannon. ‘Purity’ sees Heller keep a more reasonable sense of time and is an overall more melodic song. It isn’t quite a ballad but slows down to mid pace and allows Burton to bark rather than roar on the verses. The chorus is pretty standard though. And then the breakdown hits and shiiiiit, this is going to get some serious pit love. Carazes remains the linchpin between all the layers, his guitar playing at the center of all the layers, keeping it heavy.
‘Fuel Injected Suicide Machine’ marries the band’s love of overly complicated song titles with a ruthless aggression that is just magnificent. Lyrically they are looking to inspire, “not afraid of destiny” and “will never stop resisting”, and it’s another real industrial banger on the level with Demanufacture’s major ragers. The synths really add a layer to the atmosphere, especially when the guitars and drums cut out and leave just the piano and keys to close out the song. Shivers up your robot spine for sure. ‘Collapse’ recalls the opening track’s voice over and anvil strikes but is a slower groove with robotic stomping asking you to “bow down to your killer”. Both songs are a good change of pace after things started to sound similar to each other across the first half of the album.
‘Cognitive Dissonance’ continues the fury, kicking off with some EDM synths and loops, then thrashing hard. Bell laments the “cultural demise” with a fierce bark, getting really gravelly on the bridge too. Heller in particular is on fire with hands and feet doing all sorts of crazy stuff while maintaining the song’s rhythm. ‘Monolith’ is a welcome change of pace, more in the vein of 2001’s Digimortal. It is far more melodic than most tracks on the album, with a more traditional rock song structure. Bell uses clean vocals on the verses, aligning the melody to the riff and drums. And then it happens – a guitar solo! Rarely sighted amongst the rhythmic onslaught of the Fear Factory canon – Dino gets busy with a burst of frenzied tapping. Kind of surprising the song wasn’t earlier in the track listing, as it is distinctive amongst the heavier tunes. Thinking about canon, the last track must surely be a ballad right? FF have a strong tradition of closing their albums with an epic, slower track (‘A Therapy for Pain’, ‘Timelessness’, ‘Memory Imprints’, ‘Expiration Date’, etc.). Not this time, and I have to say, it is a welcome change. ‘End of Line’ is a metal track that uses the full vocal range of Bell and plenty of riffs to end the album on a big note. Like the solo on ‘Monolith’, it is a step outside of what the band would usually do, and gives Aggression Continuum a different edge compared to previous releases. It does break down into synths and spoken word, ending the album with a deep voice stating that “when the fear is gone, only I remain”, hinting that the danger is not over and the resistance will continue.
It must become hard at some point. This album is pretty standard for the band, and certainly doesn’t embarrass them. But if you’ve heard Genexus, you know what Aggression Continuum is offering. Luckily both albums are great and will please longtime fans.There are some familiar aspects from the FF archetype, but some nice deviations too. They are hardly obsolete as the themes they focus on remain culturally and socially relevant throughout the world. The resistance is alive and well! Indeed, many a younger band could learn from their commitment to crafting and honing a core sound, backed by their artwork visuals and narrative accompaniment. However, the opportunity to hire a new vocalist might be the disruptor the band needs, a chance to reboot the machine with a new soul.
Fear Factory – Aggression Continuum tracklisting:
3. Aggression Continuum
5. Fuel Injected Suicide Machine
7. Manufactured Hope
8. Cognitive Dissonance
10. End Of Line