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“Mechanize”, the first effort of the band’s second reformation, is a mixed bag. It stands to reason that it was the most aggressive, and heaviest record since the band’s 1992 debut. It is the first since 2001’s “Digimortal” to feature both Burton C. Bell and Dino Cazares, who reconciliated their differences and rekindled their alliance in the aftermath of the “Transgression” debacle, on the same record. Complemented by a new rhythm section that was only to last for a single outing “Mechanize” offers more of the same, arguably in a more brutal fashion, but not necessarily better at that. That the band was passed its prime was more than clear on the two Cazares-less albums - of which only the first was worth hearing - that preceded it. No amount of gloss can hide full-on creative decay.

Fear Factory returned to its more aggressive “Soul Of A New Machine” sound, but within the stylistic formula established by “Demanufacture”. On the whole it was a decent approximation of the “Demanufacture” sound, but it failed to recapture the same spirit and conviction that album held. “Mechanize” sounds like an imitation rather than a continuation. The bass-heaviness has notably increased, and Stroud’s murky bass guitar tone remains intact from the one introduced on “Archetype” a couple of years before. The same ailment that defined “Archetype” is present on this record. “Mechanize” does its best in reminding the listener that it is a Fear Factory record in lieu of actually being one. This isn’t surprising in the slightest as both this record, and its aforesaid predecessor, was borne out of a situation of conflict against an opposing faction.

fear-factory4518156The lyrics are in fact more in line of “Soul Of A New Machine” in the sense that they more personal, venomous and direct. As implied by the album title the lyrics abstractly deal with the subject of man becoming part of the authoritarian, corporate, government and military machine, becoming structurally mechanized and ensnared in various aspects of society. The allusions to and usage of sciencefiction imagery remain present, but the lyrics are far more direct and confrontational than they have been in a long time. Despite the confrontational nature of most of the lyrics, they are surprisingly low on expletives. Subject of several songs is the acrimonious split with former members of the classic rhythm section Christian Olde Wolbers and Raymond Herrera (‘Powershifter’, ‘Designing the Enemy’). It goes without saying that this is hypocritical from Bell’s part as he spent a good amount of time spitting venom at his current partner on “Archetype”. Other subjects of the record include condemnations of organized religion (‘Christploitation’), mass media fear mongering (‘Fear Campaign’), the 9/11 terrorist attack (‘Controlled Demolition’) and euthanasia (‘Final Exit’).

In an attempt to retain as much control over the product as possible Cazares and Bell made sure that everything - from writing, production and eventual release - were kept strictly “in-house”. As a result of having next to no input from external voices much of “Mechanize” ends up sounding like a somewhat thicker sounding Divine Heresy record without any of the overt metalcore stylings of that band, and with a slightly superior vocal style. Burton C. Bell’s vocals show their deterioration as years of heavy touring and aging have taken their toll in his vocal chords. Especially his cleans - which were never particular good to begin with - now resemble a bad Paul Hewson (Bono from long-running Irish rock/pop band U2) impression.

BCBell_small“Mechanize” isn’t one of Bell’s better performances. His shouts remain serviceable, but his clean singing is as appallingly awful as it has ever been. The contrived harsh-clean dichotomy doesn’t help matters in the slightest. Dino Cazares’ performance fares better as his riff set has improved ever so slightly, and now he even does a fiery solo in the video track ‘Fear Campaign’. The album is opened with factory sounds of metal being crushed, and instead of exploring the template that “Demanufacture” set years before the duo is content to just reproduce it, in sound as much as in pacing and overall structure. As much as the record is often sold as a return-to-form it is in actuality a mere reminder that the reviled Cazares-Bell axis at least remembers what got their band signed in the first place so many years ago.

As much as “Mechanize” considers itself a modern day throwback to the brighter “Demanufacture” days, several key aspects seem to be missing. Instead of working with Dave McKean (as on the classic albums) Fear Factory commissioned artwork by American artist Anthony Clarkson. The bass guitar, once so formidable in the band’s prime era material, is docile and unremarkable. The band is also far way from the days of “Obsolete” where imagery, lyrics and music worked in unison to sell its conceptual techno-apocalypse narrative. Conception 5, Bell’s short story that formed the basis for the record, was hardly revolutionary in that regard – but it was still leagues better than the very broad socio-political – and interpersonal subjects the band chooses to tackle on this platter. It’s quite hypocritical in fact to hear Bell spitting venom at former members Christian Olde Wolbers and Raymond Herrera, just a few short years after lashing out at current co-conspirator Cazares, with whom he is now aligned. No amount of vitriol can mask the fact that the band now has to lower itself to personal attacks against former members as a basis for song material. The factory has been long since abandoned.

The new rhythm section consisting of Byron Stroud (bass guitar) and Gene Hoglan (drums) makes a serviceable debut, but is criminally underused otherwise. Hoglan’s involvement with the band was merely at the request of his long-time friend Byron Stroud. Hoglan is credited with co-writing half of the songs of the record. ‘Designing the Enemy’ is special in the sense that is has its electronic drums programmed by Devolved skinsman John Sankey. Sankey’s involvement as a studio musician with the project effectively foreshadows the follow-up to this record, as the band would remove any other band members in favor of its central duo. “Mechanize” was recorded at Surplus Studio in Van Nuys, California with Rhys Fulber producing, alongside Dino Cazares and Burton C. Bell. It is the first of two Fear Factory releases on Candlelight Records through a licensing deal with Cazares’ and Bell’s Oxidizer, Inc. publishing company. A promotional music video shot for ‘Fear Campaign’ and a live video for ‘Powershifter’. Additionally, a third single was released with atmospheric album closer ‘Final Exit’.

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That the same critiques that were leveled at “Archetype” can be applied to “Mechanize” is not surprising in the slightest. Both records were conceived under virtually similar circumstances, but by opposing factions. What is surprising is that Burton C. Bell partook in each incarnation, and changed alliance to whichever faction seemed to have the strategic upperhand. Another thing that the record amply demonstrates is that both factions in fact need each other in order to write its most coherent and poignant material. “Mechanize”, much like “Archetype” before it, is merely functional from a technical standpoint, but hardly the pined for return-to-form. Ever since its second reformation Fear Factory has been missing its crucial part: its soul. Even though the production values have increased to the point of artificiality, and the pace has been upped considerably – what remains is a hollow husk of a band, as banal and pedestrian as it was, that was once on the brink of making a dent in the mainstream metal scene.

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After an interpersonal meltdown led Fear Factory to fracture in two opposing factions, each carried on in their respective projects. Olde Wolbers, and Herrera regrouped with Bell enrolling Canadian bass guitarist Byron Stroud to continue under the Fear Factory brand name. Dino Cazares meanwhile put together Divine Heresy, a melodic metalcore band with death metal alumni Tim Yeung (Decrepit Birth, Hate Eternal, Aurora Borealis) on drums and journeyman bass guitarist Joe Payne plus an interchangeable frontman. In the interim Fear Factory had inked a new record deal with Liquid 8 Records, which proved to be just as damaging and toxic as the original recording contract and label imprint they finally sought to get away from. “Archetype” was the first of two Cazares-less Fear Factory albums, and it is as good as could be reasonably expected given the difficult and suboptimal situation from which it was conceived.

Fear Factory_02_großChristian Olde Wolbers moved to the guitar slot vacated by the removal of Dino Cazares. Byron Stroud took Olde Wolbers’ place as bass guitarist. On the whole it is a decent approximation of the “Demanufacture” sound, but fails to recapture the same spirit and conviction that album held. “Archetype” sounds like an imitation rather than a continuation. Freed from the constraints of its heavy-handed sciencefiction concept “Archetype” is far more direct, personal and confrontational in its subject matter. The spirit of “Soul Of A New Machine” looms over “Archetype” in the sense that it is far more loose than its carefully constructed predecessors, but that freedom comes at a price. The record notably loses steam in its second half, and most of its functionally impressive first half can’t hold a candle to the band’s best material of the Roadrunner Records days. That it was the one but last to feature the most identifiable rhythm section of Christian Olde Wolbers (guitars) and Raymond Herrera (drums) speaks volumes of how far the band had fallen to the wayside in order to remain marketable and musically relevant.

Most of the lyrics are less sciencefiction oriented and far more personal. Specifically, the band’s soured relationship with its former contractor Roadrunner Records is subject of several songs (‘Slave Labor’, ‘Corporate Cloning’, ‘Bite the Hand That Bleeds’), as is the fall-out from the highly publicized and acrimonious split with Dino Cazares (‘Cyber Waste’, ‘Archetype’). Other recurring themes are condemnations of religion, war and corporatism. It doesn’t help that “Archetype” is plagued by an inherent sense of duality. On the one hand it wants to stay in favor with the crowds that latched onto it post-“Soul Of A New Machine” yet its increased density and overall level of aggression at least suggests that the band intends to explore harsher realms again. The lack of a unifying vision allows Bell and company to explore any subject they wish, but it is detrimental to the overall pacing. Past Fear Factory records worked around a conceptual template, and each of the cuts was written with a predetermined objective in mind. “Archetype” has no such template, and this is particularly notable in its second half as it is littered with a number of aimless groove numbers that effectively dampen the experience.

Olde Wolbers does a commendable job in imitating Cazares’ rhythm-only staccato, and Herrera does the best with what he is given. The entire second half of the album, and some of the gentler moments expose an important difference. Instead of being rooted in forms of extreme metal, they instead sound like amped up alternative rock chords. When the band then chooses to cover the Nirvana track ‘School’ (from its often-ignored “Bleach” debut record) it is rather telling as to where Olde Wolbers’ true interests lie next to his established love for all things hiphop. Especially the soft bookends of the title track, ‘Default Judgment’ or the entirety of the power ballad ‘Bite the Hand That Bleeds’ should make this abundantly clear. Herrera’s drum patterns are mechanical as they always were, but they are far less complicated compared to past works and consist of straight up pop/rock beats elsewhere on the album. The keyboards and studio effects by John Bechdel fit the songs well, but don’t come close to matching Fulber’s best work. The artwork by Torsten Gebhardt fits the spirit of the record, but it hardly matches up to the high standards set by Dave McKean in the band’s classic trio of conceptual records.

As per tradition the band opted to track the album at a different facility than before. For “Archetype” Fear Factory recorded at Rumbo Recorders in Lagona Park, California with Ken Marshall producing. After the pristinely produced Cazares efforts “Archetype” sounds, for the lack of a better term, honest and crunchy. Past records tended to be on the overproduced end of the spectrum, and if there’s one thing to say about “Archetype” it is that it’s honest about its intentions. Gone is the overproduction, gone is the gloss – the record sounds closer to an actual thrash/groove metal record than the band had sounded in a long time. By abandoning its sciencefiction narrative (at least temporarily) it lit a fire under the remaining trio of Bell, Olde Wolbers and Herrera to prove that they were still relevant to the genre, and its fractured fanbase after the Cazares debacle. In order to give the album the proper market push promotional music videos were shot for ‘Cyber Waste’, ‘Archetype’ and ‘Bite the Hand That Bleeds’. Alas its new label partner Liquid 8 Records would sabotage the band’s reformation just a year later. That the label folded shortly after its cooperation with the band ceased seems only just in hindsight.

“Archetype” doesn’t so much revitalize the band’s sound as it cements that the trio can hold its own even with its central songwriting partner exiled. After the cinematic exercise that was “Obsolete” and the poppy vapidness of “Digimortal”, “Archetype” was a much needed reality check that had the band going back to basics. Competently written and produced, “Archetype” formed a workable template for the reconfigured unit. The goodwill generated by this record would be shortlived as its successor would tarnish the band’s somewhat repaired reputation, which eventually led to the band’s second split. It isn’t the best effort from the band by a long shot, but given the difficult circumstances from which it was conceived at least makes it a reliable, if lukewarm affair. In many ways it is the first non-canonical Fear Factory release, despite rekindling the band’s sense of purpose and direction. The very matter-of-fact presentation, and loose thematic of the band’s sudden self-awareness of having spawned a subgenre make it a confused but halfway efficient effort that scrapes by on more than just its disarming honesty.