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Along with label mates Sepultura Los Angeles industrial (death) metal combo Fear Factory was a major selling outfit for a majority of their tenure with Roadrunner Records. “Digital Connectivity”, the band’s maiden foray into visual media, is an embarrassing spectacle of a strong concept lulled into irrelevance through weak execution and pointless direction. The content in itself is interesting, but bad decisions and cutting corners that were typical of the Roadrunner label of the late 1990s/early 2000s mar the presentation and overall execution. This could, no, should have been so much more than it ended up being. “Digital Connectivity” is hardly the vital Fear Factory document that the label would like to make you believe it is. It is everything but…

As with the Sepultura DVD, this one is also a pseudo-documentary detailing the band’s small beginnings as a different sounding death metal act and works its way up chronologically to their then-new record “Digimortal”. In comparison to the Sepultura DVD it is clear that some effort was put into the overall design, and presentation. Instead of being one unabridged movie the DVD offers the possibility to view each of the band’s four album segments separately. Additionally there’s a load of bonus material in order to properly pad out the contents, and call it a “fan package”. The same problem that marred the “Chaos DVD” resurfaces here, as once again the actual content is on the meager side. While the DVD doesn’t lie about rare concert footage of the band’s early days, it is limited to a handful of songs. There’s no actual full-blown concert recording to be had, and the entire thing plays out as a pseudo-documentary. The interviews segments are brief, and don’t offer up a whole lot of useful information to novice and diehard alike.

fear-factoryEach one of the four Roadrunner albums is represented by a unique logo sigil and it is accompanied by its corresponding promotional music video(s) and a swath of live footage, usually of incredibly varying quality in both image and sound. The chapters consist of a tiny “making-of” segment, the band talking about the songs/album in question, live footage and the promo video(s) for said album. Things are kept concise and never go into much detail, or length, so the pace is kept high. None of it is very interesting and since each album is only explored superficially (at best) the documentary on barely scratches the surface of each of its subjects. Fans wanting to learn something about the album will be left none the wiser on its historical context or its cultural significance. It’s not like we were expecting a “Classic Album” type dissection of the records here, but some kind of depth would have been appreciated. The DVD does neither, and unsurprisingly, it is exactly as shallow and vapid as you would expect.

None of the live footage/audio was doctored with in order to ensure its authenticity. While it captures the visceral concreteness and ferocity of the live experience a good portion of the details and nuances get lost in the untreated audio. The mixing is uneven in places, and downright problematic in a couple of instances. There are exceptions, such as the ‘Scapegoat’ live recording from Dynamo 1996, the MTV studios live rendition of ‘Self Bias Resistor’ and ‘Shock’ from the 1999 Japan tour. While the idea to include live footage of each album cycle is commendable, the absence of a full-blown, professionally filmed concert recording, rehearsal/pre-production footage or even actual behind-the-scenes studio material is a considerable loss contentwise. Had each chapter had its own behind-the-scenes/studio vignette, its corresponding music videos, and a vignette of the various band members, producers and/or label people talking about the significance of said release it would have added tremendous scope to what is now only shallowly hinted at. “Digital Connectivity” wants to be an in-depth examination of the band, along with selling itself as a “fan package”. In truth it is neither. It barely scratches the surface of its subject, and what the DVD covers is done selectively and without any standard towards covering each album/era of the band in any meaningful way

The entire early history of the band, including its trio of forgotten bassists (one of whom appears in the Dynamo 1996 footage) and the aborted “Concrete” sessions, is glossed over and brushed aside in an attempt to move faster to “Demanufacture”, the band’s breakout record for the Roadrunner Records label. Likewise, “Obsolete” takes a chunk of the running time, but the band’s then-recent “Digimortal” gets a more dedicated treatment compared to its arguably much stronger predecessor. Looking at it as a “fan package” the additional content includes a meager 8 audio tracks of previously unreleased b-sides and remixes. These tracks were later reproduced in full on the “Hatefiles” compilation two years down the line during the band’s original breakup. Other bonus content includes a complete Fear Factory discography, full motion menus and 3D logo animations along with a band biography written by Bell and 5 photo galleries covering each phase of Fear Factory’s stint with Roadrunner Records.

“Digital Connectivity” is a product of its time, and a label imprint in transition. What should have been an in-depth examination of one of the label’s top sellers is reduced to a home video collection. Each album of the Roadrunner Records era is represented, but none of it is ever detailed in any meaningful way. Each of the corresponding music videos are present per segment, but these were made largely obsolete in the advent of video services such as YouTube. In between these there are various, serious and tongue-in-cheek, interviews – but no new information can be gleaned from them because of their brevity. A lot of the interview segments appear improvised, or as an afterthought. Finally, There’s a swath of live footage of varying image and sound quality through out the band’s various treks across the globe, but none of it quite captures the intensity of a full-blown, professionally shot live recording. The DVD definitely has all the makings of a “fan package” on the surface level, but upon closer scrutiny the amount of actual content is on the thin side. In all there was a lot of unrealized potential with this foray into visual media, and whether label or band was to blame remains largely irrelevant. “Digital Connectivity”, like a lot of metal DVDs, fixates on style over substance, and that is a pity.

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By the time “Digimortal”, the fourth Fear Factory record and last in the classic constellation, hit the market the band was riding on a wave of increased popularity and visibility. They were a beacon of hope in a creatively bankrupt subgenre. What should have been the band’s ultimate statement eventually ended up being their swansong. In retrospect it seems as if the ‘Cars’ cover on “Obsolete” was a harbinger of things to come. Forced by its then-label Roadrunner Records to write more radio friendly material the band was sabotaged creatively at every turn. “Digimortal” is the last chapter in its ongoing man vs machine narrative, and the end of an era in any number of ways.

fear-factory-95013-bnuhThe album is a good deal heavier than “Obsolete” in terms of depth and range in the production work, but it continues the regression that defined that album as well making a few notable errors of judgment in itself. From a technical level it is the least guitar-centric and most vocal-hook oriented effort in the band’s early discography. There’s an increased presence of electronics, loops, beats and samples along with more attention in regards to prominent clean vocals, most of which are centered around choruses, or alternating verses. While the preceding Fear Factory works were hardly complex by any standard, “Digimortal” invests all of its energy in pop format song structures that it takes the wind out of what ordinarily would have been fairly powerful groove metal songs.

“Digimortal” retains the essence of the Fear Factory sound, but erodes it through lighter songwriting and capitalizing on the populist nu-metal/mallcore sound. A good number of the songs have the rhythm guitars in support of the pumping bass guitar and drum beats. While catchier overall it is not nearly as dynamic in terms of composition as the two albums that preceded it. As per the “Demanufacture” template, there are a number of (power) ballads. On here these are represented by the duo of ‘Invisible Wounds (Dark Bodies)’ and ‘(Memory Imprints) Never End’. The more typical Fear Factory cuts are relegated to the back of the album, with tracks like ‘Acres Of Skin’, ‘Byte Block’ and ‘Hurt Conveyor’. The exception to this rule is ‘Damaged’ which arrives early on in the tracklist, but is surrounded by poppier cuts that take away much of its impact and immediacy.

The riff construction and drums (in rhythms as much as its actual patterns) appear to be overly simplified to fit the verse-chorus song structures, and it is hard to shake the impression that these are mere skeletons of more engrossing, better songs. Each of the preceding records marked a regression from the last, and a further watering down of what once was a somewhat interesting and choppy death metal outfit. Where “Obsolete” had guest vocals by electro pioneer Gary Numan, here none other than Louis Freese (B-Real) from Cypress Hill provides a guest rap. B-Real appears on ‘Back the Fuck Up’, and on this cut even Bell does an illfated attempt at rapping. Which ends about as well for both as Ice-T’s lamentable appearance on the Six Feet Under album “True Carnage”. Their well-meant attempts to stay current with the tastes du jour end up horriby dating it in retrospect. None of it is ever truly terrible, but the guest appearance by B-Real doesn’t add anything meaningful to the song, or its corresponding album either.

This is the last in the original man vs machine triptych. Man and machine have become merged, unable to be separated without causing immense harm to each. The title is a portmanteau of ‘digital’ and ‘mortality’ in that man has created immortality through technology, but is no longer able to separate where man ends and machine begins. The lyrics in themselves are interesting enough, but the forced pop structures require fairly simple lyrics to fit the songwriting. Had the band been allowed to write what they wanted to write no doubt these songs would have been ten times more interesting than they are here. The album was pushed by two music videos, another properly budgeted effort for ‘Linchpin’, and a cost-effective live video for ‘Damaged’ were shot. The album was a commercial - and critical flop, and due to mounting interpersonal conflicts the band schismed shortly after the album’s global touring cycle was completed.

For the third time in a row the band opted to track the album at a different facility than the album before. “Digimortal” was recorded at Ocean Studio in Burbank, California with trusted producer Rhys Fulber. Further digital assembling and recording were completed at Armoury Studios in Vancouver, British Columbia. The band had originally planned to work with famed producer Bob Rock, but he declined. Toby Wright was subsequently approached, but he was committed to producing an Ozzy Osbourne record. Pre-production was completed at Studio Dee in Glendale, California with Malcolm Springer. Central to the writing sessions was the idea of simplification. While initially conceived as a non-conceptual effort it was later repurposed to fit the band’s ongoing man versus machine narrative. Bass – and rhythm guitars have an equal prominence in the production, although it undoubtly is Christian Olde Wolbers’ booming bass guitar that is the most interesting in the grand scheme of things. For all intents and purposes “Digimortal” is blessed with the glossiest production the band had ever experienced, before or since.

In the period of 1999-2002 Roadrunner Records was known to push its key outfits into more marketable territory. Along with notable victims Machine Head and Sepultura, Fear Factory also fell victim to this industry trend. It is something from which they never truly recovered as its output since then as been spotty at best. The band would later depart the label after the “Digimortal” debacle, and reconfigure itself. The result of this would be the release of the lukewarm but effective “Archetype” before experiencing a similar bout of executive meddling which effectively led to the band’s second breakup. Each of Roadrunner’s 90s key players underwent a similar trajectory, as a result of its meddling each outfit experienced its own identity crisis in trying to recapture the vibe that got them signed in the first place. The story of Fear Factory is one of many, but unlike a lot of its contemporaries they escaped their fate relatively unscathed.