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Album Review: FEAR FACTORY Aggression Continuum

8/10 Reviewer
Score

Say what you will about Dino Cazares, but the Fear Factory lynchpin has dealt with the highest of highs and lowest of lows since forming the Cyberdyne Systems house band back in 1990. He’s gone from germinating visionary and being on top of the world with regards to innovation, creativity, and relative popularity to experimental flops and actually being ousted from his own outfit for a spell during the mid-‘00s.

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There have been a handful of albums recognized as stone-cold classics, some middling mid-ground, and a couple of turd cutters. But love or hate the blithesome guitarist, props cannot be denied anyone who foists two fingers in the air to the men and machines trying to keep him down and never gives up.

The circumstances surrounding the creation and release of Aggression Continuum are dizzying and mind-numbing. The background story is a labyrinthine half-decade-plus that involves tales of bankruptcy, lawsuits, and countersuits, trademark auctions, backstabbing, double-crossing, textbook passive-aggressive behavior, attempted sabotage, and more.

The most significant result of this screenplay-worthy mess is the ‘silent departure’ of vocalist Burton C. Bell, arguably the most distinctive element of the Fear Factory sound. Essentially, Aggression Continuum has been sitting (mostly) finished since 2017 when Cazares, Bell, drummer Mike Heller, and bassist Tony Campos were all still able to amicably get together and make moves in a band-business relationship. With Bell gone – and his final insistence that the album was going to be called Monolith despite not informing anyone else it was going to be called Monolith – and all the crap that’s gone down since 2017, it’s not only surprising that the record has seen the light of day, but that it’s as good as it is. Cazares should also be commended for not furiously waving the white flag and dislocating his shoulder and developing tennis elbow in the process.

Aggression Continuum isn’t just a compact and commendable milking of the sound Fear Factory spearheaded. Well, it is in some spots, but in many more spots the album takes progressive steps to deliver some of the band’s most dramatic and flamboyant musical moments of its career. Opener “Recode” dives right in with a showy gale of extensive and melodic keyboard flourishes that cinematically counteracts a driving, galloping thrash metal pedal. Sharing space on the same page is “Cognitive Dissonance” which starts off with a hooky, prog-rock keyboard warble that allows Cazares to contrast ‘n’ blast with tendinitis-inducing alternate-picked riffing, Heller to dance on the snare and wrap things up with a tremendously catchy, vocal-and-alt-rock-led chorus. “Purity” briefly injects bits and pieces of ‘Rock on the Range’ rock, Gary Numan alt-wave, and action movie soundtracks into a mechanized death metal fray while “Monolith” features Fear Factory making use of a rare plodding mid-pace with an all-out guitar solo and a black-lit electro-rock chorus. No wonder Bell went the whole hog into wanting to name the album after this song.

If expected examples of the band taking more expansive steps beyond the dichotomous aggressive verse/melodic chorus, good cop/Robocop formula, the aforementioned are them. Where they nudge the limits towards more harmonious mellifluousness are in the chorus of “Fuel Injected Suicide Machine” which has underpinnings of pure pop music weaved into the martial jackbooted riffs and rhythms, not to mention the keyboard bursts reminiscent of Nitzer Ebb and Front Line Assembly (our guess is that this one of the tracks FLA’s Rhys Fulber played on). Additionally, the mid-song bridge riff/melody and transition into it is one of the most beautiful things you’ll hear in metal all year. Coming in a close second is album closer “End of Line” where the second-half digs in with a melodic transition and monolithic climb of all the instruments towards a futuristic and self-referencing nihilist spasm conclusion.

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Regardless of which side of the Cazeras/Bell feud you sympathize – and Dino’s own insistence that the vocals here are “demo” vocals that were touched up following Bell’s departure – there’s no denying the now ex-frontman is one of metal’s most unique voices. Here, that angelic/demonic split churns like a powerhouse, and the choruses he knocks out in just about every instance are musically sublime and top the infectiousness charts. See any of the songs mentioned above as evidence that his successor is going to have a big pair of boots to fill. He even goes so far as to save a song or two from collapsing into a morass of rote typicality – “Manufactured Hope” and the title track are both made more exciting by Burton’s vocal soaring, ocean-sized synth swells, and Heller’s percussive deviation from mechanized linearity. And if proof was ever needed at how effective Bell’s clean voice is at elevating a Fear Factory song then “Collapse” is the smoking gun. Here, his clean voice makes the briefest of appearances as a monotone moan that fails to keep from song trucking along as an uneventful and monochromatic nu-metal-ish blast.

Behind the scenes drama aside, Aggression Continuum is a testament to the power of perseverance. It sounds distinctively like Fear Factory, which some may confuse for more of the same old same old, but it breaks ground within the superstructure that the band created and has manipulated since its inception. The elemental ingredients of rapid-fire riffing, puzzle-piece rhythms, dystopian synth/sample textures and man vs. machine themes are all there working with clinical precision. Old heads may not be looking forward to the possibility of more than a third of the new album’s tracks being added to their live set alongside the usual favourites, but there are more than a few songs here destined for future classic status. To use an easy and well-worn parallel: those same old heads may not hold it in as high regard as Soul of a New Machine or Demanufacture, but while in the grand scheme of the FF discography, Aggression Continuum may not be Terminator or Judgement Day, but it sure as hell isn’t Genisys or Dark Fate.

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