Some Thoughts On Fear Factory’s Soul Of A New Machine

I don’t often do requests on this blog, since nobody is asking, but here for your reading pleasure is my first blog by request.

Fear Factory are an interesting band. Beloved by many, but overlooked by a great many more. They are the kind of band who in 2020, more people seem to respect than actually listen to. Their influence on Metal has been huge, both in the underground for their popularisation of clean vocals and samples in extreme metal and also in mainstream metal for their popularisation of rhythmically interlocking kick-drum/guitar chugs in catchy staccato patterns. When you look at a retrospective of best albums from the ‘90s, if the list doesn’t feature at least one Fear Factory album, the list is sorely lacking.

I got into Fear Factory on the Digimortal cycle, when I was either 12 or 13 years old, and music channels like MTV2 and later KerrangTV (and later still, Scuzz) played songs like ‘Linchpin,’ ‘Cars’ and ‘Replica’ every so often. It was the good old days of Nu Metal and the band’s toned down Digimortal album fit in well beside the flavour of the month bands that were grabbing my young attention at the time. I have many fond memories of listening to Digimortal and playing Pro Skater videogames.

I remember the day I got my first Fear Factory cds, it was my birthday, and my dad had taken me to a music store in the big city, and I got to pick out my own presents. I chose Digimortal and Demanufacture by Fear Factory, and three others I can no-longer remember for a certainty (I think Ill Nino’s debut and Biohazard’s Urban Discipline were in there, but my memory gets fuzzy). The store had a deal on, where if you bought 5 albums on Roadrunner Records, you got a free VHS of music videos called ‘Drilling The Vein.’ I took my treasure to the counter, and asked about the free tape, only to be turned down by the clerk as he stated that Demanufacture didn’t count as it wasn’t on Roadrunner. It was, but it had an old-fashioned long thing colourless Roadrunner logo, rather than the modern red and white square logo. I remember very clearly my dad squaring off against the clerk and demanding ‘Just give him the tape!’ in an intimidating way that brokered success, and thus an additional birthday gift. A very fond memory, him standing up for me, when I would’ve totally just given up. Its my version of the Lorelai Gilmore mustard pretzel story from A Year In The Life.

So I had the then newest Fear Factory album, and the big classic that everyone should own, and later I rounded off the collection with the intermediate release, the sci-fi concept album Obsolete. What feels like much later though, I found out they had another record. Their debut. Soul Of A New Machine. Time has passed and I don’t quite remember where or when or at what age I bought this, other than I was still in high school.

I was young at the time. I hadn’t read much rock press, seen any rock documentaries or thought about rock much outside of ‘I want to listen to this.’ I had no idea about recording, budgets, any of it. I assumed every album was as successful as Appetite For Destruction and all bands just started out with infinite money and the best studio possible. (If I even knew what a studio was yet). I just assumed every rock star was a millionaire. I thought the bassist from P.O.D or Black Flag would be just as rich and just as famous as Axl Rose or Gene Simmons. It was still early enough in my musical life that I barely owned any bad albums. You start buying albums, you generally end up buying all classics for a while, as the things that get recommended to you aren’t the bad ones, and you have limited money and options, and you end up getting the best albums.

So, I was kind of shocked when I finally got a chance to buy Soul Of A New Machine. It looked cheap. The album artwork kind of fit with the band’s robotic aesthetic, but somehow…wrong. The actual CD case and booklet looked thin and budget in a way I didn’t know existed yet. Then the music played. Ummm. This sounds wrong. Crystal clear this is not. I think I learned about production values there on the spot. Compared to the cutting edge (at the time) sound of Digimortal or the futuristic sounds of Demanufacture, this sounded so basic. Demo quality, if I knew what a demo was at the time. Maybe I would have understood what demos were based on bonus tracks from Slipknot’s digipak, or having gotten a pirate version of Mate Feed Kill Repeat.

Stylistically, this was very different than I was expected. The ‘machine gun’ patterns that make up 75% of verses on most Fear Factory albums hereafter are almost absent, or where they are present, they are slower and more organic, less mechanical. There’s also a lot more samples and a lack of the Rhys Fulber electronics. It’s a lot less melodic. This is a million miles away from Digimortal. The vocals, while still distinctively Burton C. Bell, are really different. Less accomplished. He doesn’t project the same way. Its more primitive. It doesn’t even sound more youthful, like how Hetfield’s vocals sound more youthful on Kill ‘Em All, just like he hasn’t had enough practice yet, or like he isn’t being as loud in the actual studio. Also, he sounds a bit like Barney Greenway at times, especially towards the back of the album.

Now, I had some limited understanding of Death Metal at the time, as my friend and brother were into Cannibal Corpse and this was probably around the same year I got into some Deicide and Napalm Death, but I has a surface level knowledge at best. In later years, the more I knew about music, the more I would come to realise what a Death Metal influence this album had. (Also the short songs, aforementioned hoarse throaty Greenway-esque vocals and even a few blast beats, are reminiscent of Napalm Death’s Harmony Corruption – the album when the Grindcore band went Death Metal). There’s also a touch of Deicide and moreso, Morbid Angel in some of the riffs. [Not a lot, but some. I remember reading a mean-spirited review that complained when people claimed the band had a Death Metal past. I disagree with that. They totally do. Its there in the guitars, especially towards the back of the record].

It also has the utterly confusing track ‘Natividad’ which to someone who hadn’t heard any prog or industrial at the time, just sounded like the sound of a junkyard for no reason. What the hell?

For a long time I’ve thought of this album as the weird Death Metal demo, before they became a real band with their next album. My friend and I, for many years, had a saying that no band has ever had a bigger shift in quality between one album to the next. The difference between how good Demanufcature is, and what is on offer here, is the gold standard in my mind. I spent almost my entire first year of university walking around in a Demanufcature t—shirt. By contrast, I have only listened to this album about 20 times in my whole life and have resented it basically every time I listened to it.

I developed something of a mental block around this album for a long time. I could only really listen to 2 or 3 songs from it all the way through. I developed an affection for a few tracks, like ‘Martyr’ and ‘Crash Test’ over the years, but even then, ever since the band re-recorded those songs on the Mechanise bonus tracks, I would rather listen to the updated versions. If I try listen to the actual album, as I would intermittently out of a sense of duty and trying to get my money’s worth, then my eyes would glaze over and my mind would fog and I wouldn’t really hear the songs. Often I would try and skip through songs to see if there were good parts I’d forgotten, but then not really hear the songs properly and the whole thing would jumble up in my mind. If you asked me which one was ‘Leech Master’ and which one was ‘W.O.E’ I would have absolutely no idea which was which. If you asked me to name you more than six songs on this, I would really struggle. There’s seventeen tracks on here! That’s too many. Why didn’t someone edit this down?

I vaguely remember that the band used to be a Death Metal band called Ulceration, and then started listening to industrial and punk and changed their name to Fear The Factory before settling on the better name, Fear Factory. (Kind of like how Ratt used to be called Mickey Ratt, which is much worse). I wonder if some of these tracks, the heavier blastier ones, were Ulceration tracks and the more melodic and ones closer to the sound of the later albums were the newest tracks. I wonder if the ones that are halfway between are from the short-lived Fear The Factory days? Or maybe my memory of this timeline is wrong and they had the same songs the whole time and just changed their name three times between three live gigs in sweaty LA clubs, who knows? Other bands have gone through numerous name changes in the early days.

Maybe if some of the tracks were old Ulceration tracks that are very different, then they could have trimmed those tracks off… 17! Seventeen! Seven-bastard-teen!

Since I got the request to review the album though, I decided to really concentrate and open my mind to it. I’ve tried listening to it in full in the dark, on shuffle in the background while driving, in between other Fear Factory albums for contrast. I have it on in the background while I wrote most of this blog. I went online and I read dozens and dozens of reviews of it, positive, negative and neutral. I really wanted to understand the album. I wanted to focus and lose the mind fog.

I came in wanting to write the story of how I found out this was actually an amazing album and I had been mistaken the whole time. Or at least wanting to write that this was the worst musical turd in my collection and getting my readers to laugh at it. Well, sorry. I don’t have a great revelation about this album. I did ‘get it’ a lot more than I ever had. I’ve been listening to lots of Death, Morbid Angel, Deicide and Obituary recently, so the few bits of Death Metal that are on here are coming to the light more, but also I am learning just how much Death Metal is not on here. I could never understand how Fear Factory said Korn ripped them off before. Now I kind of get it. I can also hear how this could have influenced System Of A Down. Another big thing I can pick out is Chimaira. People always point to Demanufacture in the influencing of modern metalcore and bands like Chimaira and Killswitch Engage. Soul Of A New Machine not so much. However, listening now, with today’s ears I can really pick out multiple points that are clear Chimaira influences. There’s even a riff or two that Chimaira almost lifted note for note.

Having gotten it more, its not like I love it now, but I do like bits of it and understand it. Its gone from a 1/10 album next to a 9/10 classic, to more like a 6/10. What does that do to me and my friend’s gold-standard of improvement argument? I’m not sure. New American Gospel, From Ember To Inferno, Sombre Eyes To The Sky, This Present Darkness, Don’t Close Your Eyes, Killswitch Engage’s self titled… There are lots of early, raw, primitive albums from bands that aren’t great or terrible, next to classic breakthrough albums. Even Tool’s Opiate to Undertow is a big step up. Does this mean Soul’-Demanfacture has lost its status? I guess only time will tell. I do hold it in higher regard than when I started off. That being said I’m already struggling to remember which is which. I can remember some of the movie samples more than the songs they are in. I can remember the 2nd half of the album is heavier than the 1st half.  What does ‘Escape Confusion’ sound like? Does it sound different to ‘Fleshhold’ ‘Scapegoat’? I don’t honestly remember.  I’ll have to keep listening to it now. See if it goes back to being total mind fog, or if I get a bit more out of it from now on.

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