Of the industrial scene’s great survivors (FLA, Skinny Puppy, Front 242, KMFDM), all four have now been active for over 25 years, and aside from 242 (who seem happy with revisiting their past with admittedly amazing live shows, which is no problem for me – I’ve seen them five times in the last five years and would happily see them another five times more), all have continued releasing new music.
But what has been interesting has been the divergent paths all have taken. KMFDM were always a little more straightforward than the others, deviating little from the guitar-heavy (heavy heavy) beats and sloganeering, while Skinny Puppy’s cut-and-paste electronics, samples and nightmarish visions has evolved over the years while remaining obviously them (even if it has divided fans more than once).
Opening with the sweeping, electronic soundscape of Resonance, it appears firstly that we are simply picking up where Airmech left off, and this feeling is not dispelled by the glitchy, bass-heavy Leveled, a slow, martial stomp with a wonderfully melodic chorus that honestly feels an odd choice for an opening vocal track. Usually FLA albums are front-loaded with one or two belters that immediately grab the attention, and here this is absolutely not the case.
Stick with it, though, and it becomes clear that the pacing here is a well-thought out one. Resonance and Leveled just set the stage for what is to come, with the latter less coming to a halt than bleeding straight into the ominous rumbling intro of Killing Grounds, which quickly unleashes a monstrous electro-industrial rhythm that absolutely pounds the speakers (think the rhythms of old favourite Resist with even more bass – suddenly that song’s reappearance in live shows over the past year or two makes more sense), coupled with epic, glitchy breakdowns that tear apart said rhythms during the chorus.
Ok, so the sparse lyrics are not really telling us much – pretty much, the whole album is the usual dystopian, human vs human and/or machines stuff that Bill Leeb has peddled for years – but then again, we’re not here for Bill’s lyrical insight. And more than ever, this is really the case – with the astonishing atmospheres and sounds created being the real stars of the show.
This is shown ever more strongly over the rest of the album, coupled with a sonic variety and stylistic touch that confirms that FLA are still willing to evolve and try new things, even well into their third decade. Blood and Ghosts bring the pace down, both being glorious, slow-paced electro ballads, indeed the best ballads FLA have put their mind to in years, both with richly textured effects and a genuine feeling of melancholy laced through both tracks.
Inbetween these two tracks, though, is the album centrepiece, pick of this album and frankly their strongest track to my mind in about seventeen years. Deadened is a mid-paced stomper, lyrically in the same ballpark as Vigilante (dispensing vicious justice, pretty much), but once again it is the programming and track construction in particular that is so, so brilliant. Opening up with another ominous synth line, it adds layer by layer, until unleashing a chorus dominated by a rising tone of synth notes and vocodered voices that is monstrously heavy despite, like the rest of the album, being a guitar-free zone. As well as this, it is brilliantly produced (like the rest of the album, by Greg Reely as usual), with an astonishing clarity to every single electronic effect used – there is absolutely nothing buried into the mix or crowded out. Some feat on a track as complex as this.
The title track is, despite what some people might have suggested, one of the few tracks where the rather divisive “dubstep” effects get used to any great degree, but that doesn’t detract from another quality track. And anyway, it isn’t especially “dubstep” in many cases. As my girlfriend noted after hearing Killing Grounds punishingly loud in one of my DJ sets recently, it is more akin to the glitchy, drum’n’bass-infused electronics that bands like Cyanotic have been using for some years – in which case, the wheel has turned full circle, in that FLA were huge influences on them in the first place!
The only other dancefloor-orientated track, by the way, is Exhale, a breathless, thundering juggernaut that coils tighter and tighter before a surprisingly light-of-touch chorus wrongfoots the listener. The following Exo, and even more so Prototype, are the tracks that most of all feel like they are following on directly from AirMech. Exo is a lush, almost electronic symphony at points, with a deeply heartfelt vocal from Leeb that is quite unlike anything I’ve heard him do before, while Prototype has a stuttering rhythm that is less dubstep-influenced, and more the first steps of a gigantic robot going to wage war on some invisible enemy.
What was most fun about the latter track were the comments when it was unveiled as the first track to be heard from the album a month or two back – with many more narrow-minded “fans” complaining about the sound, and how it apparently co-opted sounds that they didn’t like. They can’t have been listening to FLA for too long, then – for well over twenty years Bill Leeb and his various collaborators have always kept their ears open, bringing in outside influences and sounds that have covered all kinds of bases (thrash metal, industrial metal, trance, drum’n’bass, hip-hop) over the years, and have long-since aided keeping the band fresh and relevant. Yes, not all of those diversions have worked, but what is more amazing is that most of them have, and have only made their albums all the better.
The album closes with Heartquake, another track that seems to be something of a ballad to start with, with minimal electronics bubbling away, before it steps up through the gears for a pummelling, rhythmic chorus that comes as quite a surprise. Indeed, the synth effects used actually take into quasi-futurepop territory (something else that is making something of a comeback right now), but this is certainly no bad thing, as it works well, and as the track deliberately unwinds the synths to a close in the last few seconds, I can’t help but reflect that this is a tour de force of programming. Seriously, the whole thing is a glorious work of electronic art, that builds on the beauty and atmospheres of AirMech by adding steel-plated dancefloor monsters and elegant ballads in equal measures, and in doing so manages to be their best album in years and years.
Ignore any naysayers bitching that this is FLA’s “dubstep” album (again) – it is nothing of the sort. The reality is that this is a how industrial should sound in 2013 – astonishing use of electronics, something for the dancefloor, something for the head, a little element of humanity amid the machines, and using the lessons of the past to inform the present, without ever entirely relying on the past. The year of the elders continuing to show the new faces how it’s done continues.