For three decades, Fear Factory has been a name synonymous with innovation, breaking new ground and giving metal a shot in the arm when it needed it the most. Even from their beginnings and 1992 debut album Soul of A New Machine – for all intents and purposes is a death metal album but one where vocalist Burton C Bell pioneered the mix of growls and clean vocals – somewhat ubiquitous in the metal scene today. Soul Of A Machine was so much more though, death metal with danceable grooves in the music and the industrial tinge filtered through influences such as Napalm Death and Godflesh. It was the follow up album, 1995’s Demanufacture which to many is the band’s masterwork, a defining piece that put Fear Factory well and truly onto the map; an album honed to sonic perfection and pin-head precision, a more industrial sound, the song writing and vocal stylings, the mechanised guitar and drums, the atmosphere and humankind versus machine concept. Talk about bottling lightning. 1998s Obsolete was not far off being perfect either and Fear Factory seemed totally unstoppable.
The rub is that Fear Factory is also a name that is frustratingly synonymous with controversy and upheaval. The start to the new millennium was not kind, a disappointing album in Digimortal in 2001 that led to a break-up which then led to a reformation but without founding member and guitarist Dino Cazares. Two albums later and Cazares is back in and two of the three members that ousted him are gone. Since then, Fear Factory became something of a metal soap opera of legal wrangling and mud-slinging which has at times threatened to eclipse the legacy of their music. Despite the former member bad blood, since 2010 it did seem that Fear Factory had it together, there was a focus on the core of Cazares and Bell, more their old musical self but more progression entwining synths with their brand of industrial metal and producing solid albums in 2010’s Mechanize, 2012’s The Industralist and 2015’s Genexus.
There was great hope for the first Fear Factory album in six years, but it was not to be, with Aggression Continuum being a swansong – not for the band but for its now former vocalist, Burton C Bell who left at the end of 2020. With more online finger pointing and metal gossip sites stoking the fires, on the face of it, Aggression Continuum did not even have a fighting chance. Things are not always as they seem, though and to pre-judge this record based the circumstances surrounding it is a huge mistake. It is tough to argue that it is strange listening to a new album, one with forward motion but without a major component of its creation no longer being in the band – throughout the history of the Fear Factory, Burton C Bell has not only been its only voice but also its one consistent member. Accordingly, Aggression Continuum does present something of a quandary.
The truth it that while it is a tough call but once the listener is beyond the latest drama of the album’s creation and the loss of Bell as vocalist, Aggression Continuum is not just a good Fear Factory album, it is a fucking great one. In one sense there are no major surprises, Fear Factory does what it does but over the last decade has become more progressive with extra layers of synth which fleshes and rounds out their sound. Cazares is a wizard on guitar and his riffs are always worthy of note, incisive and precise but on Aggression Continuum, they are huge, that burst of buzzsaw at the forefront and driving but at times such as on opener Recode, on the chorus they take a back seat to keys. One of the elements that Fear Factory has excelled at and that is within their explosion of sound, what to put where and the details that are added; there might seem a lot of gloss or effects but this has always been for the purpose of melting together and the futuristic aspects of the lyrics. Disruptor is like an overloaded battery in the guitar department, it slams until the chorus and again becomes more subtle until the freight train needs to pick up the pace on the next verse before the mid point and the sonic guitar Tetris on the bridge. Fear Factory could be considered “tweakers” as opposed to reinventing their sound, they make it better and it is the songs themselves that determine the album with each tune heralding its own level of detail. The title track has a superb staccato riff that ramps up and does not even let go on the chorus, it feels relentless but there is enough space to breathe as Bell adds to the staccato on the vocals. Fuel Injected Suicide Machine is an absolute barn stormer, a real head spinner, the almost thrash guitar hammer down on the verses with a gorgeous chorus and keys driven by Bell’s clean vocals. Collapse is more slow grind, a Godzilla-like stomp that levels everything in its path. Ironically, Bell is in fine voice, although according to Cazares, the vocals are actually “demo” vocals that were touched up later. Either way, Bell has earned his legendary status well before Aggression Continuum and touched up or not, the juxtaposition of his vocal stylings has neve sounded better, more urgent or on point. On the whole, while Genexus was a good album, in comparison to Aggression Continuum, it felt samey in parts but this album is totally focused in providing a full on Fear Factory experience with some real ebb and flow to the songs and their construct.
An end of an era then for Fear Factory but at least this incarnation that goes out on an album that snatches victory from what could have been the jaws of defeat. While it is a shame that Bell has gone and no doubt there will be the fan taking of sides which will still cloud the release, it is a chance for Cazares to start again, a new phase for the band and it will be interesting as to what comes from the camp in the future. For now, enjoy one hell of a ride and what is one of the best Fear Factory albums in recent times. To that end….the soul of the machine lives on.