In one of those weird quirks that seem to happen more often than they should, two industrial bands from Vancouver (one featuring a previous member of the other) are releasing new albums within a couple of weeks of each other. One is decades into it’s career – and frankly don’t really have anything left to prove – while the other is much newer, and is ready to take a step forward.
This week, then, I’m taking a good look at the new albums from Front Line Assembly, and OHMElectronic – previously known as OHM, although with a whole host of other acts having used the same name at one point or another, I can kinda see why they’ve chosen to subtly change the name. The name change coincides with a change in sound, too, but I’ll come to that in a moment.
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First, though, I’m going to get into the new release from Front Line Assembly. Remarkably the twentieth studio album by the band – although I think the number might be disagreed by some, as I guess it depends how we count some releases – it comes over five years since the exceptional Echogenetic (album of the year on this site for 2013), and less than a year after the band’s second soundtrack album Warmech. It also comes as the first album completed in the wake of Jeremy Inkel’s death, whose youthful input was so much a part of the renaissance of this long-lived band, particularly since the excellent, return-to-form of Artificial Soldier in 2006, the album that kickstarted a renewed interest in “outside” influences, with the heavy use of first drum’n’bass and then, later on, dubstep. But it wasn’t just these sounds that leached into the band, it was also a new vitality, that showed itself in better, snappier songs, deeper arrangements and outstanding live shows.
Wake Up The Coma
So the return of the band with a new studio album, and then leading with a single that is a cover of a much-loved European eighties hit – with a guest vocalist – seemed a strange move, at least to me. But then, if nothing else, Rock Me Amadeus has garnered more attention for FLA than they’ve had in some years. Upon release of the song early last week – quickly followed by the video – it was the talk of the “scene” as it was shared around social media, and it very much divided opinion.
As it should, frankly – it is a rare instance of the band dropping their guard and their often very serious outlook to have a bit of fun, and sure, the song is a straight-up karaoke take (Jimmy Urine from Mindless Self Indulgence doing his best Falco impression, and to be fair his deutsche isn’t bad), but it’s not that bad. It certainly stands out on this album. And maybe, after the turmoil of recent times, an outlet like this was needed.
The other track released in advance was actually played in live shows from last summer, and Eye On You is basically classic FLA, for all that entails. It’s a great, solid mid-paced track, with Robert Görl of DAF doing some of the drumming, but the more I hear it, the more it seems that the exceptional synth hook that underpins the song has been used before – I think it is basically the same as the one used in Deadened.
There are other borrowed ideas from the past here, too. The otherwise brilliant Arbeit – alongside Angriff, the only songs I can think of by the band that are at least partly in German – nods back to the drum’n’bass experiments of Artificial Soldier. It barrels along with a hell of a momentum, though, and along with that thumping breakdown of a chorus, I suspect will go down very well live.
Leaving aside the clunky chorus (“I’m making love to an alien / who’s not from this world / I’m making love to an alien / I thought you were a girl“. Huh), Living A Lie is a stomper of a track that will no doubt be another live favourite quickly enough, having a relentless, heavy beat and enough bleeps and hooks to keep a crowd busy for five minutes. Let’s just ignore the lyrics, eh?
The title track is a fascinating departure. Processed guitars make their return, and joining them amid a slower-paced, melancholy ballad is the voice of Paradise Lost’s Nick Holmes, whose emotional, wide-ranged delivery gives the track an edge that I don’t think Bill Leeb’s vocals could have done. And with Paradise Lost having moved away from their experimentation with electronic rock, this is a neat reminder too that Holmes can still do clean vocals gloriously well. Leeb’s vocals do suit the other notable ballad-like track here, Negative Territory, which probably has the most melodic chorus I can remember the band ever doing, and unexpectedly is probably my favourite track on the album – a reflective, bleak song that is quite unlike anything the band have done before, and according to the credits, features Ian Pickering (once of Sneaker Pimps) on backing vocals.
The album closes out with yet another ballad, and yet another guest – as Chris Connelly phones in his best late-period Bowie impression (he’s been involved with a band doing Bowie songs in Chicago recently, as I recall, and it shows here), and it’s…ok, I guess? The song drags somewhat for me, only really coming alive with the beats go haywire at a couple of points.
Weirdly, though, it’s not the ballads that are the problem on this album – it’s the other stuff in between. The three tracks after …Amadeus in particular, I’m not sure I could pick out of a line-up after twenty listens, never mind ten, and the general feeling is that this is a listless, rudderless album that hits high points less by design than by happy accident.
As a result, this is an uneven album, and the first misfire by the band in what must be over fifteen years now, which shows just how strong as a group they’d got while Inkel was part of proceedings. I’ve been a keen follower of the band for the best part of twenty-seven years, and over that time, they’ve not always been great – indeed, the decade or so after Hard Wired nearly lost me entirely – but they’ve always found ways to bounce back to evolve further.
I can only hope that this is one of those transitional periods, as they find their way forward again, because this is – sadly – their weakest release in a while, but it is worth considering that there are moments worth hearing on it.
A different feel entirely inhabits the second album from the newly renamed OHMElectronic (their debut album was under the name OHM, which as they note in Talk Show Host: 051 that accompanies this review, was already being used by quite a few other disparate artists…), and interestingly features Chris Peterson, who was heavily involved in much of the Front Line Assembly period that I really didn’t like all that much, with the probably exception of Prophecy and parts of Epitaph.
This album, though, doesn’t show a great deal of sonic links back to that period, but it sure as hell sounds like a Vancouver industrial band, complete with mastering by Greg Reely. There are the bubbling, elastic synths and hard-edged beats and depth of mix that so nails it as from that city, but where this differs is that it is an album that is looking outwards, and is an awful lot less cryptic than their peers, too.
Something that is absolutely rammed home by the opening salvo of Uppercut and Everything Is Gone. Uppercut is a bruising, furious take on politics, xenophobic and racism, and musically absolutely bristles with fury, as if everything on the track has serrated edges ready to strike. Craig’s vocals seethe, too, finally exploding with rage in the chorus. That power is kept up in the lead single Everything is Gone, the pummelling, fast-paced rhythm providing a solid base for the lift-off of the roared chorus – and a general sense that the angry political comment is being carried over into this. Happy with the status quo they are not.
That these two songs have so much energy and drive makes the following With all the more surprising and striking. To put it mildly a nod to mid-eighties Cabaret Voltaire, this is a slinky, groovy beast of a track, stripped back to allow the sinuous rhythm to take centre stage with Craig’s vocals, and it neatly reinforces the band’s versatility with just a third of the album done.
What becomes obvious is that there is no way that they could have kept up the pace and anger of the first couple of tracks, proved too by the slow burn of the impressive, cloaked darkness of Undone. Disarmed unleashes like a coiled spring, after a gradual wind-up, and has a brutally heavy feel that certainly has the likelihood of being a great live track.
On such a short album, though – nine songs, thirty-five minutes – I was a little surprised to find two songs here being short-length instrumentals, with Godspeed being a neat two-minutes-forty-two (I see what they did there) of ambient washes, and the closing Redshift being just ninety seconds but with some dramatic flourishes to close out.
At least the band don’t waste a moment of the seven full songs here. Decline skitters and bounces through the speakers, the pulsing, stabbing synths being just as important to the rhythm as the beats behind them, and the multi-tracked, phased vocals add unexpected and welcome texture. We end, though, back where we started, with another tirade that feels well-placed, with Endless War digging into the never-ending cycle of aggression, politicking, doctrine and invasion that has characterised certain countries for the past three decades – and I’m glad to hear that I’m not the only one that’s tired of it, that’s for sure. The latter part of the track – that morphs into probably the best drum pattern on the album – is worth sticking around for, too.
While it is a short album, it is a remarkably good one, with punch and a vibrancy that comes from being engaged and having something to say. It is also a notable step forward from the at-parts timidity of the first album, as if they didn’t quite know where they were going with it back then, but in the five years hence they’ve honed and honed and got their sound exactly where they want it.