The brainchild of industrial music heavyweight Bill Leeb, Front Line Assembly has been plugging away in the genre since the mid-eighties – their prolific career punctuated with numerous lineup changes, a couple of hiatus periods, intermittent breakup rumors and so on... but they always snap back strong, as proven by their nerve-jangling new release Improvised Electronic Device, which rolls out today from Metropolis Records. As with every new album from this Vancouver-based unit, there are some familiar recurring motifs, plus inventive, disturbing new twists that never fail to grab listeners' attention. Read on for a closer examination of the latest creation from these sonic mad scientists...
Leeb originally formed Front Line Assembly back in 1986 after working with industrial cult heroes Skinny Puppy in their formative years. Leeb took his experience with that band, combined additional influences from up-and-coming industrial, techno, EBM and experimental acts, and set out to break new ground in beat-driven electronics. Weaving between genres and incorporating different sounds over the past twenty years, FLA brought aboard some high-caliber talents as they merged the worlds of old-school industrial, European-style EBM and clubby electronica, often shifting styles radically between album projects.
Many fans consider 1992's Tactical Neural Implant to be the ultimate culmination of FLA's pure electronic phase, and were subsequently turned off by the metal-infused follow-up Millennium (which featured Strapping Young Lad's Devin Townsend on guitar), but I'm one of those who actually dug that experiment. Improvised Electronic Device draws heavily from those ever-morphing styles – including their electro-metal and ambient phases – while simultaneously looking ahead to a new domain of sonic madness. Joining Leeb for FLA's latest incarnation is Chris Peterson of Noise Unit and Left Spine Down's Jeremy Inkel & Jared Slingerland, and each brings his arsenal of heavy, beat-centric weaponry to the battlefield.
The opening/title track I.E.D. stakes out the quartet's new creative turf right away with its creepy ambient effects and unsettling 5/4 time signature. “Chris was pushing for more diversity, challenging the band to do something different,” Leeb explains. “We wanted this track to be as challenging and complex as the world we live in.” He's right about that; in fact, this cut might be a tad too unsettling to those looking for rigidly structured four-on-the-floor EBM. But if you're into creepy electronic atmospheres, it's a great chilling mood-setter that shapes the chaotic, fear-soaked environment of the material to come.
There's a definite Rammstein/Die Krupps feel to the following track Angriff, which slithers along menacingly thanks to a heavy bass line, chugging riffs and monster-sized vocals, but electro purists will prefer the politically-charged Hostage, a lightning-fast piece propelled by a speedy drum & bass loop and a buzzing bass pattern, reminiscent of classic FLA works like Mindphaser. Next comes Release – a mid-tempo, buzzing beast that ascends from a half-awake nightmare feel into a boot-stomping robot death march, complete with multi-layered vocal chanting and just a touch of crunchy guitar to give it some dirt.
The busy, bleep-tastic Shifting Through the Lens debuted early this year as the album's first single, and was originally conceived by Inkel, who impressed Leeb with the inventive sequencing. “I really liked what I heard,” Leeb comments. “It really brings together a lot of the different aspects of industrial and electronic that we all like.” It's also the most danceable track on the album – thanks to commanding synth arpeggios, a moody ambient breakdown and a great second-half mood swing, making it one of the catchiest clubbers in FLA's latter-day repertoire.
The down-tempo shuffle, morphing vocals and strong guitar presence in Laws of Deception makes it the most reminiscent of Millennium cuts like Search and Destroy, and if you (like me) enjoyed that track, you'll dig this one too. Pressure Wave is a fitting title for the next piece, which fades in its rhythm line like a boiler with a faulty release valve, finally erupting in a metallic explosion of throbbing bass, thundering percussion and grinding layers of guitar. The mood changes radically with Afterlife, in which flamenco-style acoustic guitar blends with submerged phase-shifting rhythms to create a tragic ballad. The layered vocal octaves are particularly effective here, giving the song a dirge-like quality and poetic resonance.
Ministry founder Al Jourgensen lends his unmistakably aggressive touch to Stupidity, which Leeb says was inspired by that band's final studio album The Last Sucker. “Not only did Al agree to do the vocals,” Leeb adds, “but he got his hands dirty with the production and mixed the whole song in his studio in El Paso.” I can pretty much guarantee those who might bristle at the idea of FLA spliced with Ministry at the molecular level won't be happy with this one... but honestly I fell head-over-heels for it, as it's probably the most insanely fast and energetic song in the band's catalog.
Bookending the album with a dark ambient sci-fi/horror epic rivaling the title track, Downfall brings the album to a haunting conclusion: chopped-up vocal fragments, icy washes of synth strings, found-object beats and pulsing harmonics – accented with a soft piano line – combine for a cinematic, dark ambient coda.
Coarse, terrifying, somber, hyperactive, angry and pensive, Improvised Electronic Device seems possessed of multiple personalities – but for that same reason it serves as a great introduction to this band's wildly diverse output, which has touched on just about every aspect and subgenre of electronic music over the past quarter-century. Through the years, there's always been a memorable hook and infectious beat lurking in FLA’s dark textured atmospheres, like a sinister prize in every box... and this record is no exception.