Fear Factory - Soul of a New Machine (1992)Release ID: 1639
Fear Factory were one of the first new bands I got into when I returned to metal fandom in the late 90s, playing the hell out of Demanufacture and Obsolete, then a bit later, Digimortal, yet for some reason I never got round to the band's debut. Coming to it so late and with the benefit of a huge chunk of hindsight, it is plain to hear that Soul of A New Machine is the product of a band that is in transition from an established genre to a brave new world as they explore interesting new directions for their sound. With this in mind, I would have to agree with those who say that Soul of A New Machine is more important historically than it is enjoyable, with the lack of any truly memorable tracks being the main case for the prosecution. That isn't to say that this is a bad record, because it isn't, but it does have the feel of a transitional piece with the band casting around for a solid indentity. I do hear what Daniel is saying about the groove metal element because one comparison that sprang to mind for me, particularly during the early tracks, was Sepultura's Chaos A.D. which was released a year later, although I would agree that it is only a secondary tag at best. Of course one of the main features of the album and the one for which Fear Factory would become synonomous is the industrial sound of the chugging riffs and the hard-hitting and machine-like drumming of Raymond Herrera. This is a sound that would be incredibly influential, for better or worse, on a new generation of bands like Marilyn Manson, Slipknot and Rammstein. There are still some tracks that are more rooted in death metal or even grind, but these seem to be some sort of vestigial anachronisms left over from the earliest incarnation of the band, like some kind of musical appendix.
One aspect of Fear Factory's earlier output which cannot be overstated is the importance of Burton C. Bell's dual harsh / clean vocals. Bell is an accomplished death metal growler, but his clean vocals are so well-suited to the material with a soaring, disembodied feel that seems to contain the soul of the narrator when confronted by the solid, dehumanising reality of the more tactile industrial atmospheres and the effectiveness of this contrast between human and machine perspectives is what sets FF apart from other industrial metal proponents. There are a few samples scatttered throughout and I suppose if you are going to use movie samples then you can't really go wrong with Blade Runner and Full Metal Jacket can you?
Decent enough though this debut is, for me it will always be merely the stepping stone to the classic that is Demanufacture, but it is still interesting enough in it's own right as it does illustrate exceedingly well how a seminal band transitions from a trend follower to a trend setter. They would seriously up the ante songwriting-wise on subsequent releases and lack of memorability would no longer be an issue for them, as they sorted out where they wanted their sound to go and then were able to concentrate on songwriting as they were no longer exploring what works and what doesn't. Interesting rather than indispensible.
By 1992 I found myself firmly entrenched in an underground metal landscape that was continually pushing the threshold of what extreme metal could be. The death metal scene had taken off in a major way & would shortly reach its peak while the second wave of black metal was about to take the world by storm with less abrasive styles like thrash retreating back into the underground to take cover. This had a lot to do with global grunge boom as heavy music fans & musicians were heading out into more aggressive territories to look for alternatives to the continual stream of melancholy & flannelette shirts they were being presented by the media. In many ways it was the perfect time for a band like Los Angeles four-piece Fear Factory to make a statement that would see the opposite factions being unified on some level with their debut album “Soul of a New Machine” possessing a crossover potential that few realized the death metal scene could achieve at the time.
My initial experiences with Fear Factory were through the late-night Sydney metal radio programs that I’d religiously tune into. “Scapegoat” & “Martyr” had very quickly become essential weekly inclusions & had grabbed my attention due to their fresh new sound that didn’t exactly fit into my usual taste profile but left me somewhat intrigued to find out what else they had to offer. I didn't hesitate in picking up the “Soul of a New Machine” CD from the local record store & quickly went about acclimatizing myself with it with an enthusiasm that only a 16 year-old can muster. What I found was that there were more strings to Fear Factory’s bow than I’d first realized. The more popular & accessible tracks I was already familiar with were offset by a much more extreme sound that bore its roots in the underground tape trading scene & this drew me in further than I'd initially anticpiated. I think it’s fair to say that “Soul of a New Machine” was never going to feature in any of my best-of lists but I definitely found myself enjoying it purely as a point of variety.
As I mentioned, the early Fear Factory sound contains several major components. To start with you have the industrial metal base which combines the dissonant, almost factory-like sounds of Godflesh with the brand new mechanical, machine-gun style staccato riffs that Fear Factory would make their calling card across their entire career. It’s hard to imagine where bands like Strapping Young Lad or Meshuggah would be without this element to tell you the truth. The second component is the strong use of groove-based riffs which was likely borrowed from bands like Pantera & Prong but sounds closest to fellow Californians Machine Head who undoubtedly drew influence from Fear Factory. And finally we have the inclusion of genuine extreme metal components with the tremolo-picked death metal riffs of Bolt Thrower & the blasting deathgrind chaos of Napalm Death being the most obvious influences. When you combine these elements with a vocal performance that takes a number of interesting directions you get a very original & highly engaging sound that possibly drew me in a touch more than “Soul of a New Machine” deserved in all honesty.
Front man Burton C. Bell’s performance is multi-faceted. Unlike later Fear Factory releases, his standard delivery is a gruff death metal grunt but he regularly swaps between a more accessible version & a deeper & more guttural interpretation that sounds very similar to Napalm Death icon Mark "Barney" Greenway. The really interesting part comes when Burton opts for a clean singing style during many of the more captivating choruses though. He manages to create a dreamy & transcendent atmosphere that made Fear Factory quite unique at the time & would see them further expanding on the concept with future releases. Despite my obvious tendency towards the more deathly side of Fear Factory’s sound, I actually find many of these clean-sung parts to be the highlights of some of the tracks & it’s not hard to see why that component of the band’s sound would go on to become so influential on the global metal scene as it opened the band up to a more mainstream audience than had ever been afforded to a death metal(-ish) band before. Guitarist Dino Cazares & drummer Raymond Herrara work in complete unison with their predominantly rhythmic attack being just as influential as Burton’s vocal contribution. I’m not sure we’d heard a metal band using guitar purely for rhythmic, percussive purposes to this extent before (not even Pantera) & when combined with Herrara’s super-precise kick-drum work it makes for a compelling musical statement that will likely see your body succumbing to the infectious grooves on offer.
But, even though Fear Factory had undoubtedly touched on a new & interesting sound that would have a significant impact on the global metal scene, I will always regard their debut as a bit player in my early 90’s story. You see, despite recognizing all of the new & interesting ways that the band had changed metal forever (just take a look at the nu metal boom & tell me that had nothing to do with Fear Factory), I can’t help but find myself left a little short-changed when reaching the end of what is a very ambitious seventeen song tracklisting. Literally none of the tracks reach classic status for me personally & I think that has a lot to do with my not being the biggest fans of groove metal to be honest as most tracks contain some pretty simple, chuggy riffs that will never breach my upper scoring echelon. There are no weak numbers included as the album is generally fairly consistent but the tracklisting does tend to fade at the end with a string of less significant grind-influenced tracks closing the album out. I can’t help but feel that some of this stuff could have been culled in the interest of quality & it might have seen my rating being bumped up a touch as I really wasn’t all that far away from going a little higher.
Still, it’s hard to be too critical of a record like “Soul of a New Machine” given its importance & impact. It was perhaps more of a scene-setter for Fear Factory’s coming piece-da-resistance in 1995 sophomore album “Demanufacture” which would see the band achieving a far more complete creative vision but it’s a worthwhile record to explore nonetheless. In truth, I strongly suspected that my score would end up where it has as the album has never been one that I've found myself wanting to return to as regularly as many others from a particularly strong year in metal. In fact, I doubt it’d even make my top 20 from 1992 in all honesty but that’s more of a reflection of just how much I was in my musical element than it is a representation of the merits of this ground-breaking release.
In the somewhat distant past of the year 1992, metal genres were kind of at war. Before that year, thrash/speed metal were on the rise, and then came death metal/grindcore, and finally, industrial/alternative metal. Those 3 genre categories were competing for the reign, and the first one lost its fame, the second one became underground, and the third one became mainstream. One band was up to mixing the extreme underground with one of the metal genres hitting commercial success those days...
Back in those times, most metal bands seemed to focus on making compositions based on a particular riff, rather than full-fledged arrangement. Released in the same year as the debut of another band that started off as death metal (Amorphis), Fear Factory's debut Soul of a New Machine built their sound from a technological concept. The tone and arrangement are as important as the composition in the songs, and that then-rare aspect is what made this band unique in their debut, showing that there's a little more to metal than just guitars and vocals in front and bass and drums in back. Industrial ambience, spoken samples, and more bass prominence make their entrance!
The opening track "Martyr" already shows the band's audacity of beginning with a verse of brutal guitar and growls and then switching to a clean bridge midway through. Well played! Personal relationships cover the lyrics for that song and "Leechmaster", the latter being heavier and deathlier. The criminal justice system has its flaws pointed out in "Scapegoat". Then "Crisis" adds clean singing over heavy chords. "Crash Test" is about lab animal tests, so I'm guessing the "crash" is from the death metal crashing.
"Flesh Hold" continues the band's rage against the justice system. Then they tackle hypocrisy in religion in "Lifeblind", combining the death metal of Hypocrisy at that time with industrial. "Scumgrief" marks the return to the full form of the balance between clean hooks and deathly heaviness. The percussion intermission "Natividad" was written in memory of the late mother of guitarist Dino Cazares. Then "Big God/Raped Souls" continues the band's attack on religion's downsides. The more political "Arise Above Oppression" has more of the album's destructive side.
"Self Immolation" emphasizes on industrial metal's signature aspects of mechanical rhythm and audio samples, showing the genre's effective development progress. "Suffer Age" starts with tight guitar before the bass and drums join along with background cleans. The riffing continues to expand alongside the drums. Then finally, EXPLOSIVE DEATH METAL CHAOS!!!! The dominant drums and vocals work with the guitars to tear this f***ing place apart! They stay steady despite the samples and tempo changes. Then there's a clean bridge before more of the deathliness. It ends a bit abruptly, but still worth some fun in a mosh pit. There's melodic treasure to be found in the deathly sea midway through "W.O.E." Then "Desecrate" switches to something different, but the usual death metal rampage. The most severe growls from vocalist Burton C. Bell come in "Escape Confusion", right from the most deathly beginning. "Manipulation" unleashes the last of the deathly destruction for this album.
So this band's journey all started with the idea of combining the industrial metal of Godflesh and the deathgrind of Napalm Death into their own unique mix with mechanical riffing with some bits of melodic alt-metal and groove metal. It's a pretty great fresh idea that was never tried before and has proven highly influential. Of course, the issue here is the big amount of tracks (17) that many people can't remember all of. However, it's so cryptic and unique that your mind won't turn away from such creativity and aggression that was uncommon outside the underground in the early 90s. Not too over-the-top while not too accessible, this band sure knows how to conceive and present such a game-changer. Once rare but now more common is unique genius....
Favorites: "Martyr", "Leechmaster", "Crisis", "Scumgrief", "Self Immolation", "Suffer Age", "W.O.E.", "Escape Confusion"