- Story by Nick Terry
After getting their groove back with last year’s surprising Archetype, Fear Factory quickly return with Transgression, the most ambitious album of their career.
When Fear Factory split in 2002, it seemed the band would soon be just a fond memory. Not only had founding member, guitarist and songwriter Dino Cazares quit, but the rest of the band were rumored to be exhausted by the grind of over a decade of touring and recording. After four albums (not counting remix discs, a comp and an unreleased debut), the Los Angeles cybermetallers had given fame and fortune their best shot, and it seemingly hadn’t worked out.
So the news in late 2003 that Fear Factory had re-formed and would release a new record was greeted with some skepticism. More fool they, because 2004’s Archetype proved, in many respects, to be their freshest-sounding release since 1995’s Decibel Hall of Fame-worthy Demanufacture. With long-time bassist Christian Olde Wolbers switching to guitar (his primary instrument) and Strapping Young Lad member Byron Stroud drafted in on bass, Fear Factory proffered an unequivocal two fingers to those who thought them a lame duck without Dino. It just goes to show that some people don’t actually listen to the music before opining, as the beauty of Fear Factory’s guitar sound was always its three-chord, no-solos simplicity. The band went on to tour with Slipknot, Lamb of God and Mastodon, selling a surprising 130,000 copies of Archetype.
That Fear Factory are on a roll couldn’t have been made clearer by the news a few months back that they were headed back into the studio to record a follow-up. You could tell they weren’t making it up—it even had a title, Transgression. You could almost hear a surprised “already?” echoing round the Internet. Surely, they never work that fast.
“It’s a year and five months,” says singer Burton C. Bell when called on the fast turnaround. “It’s a record for Fear Factory in time as well. Every Fear Factory record has always been three years apart, even with the change that was going on with the band a few years ago, we even came out with a new record three years after all of that. We had a lot to prove on the last record—member change, all the things that went on—the name spoke volumes because the record was archetypally what Fear Factory’s always done. It’s a rather safe record. Partially intentionally done to show our fans that we are still Fear Factory even with the lineup change and let them know that we are still the same band. Fear Factory is not just one person. It’s a machine with many intricate cogs and parts—conceptually, musically, sonically, arrangements, production, every mind comes together and adds a certain part, and it’s still that way.”
So why has Transgression been released so quickly after Archetype?
“In this day and age you’ve really got to stay on top of things; there’s so many new bands out there, the market’s really becoming saturated, it’s almost ridiculous to a point. But you’ve got to keep your name out there so the fans don’t forget it, because there’s so many other bands. That was one reason why we wanted to do this so quickly. We got our name out there, Fear Factory is back on the roster, ready to work, let’s pump another one out.”
While there are a lucky few bands like Nine Inch Nails and Tool who can get away with five-year breaks between albums, everyone else is in grave danger of sounding dated even if they’ve returned after a reasonable two or three year cycle. Fear Factory 1.0’s final record, Digimortal, emerged in 2001 to comparative indifference, vastly underselling its predecessor, 1998’s Obsolete.
“You know,” admits Bell, “to me it might have been that the sound of it was really compressed, almost like a very claustrophobic record. There are some good songs on it, the rest of it—they’re okay, I like the record, but it’s not one of my favorite Fear Factory records. I think the fans noticed it, too. It was trying to be something else. It was rather obvious.
“I think it was us trying to conform to a changing scene,” continues the vocalist. “Maybe we chose the wrong path to take and we were affected greatly. We made a mistake.”
Given that history, it must have been quite sweet to have such relative success with Archetype.
“Considering what went on with the band within the three years that we were laying low, it was a rather successful record,” Bell explains. “In the States, I think we sold like 130,000 copies [of Archetype], which, in this amount of time, Digimortal only sold 115,000. I think the fans really caught on, saw where we were coming from, got to see us live, and basically we got back on the map. Touring was great; the fans were like, ‘We’ve heard of Fear Factory but never had a chance to see them’… ‘heard you guys broke up.’ Lots of fans were surprised to see us, a lot were happy to see us, but the reactions on the whole were very, very good, very positive. We had to get our name out there to all the younger fans who never had a chance to see Fear Factory.”
With all that touring, we would naturally assume that the band composed large portions of the album on the road.
“I think the first time we actually started writing on the road was the last touring of Digimortal, when Raymond [Herrera] and Christian, and our keyboard player at the time, John Bechtel, were in the back of the bus, making the whole set up get going. They were learning how to do it on the road, and then they didn’t have much time. Some of the riffs they wrote on that tour made it onto Archetype. And on the last touring process we did for Archetype, they did the same set up, and went for it—wrote beats, guitar riffs, had a hard drive of sounds, and we revisited those. If you’re going to be on the road, and you’re doing music, it’s as easy as 1-2-3, let’s write riffs. When those riffs are all done, they can start compiling them, arranging them and then you’ve got a song. They had 18 songs arranged and written for me to pick through, and I had titles, I had ideas, I listened to all the songs a few times, and by the third or fourth time I listened to it, I got a vibe from it. It worked really well that way. I was able to really concentrate on the idea of the song.”
Very crudely: as Archetype was to Demanufacture, so Transgression is to Obsolete. But that quick-and-dirty comparison, is hardly the whole story. Put simply, Transgression is perhaps the most adventurous and ambitious record of Fear Factory’s career. Half of its songs verge on heads-down thrash, delivering ferocious metal attacks in a style the band has never really attempted before, while the other half could almost be described as alt-rock. Simultaneously very mellow and very heavy, Transgression is a record of contrasts.
“That’s exactly what this record is,” Bell agrees. “It goes from one spectrum to the other through the course of the album. Toby Wright came on board during the production, helping me with vocals, and his recording/engineering capabilities are just amazing. His creative mind brought a whole new aspect to Fear Factory maybe we’ve missed in the past. I think this record for Fear Factory is a progression of sound. Sonically, it doesn’t sound like any other Fear Factory record ever. It’s a whole ‘nother level to me. We’ve taken maturity of production and songwriting ability, we threw all our guns on the table and just went for it. Heavy doesn’t have to be constant grinding 24-7. There’s many aspects of heaviness and I hope we were able to capture a lot of those on one record. At the same time, why limit yourself to just one thing all the time? I think this record showed that Fear Factory can do anything we want to do.”
More strikingly still, Transgression completes a process hinted at on Archetype: Fear Factory have loosened up. No longer do they sound like the proverbial machine; instead, they sound almost organic.
“I know what you’re saying,” says Bell. “It’s almost as if we’ve transcended the machine; we finally became comfortable with what this band can be.”
Perhaps the most obvious example of how Transgression differs from its predecessors is “Supernova,” the first single and video. Catchy is an understatement: it positively belongs in heavy rotation on rock stations the length and breadth of the nation.
“Well, we thought, let’s write the catchiest song we could ever write,” says Bell. “It was almost like a challenge, to see where we could take it. I even wrote really positive lyrics, to keep a really good vibe about the whole song, to keep it really nice. Could it be called pop? Well, this record’s full of transgressions. But back in the ‘80s, every metal band had a singer, they had melody. It wasn’t just Warrant or Poison, but Iron Maiden, AC/DC, Def Leppard—everyone was carrying a tune.”
Bell cites the likes of Mastodon, Neurosis and, Lamb of God as current favorites on the heavy side, but also name checks the recent Doves disc as “an amazing pop record.” His tastes were allowed free expression on the new record in the form of—get this—a cover of U2’s “I Will Follow.”
“I’ve always wanted to cover a U2 song, and I love that first record, great memories from my childhood. Eeveryone was down to do a U2 song,” says the frontman. “But Fear Factory’s always done strange covers, like Head of David, or Agnostic Front, or even a Jim Thirlwell song. We did do Gary Numan, of course [“Cars”]. For a while when we were opening up for Sepultura, we were covering a Depeche Mode song. Then everybody started covering that sort of stuff. The U2 cover wasn’t meant to be on the record, but it’s kind of ended up that way. We’ve also covered a Killing Joke song, ‘Millennium,’ they’re back to back. There’s another cover we did not put on the album that’ll show up later—we covered ‘Anthem’ by Godflesh.”
Lyrically, the album title is aptly chosen, as the singer explains.
“It’s mostly images of transgression, stepping over boundaries, violating issues. Things that will definitely hurt you in the long run. For instance the song ‘540,000 Degrees Fahrenheit,’ it’s the image of a nuclear blast at ground zero to a third of a mile out. That’s the estimated temperature. I wanted to describe that image of what someone might feel. The song ‘Moment of Impact’ is from the perspective of someone in a plane going down, what that person might be thinking. ‘Spinal Compression’ is basically a personal, introspective song about having the world weigh down on you so much that all your thoughts combine in your head that they create a spinal compression.”
You’ve got a thing about spines, haven’t you? They were prevalent in the artwork of Demanufacture and Obsolete.
“A spine makes us walk and stands us up straight to be who we are,” says Bell. “It carries your brain, the crown on your head, it’s a very important feature of the human machine.”
And with Transgression, Fear Factory can hold their heads up high.