The spate of shows rolling through our neck of the woods continues, with a bit of an emphasis on old legends recontextualizing their work. Peter Hook brought his band through town to play through both Joy Division and New Order’s Substance comps, but we were both too bushed to go (ask us sometime about dancing onstage to one of Hooky’s DJ sets years ago). And this coming weekend, after a couple of cancellations and reschedulings, Kevin Haskins and Daniel Ash will be bringing their Poptone project to the stage. We’re keen to hear how the classic (yet always somehow obscure and underrated) Tones On Tail catalog sounds in this new incarnation. On with this week’s tracks!
Front Line Assembly, “Mechvirus”
The new track from Front Line Assembly is notable for a couple of reasons. Firstly, it’s a taste of the follow-up to Airmech, FLA’s lauded soundtrack to the game of the same name, which showed the project’s capacity for atmospherics as expressed through ultra-modern production. Secondly, it’s the first new music we’ve heard from the band since the untimely passing of Jeremy Inkel, and his influence as a writer, designer and arranger (along with Sasha Keevill, with whom he collaborated on recent Front Line material) is all over this. It’s a great track and a testament to Bill Leeb and company’s continued relevance in electronic music some 30 plus years since the band was founded.
Imperial Black Unit, “The White Rose”
Australia’s Imperial Black Unit just finished up some dates in their own backyard with Youth Code, and it’s through the latter that we were tipped off to this hotness. Their debut release on a + w, State Of Pressure, still doesn’t have a release date, but until then check out this hypnotic gem that owes more than a little to A Split Second but feels wholly fresh. Not sure if the title’s meant to honour die Weiße Rose or not, but it’s a nice thought.
Fellow Aussies Kollaps are also making waves beyond their home continent, though of a far more harsh variety. A new compilation tape from Italy’s excellent Infidel Bodies label finds Kollaps dishing out deep and gashed death industrial noise which makes an art out of procedural levels of distortion, but offsets things with some interestingly blunted drum programming. Nasty stuff to be sure.
Glass Apple Bonzai, “Fire in the Sky”
Your friend and ours Daniel X Belasco is back with a new single from Glass Apple Bonzai, Canada’s champions of charming neon retro-synthpop. As with many of GAB’s material this taps into the intersection of retro-futurism and good old pop music longing, hella melancholy while not being gloomy or turgid. And hey, the single also features a remix from likeminded artist Andy Deane’s The Rain Within and a wild-ass Jesus Jones-esque slice of sampledelia called “What’s Your Vector Victor”, so you’ll want to be picking that ASAP.
Second Still, “Ashes”
LA post-punk trio Second Still have a new EP out hot on the heels of their new Part Time Punks session being released. A quick first pass at Equals suggests that it contains the same lo-fi swagger that made their self-titled LP from last year one we felt stupid for having missed at its release. Some of the lighter points on the EP hint at Roxy or 10cc archness, but this churning number just grinds darkly.
Panic Priest, “Gaffer”
Chicago-based darkwavers Panic Priest are new signees to Negative Gain Productions, bringing some new American gloom to the label’s already impressive roster of dark music artists. Not much to go on yet beyond the tracks available on the Bandcamp pre-order, but we’re getting some hints of classic darkwave, some nice male vocal harmonies and a bit of the synthrock energy ported over from Jack Armando’s other project My Gold Mask. Good promising stuff, and only a few days ’til we get to hear the whole thing.
We had an extra helping of our titular technical problems this week, friends, but that don’t stop the show. We’ve got deep industrial historian and writer (and ID:UD contributor) Sharon Kyronfive on this week’s podcast to discuss the recently reissued Remix Wars series, and the larger histories of all of the bands involved in those campaigns. Also: the Slack is popping, the Patreon’s rolling, and we’re looking to the edge of the year with a batch of records still yet to be released in 2016! You can rate and subscribe on iTunes, Google Play Music and Stitcher, download directly, or stream from the widget down below!
Welp, we’re in the home stretch to Aftermath. We’ll be doing a half-week’s business here at the HQ, posting a podcast on Wednesday, then flying out east for four days of madnesss. It’s been a bucketload of work and stress helping get this thing together at the eleventh hour, but the enthusiasm from the other heads collaborating on it, the bands, and fans the world over have always kept the goal front and center in our minds, and we’re now just two sleeps away from seeing it all come together. That doesn’t mean we’ve been sleeping on new cuts: get your fix here, head to Toronto, and we’ll all meet up here next week just in time to start getting pumped for Terminus.
3 Teeth, “Pearls 2 Swine (Caustic Remix)”
The much-anticipated LP from 3 Teeth is almost upon us, and while we’ve still only heard three or four original tracks from it, we’ve completely lost track of the torrent of remixes which have been issuing from the mysterious outfit’s pleasuredome in LA. We’re pretty sure that they’ll all be collected on that tooth-shaped USB drive, but word is that that’s sold out, so grab the mixes while you can. DL slots are already running out on this “Pigface does boom-bap” style rework from our man in Madion, Matt Fanale.
Liebknecht, “Fuck Off V1”
Alongside 3 Teeth, another project which has been cultivating interest through one-off streams and DLs over the past year and change is Daniel Myer’s Liebknecht. He’s started more side-projects than you’ve had hot meals, and so slowly introducing us to the sound and ethos of this new incarnation through demos, remixes and the like has helped him to frame Liebknecht’s distinctions from, say, Architect, well. A more pulsing side of the atmospheric, woozy techno/industrial hybrid is demoed here.
Alter Der Ruine, “Tiny Wars and Quiet Storms”
We would hope that it would be understood by the time the album drops, but just in case you didn’t know: if the only thing you know about Alter Der Ruine is “Relax & Ride It”, you’re gonna be pretty blown away by I Will Remember It All Differently. Alter Der Ruine have been steadily pushing in this direction since their break-up and reformation a couple years back and the plateau they’ve reached for songwriting and production is astonishing. Listen to this haunting electro track, and be sure to pre-order the record while you’re at it, it’s an End of Year contender.
Front Line Assembly, “Heartquake (Atiq & EnK remix)” In case you didn’t read Alex’s breathless review of the new FLA remix disk, allow us to reinforce here just how damn good it is. In line with the theme of remix producers pulling out and expanding some of the themes of the source material, this intriguing Atiq & EnK remix that didn’t make the record plays with some of the deep, swaying bass and scattery percussion of “Heartquake” to good effect. It’s a free download from Soundcloud, so you’ll wanna grab it to add to your Echoes listening experience.
Finally, a little something from Tyler Newman (Battery Cage, Informatik) and his solo project AEC. You may recall we enjoyed the wide-ranging flavour of his soundtrack for Zonekiller, and while the vintage cyberpunk of that is represented on sex.drug.sequence we’re getting a very mid-late 90’s feel off the record, that specific time-period between the height of dark electro and the rise of futurepop. Definite shades of some of Tyler’s more well-known projects, give it a listen if you want something new but with some classic sounds going on.
The success of Front Line Assembly’s excellent 2013 album Echogenetic was largely attributable to effective use of modern electronic music ideas, and their integration with classic FLA tropes. An extension of that concept is promising enough as an idea: allowing a variety of remixers to pick up the various strands of genre, sound design and production that informed the record, and then carry them through to new places.
Of course the strength of that plan is in the selection of remixers, and above all else it’s in the curation of Echoes that Bill Leeb and the Front Line camp have shown how forward thinking they are. The LP has without a doubt one of the most head-turning collections of artists seen for a project like this in years, going well beyond the bog-standard “labelmates and hired guns” remix album model and tapping into some of the more interesting artists in the orbit of present-day industrial.
The characteristic depth and lushness of Echogenetic is well served by a number of the mixes on Echoes. Video game music production house Sonic Mayhem (of Quake II and Mass Effect III fame) inject “Leveled” with strings and sustained chords that amp up the drama, bringing the track in line with FLA’s own recent soundtrack effort Airmech. Similarly, the instrumental “Prototype” is thoughtfully recast by Ben Lukas Boysen of HECQ into a massive cybernetic overture. The considered and ever-changing arrangement of drums, sound effects and programmed squelches are allowed to bounce off one another in the stereo spectrum, with the song taking on forms inverse in size and shape to the spareness of each element.
Conversely, some excellent moments come from complete reinvention. Blush Response and Comaduster delve deep into their individual own production milieus (modular synth workouts for the former, emotive shoegaze and bass glitch wizardry for the latter) for their tracks, while Youth Code invoke earlier incarnations of Front Line with their rigidly sequenced take on Echogenetic‘s title track, all tightly programmed bass and bitcrushed kicks and snares that bash their way through the mix to sit out front with Leeb’s vocals. It’s an exercise in classic electro-industrial aesthetics that is especially effective when placed next to ex-FLA member Rhys Fulber’s ultra-modern EDM reinvention of club-stomper “Killing Grounds”, the legacy and present of Front Line Assembly existing comfortably side by side.
A large portion of Echoes is spent exploring the personalities of its various remixers (like the characteristic work of Necro Facility’s Henrik Backstrom and Daniel Myer representing as both his solo-project Liebknecht and as part of Haujobb with Dejan Samardzic), but it’s not without some hints at the future of Front Line. The brand new tracks “Contagion” and “Next War” written with Sneaker Pimps lyricist Ian Pickering suggest a more song-oriented ends for Front Line’s current style of production, a hint reinforced by the carefully arranged Hijacker mix of “Exo” by FLA’s own Jeremy Inkel and collaborator Sasha Keevill, two of the architects of Echogenetic‘s distinctive sound. A remix record might seem a strange place to find these sorts of clues, but in the context of Echoes it adds to a global view of Bill Leeb and company’s current status. As a remix record, it gives us a broader view of where Front Line is, what went into getting them here, and quite possibly where they’re going.
Industrial music and science fiction are straight-up chocolate and peanut butter: a two great tastes that taste great together combo. In all likelihood I’m not telling you anything new – a quick perusal of the long-departed sloth.org sample list yields almost nothing but science fiction and horror flicks – but the connection between the two traditions runs deeper than some quick snippets of the Strangers’ dialog from Dark City or Aliens klaxons. Science fictional concepts and themes are inextricable from industrial music, new and old, and given that SF is my bread and butter outside of writing about Our Thing (holler if you wanna read a 150 page ramble about critical theory, animal studies, Octavia Butler, and Philip K Dick), I thought I’d take a quick glance at some connections between science fiction literature and industrial. Take this very much in the same spirit as the “samplekillfile” pieces: a conversation starter rather than an authoritative list.
Separate from straight-up sampling (another check of the sloth list emphatically shows that not every movie Puppy sampled is a classic) are more subtle references to science fiction traditions. As excellently documented by Alex Reed in Assimilate, the early history of industrial is shot through with an appreciation for William Burroughs (forever a liminal figure in science fiction’s history), and in later years nods to William Gibson (and cyberpunk on the whole – more on that later) became almost inescapable. For my money, perhaps the most substantive and enduring (if perhaps more subtle) literary influence on industrial culture is that of JG Ballard (the last post proper on our previous blogging endeavor was a brief comment on his passing). From being a trailblazer of the new wave to diagnosing the ailments of a decade with a sharpness that cuts Bret Easton Ellis to ribbons, Ballard zeroed in on the conflation of attraction and repulsion which permeates modern life. From The Normal to Cabaret Voltaire right through to Reed’s own Seeming project, Ballard remains in an uncanny proximity to Our Thing.
Plenty of bands (Welle:Erdball, Grendel, and perhaps most famously Front Line Assembly) use science fictional imagery and thematics in an open, general sort of fashion, but plenty of others have elected to take a more structured route, producing concept records rooted in science fiction narratives, either borrowed or invented. For the former, we can find tribute to HP Lovecraft’s cosmic science fiction (while the popular narrative of HPL presents him solely as a horror author, his influence on SF shouldn’t be understated) in Forma Tadre’s criminally overlooked The Music of Erich Zann. Drawing on much more recent source material, Access To Arasaka constructed an excellent release around Richard K. Morgan’s futuristic techno-whodunnits. As for bands taking up the business of world-building and narrative themselves, we certainly don’t lack for options. mind.in.a.box are perhaps the name which comes most readily to mind, but XP8’s recent Adrenochrome, NKVD’s Prolog, Individual Totem’s Kyria 13, and each and every release from the incomparable 32Crash all create their own fictive worlds, each with schisms from our own, producing (as Darko Suvin famously put it) “cognitive estrangement”.
The Divine Invasion
Like I said earlier, there’s been an affinity between cyberpunk and industrial ever since the earliest examples of the former began emerging in the early 80s. And while I enjoy novels and records trading in biomechanics and corrupt megacorps as much as the next person, the simple fact remains that cyberpunk’s now thirty years old (give or take, depending on whether you accept Neuromancer as ground zero), and science fiction’s changed in innumerable ways since then. While there hasn’t been a sub-genre as dominant as cyberpunk since the 80s, perhaps that’s a good thing. All manner of new variants and cousins of SF have been emerging and spinning off into their own orbits in the interim: the new weird, posthumanism (don’t conflate it with transhumanism, folks), post-singularity fiction, and slipstream, to name a few, as well as reinvigorated interest in military SF and space opera thanks to fresh work by John Scalzi and Peter F. Hamilton, among innumerable others. Whether the results are wholly original or inspired by existing works (and who wouldn’t want a musical exploration of China Mieville’s Bas-Lag or Iain M. Banks’ Culture?), it’s high time that industrial music realise that its cousin genre has uncovered plenty of new territory since William Gibson made hackers cool. Want to show some love for an overlooked concept record based on, say, Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination? Know of a new group imagining genetic-engineered nightmares à la Paolo Bacigalupi? Let us know in the comments! Fair warning, the first person to bring up steampunk (ugh) is getting their monocle smashed and a hole punched through their gear-smeared bowler.
Quick, what compilation of industrial music is 20 years old in 2014, and was an integral part of every scene DJs gigging arsenal for years and years to follow? If you guessed There Is No Time, nope, that was 1995. We were speaking of ye olde Wax Trax Black Box (officially and awkwardly titled Blackbox – Wax Trax! Records: The First 13 Years), the legendary compilation of tracks from the Golden Age of the Chicago based label. Not a snapshot in time, but a retrospective, the unassuming 3-cd set is such a mainstay in collections across the board that there are several projects on it (like say, Wreck) who are mostly known solely for their inclusion on it. Of course there’s plenty of “names” on it as well, which led to a recent realization during a convo at the HQ: many of the bands on the Black Box are still active, and are making markedly different music than the stuff crystallized by the 1994 box set. We’ve excluded a few real obvious markers (no one from the Ministry camp is repped, chances are you know what’s happening in that end of the woods) and gone with songs we thought had a thematic break from the numbers repped in the box. Here you go, download directly from here, and stream from the widget below.
Front Line Assembly, “Prototype”
We never think of the venerable Vancouver industrial project FLA as a “Wax Trax band”, but the domestic versions of many of their classic albums and singles (including career highlight like Caustic Grip and Digital Tension Dementia) were pressed to CD and vinyl and serviced to your local college radio station by WT. Enjoy this soundtracky cut from last year’s excellent Echogenetic, which follows nicely from their 80s era material if you ask us.
Alright, so Pankow were always a weird band, their most famous song is a tribute to dicks after all. Who knows if the stuff on their contemporary records, like 2013’s And Shun The Cure They Most Desire is more or less oddball than the stuff licensed by Wax Trax in the day, but the fact that they’ve become elder statesman for their brand of electronic weirdness is certainly notable.
Foetus, “Halloween / Turbulence”
Jim Thirlwell’s never been too far out of hand for folks paying attention, whether he’s collabing with divine dark chanteuse Zola Jesus at the Guggenheim or crafting skronky soundtracks for The Venture Bros. (the best show occasionally on television for the senior staff’s money). While he’s quite a ways away from the Swans-esque violence of the Wiseblood project or wailing like a demon on a dope trip with Marc Almond, but there’s still plenty of anarchic fun to be had on his recent releases. Check this cover of the classic John Carpenter theme, which swaps out minimalist staccato plink for full-bore orchestral attack.
Laibach, “We Are Millions And Millions Are One”
The word we’re getting is that the radical shift on the latest release by Slovenia’s greatest exports is due in part to an increased degree of creative input by longtime member Ivan Novak. Regardless of origin, both musically and thematically this suave number is a far cry from “Geburt Einer Nation”.
Meat Beat Manifesto, “Spanish Vocoder”
Dub is the logical extension of the producer-as-artiste style that Jack Dangers was developing in his Wax Trax era releases, so you may not be too shocked to hear how far down the reverb rabbit hole Meat Beat has gone in contemporary times. It is worth noting that although Dangers doesn’t really make “industrial” anymore, he hasn’t ever divorced himself from the sort of music he was making in the Chicago days, and that numbers from Storm the Studio still make his visual heavy live shows to this day.
In The Nursery, “Vantage”
People who’ve only encountered their recent soundtrack work (both live and recorded, both for new and archival film) might be surprised to learn about the Humberstone brothers’ pasts in industrial music (though the same could be said for Graeme Revell), but truth be told the seeds of their future status as “The Kings Of Bombast” can be sourced in “Compulsion”, their trademark Black Box tune. That said, in the interim they learned to express a far wider range of moods with their orchestral palette, like this gorgeous piece from 2007’s Era.
Controlled Bleeding, “Grinder’s Song”
It’s perhaps fitting that we close not only with the noisiest of the tracks we’ve flagged, but also one by the band who’ve arguably had the most varied discography. From ambient to metal to new wave to their current free jazz/noise rock incarnation, the New York oddity that is Controlled Bleeding have never sat still for long. We fully expect to be able to check back in with them in another twenty years to find them playing some fucked up fusion of breakcore and skiffle.
15. Leæther Strip Serenade for the Dead II
It’s impossible to speak of dark electro in any detail without acknowledging the tremendous debt the genre owes to Claus Larsen. In addition to releasing countless aggressive dancefloor bombs, Claus also pushed the boundaries of the genre with 1994’s symphonic Serenade For The Dead. Revisiting that historical marker without maligning the original is a feat worthy of some golf claps, but surpassing it is another field entirely. This year, Claus gave us a decadent garden of symphonic passages to match the more beat-present moments of the first Serenade, and the ear he showcases for the sequel’s more florid moments is a big payoff for those of us who’ve wanted him to give Leaether Strip a bit more breathing room. It’s a dark and needling piece of work which rewards the faithful. Read our full review.
14. Individual Totem Kyria 13
In a sense, Germany’s Individual Totem are damned if they do and damned if they don’t in 2013. They either cleave to the “smart but inaccessible” line which made them critical darlings stateside, or they show off their daring chops when they re-emerge from self-imposed exile. They’ve thrown their dice on the table with Kyria 13, an emotionally wrought space opera which draws the listener into its psychodrama of doomed civilizations and the idylls of the kings. If we shadows have offended… Read our full review.
13. Volt 9000 Conopoly
Volt 9000 has always had a lot of off-the-shelf appeal; a mixture of rubbery, ohGr-esque post-industrial and 16-bit video game aesthetics isn’t gonna be a hard sell for a significant number of heads. What lies underneath those easily identifiable elements of style however is a rapidly developing set of songwriting skills, as evidenced by the strength of their first label release for Artoffact. Despite the bright palette of his work as V9k, Cory Gorski has never really shied away from taking on serious topics, but for the first time the songs (now created in collaboration with Andrew Dobbels) seem constructed to mirror the subject matter, corroded, broken down and mutated to address the sorry state of our economy, our lifestyles, our water, air and food. The rapid development of Volt 9000 continues at pace, with all the fascinating evolutionary off-shoots and adaptations to environment that entails. Don’t get left behind. Read our full review.
12. Vomito Negro Fall Of An Empire
Vomito Negro sit in that refined circle of Belgian dark electronic music which doesn’t have to answer to anyone. They’re perfectly happy to acknowledge others’ debt to their grinding dark aesthetic, but they’d rather dust the old formula off every now and again than entrust it to newcomers. Thankfully, the missive Gin Devo & co. issued in 2013 had all of the hallmarks we want from a VN record: slick and compartmentalized beats alongside both sacrilicious tunes and more fine-tuned tracks. Eat your heart out, eldergoths, this victory lap brings bounce and fangs.
11. Kite V
The big advantage of doing things the way Kite has – namely eschewing albums in favour of a string of EP releases – is the high-level of quality control they’re able to maintain. The Swedish electropop duo has a little less than 30 songs in their catalogue total, and here’s the thing: they’re all good, and the ones one V are amongst their very best. The wistful scandy-electropop of the first four EPs is just as strong here as it always has been, and emotions are running as high as ever, but there’s something trascendantly great writ between the lines of songs like “Dance Again” and “If You Want Me”, an admission of life’s travails and a hope beyond hope for something better. Few artists can claim to convey so much feeling and drama so genuinely, fewer still so consistently. Kite are hitting it out of the park with each at bat, and there’s no sign they’ll stop any time soon. Read our full review.
10. Klinik Eat Your Heart Out
[Out Of Line]
Not unlike the black dog of depression, Klinik have always been the maniacal outpatient of Our Thing, swinging a bike chain at any who might cross their path on the hospital grounds. Unintimidated by a near ten-year spell in the penalty box, Dirk Ivens and Marc Verhaeghen rush out without any signs of social reformation, as angry as they were when our culture first happened upon them. Masked or otherwise, the Klinik remain the meanest force outside of a skillsaw we know of.
9. Front Line Assembly Echogenetic
FLA have been dabbling with the sounds and styles of contemporary dance music for ages, but never quite like they do on Echogenetic. 2013 is the year that dubstep influences shed the fratboy connotations when integrated into industrial, and no small part of the credit for that is due to this set of songs. Leeb and band find a commonality in the aggression and syncopation of the current crop of EDM artists and Front Line’s own history: far from grafting wubs onto standard electro-industrial tunes, they’re uncovering the way current tropes in electronic music flow outward naturally from the heavily sequenced and designed sounds FLA have always dealt in. It’s the best album in years (maybe decades) from the Vancouver mainstays, an affirmation of skill and relevance commensurate with their following. This is the Front Line Assembly you should want Front Line Assembly to be. Read our conversation about it.
8. iVardensphere The Methuselah Tree
Tracing iVardensphere from their 2009 debut to their 2013 LP is a bit of an eye-opener. We’ve made plenty of hay from how far Scott Fox and his rotating cast of collaborators (notably Jamie Blacker of ESA and Yann Fausurrier of Iszoloscope) have brought the project’s unlikely pairing of analogue synth wizardry and world percussion in the past, but even we weren’t expecting the level-up of The Methuselah Tree. By far the most natural and transparently produced effort the iVs have ever assembled, the record is a cultivated mixture of instrumental and vocal elements that blend so naturally that they appear seamless and inseparable. Fox and company are approaching the rarified territory occupied by Thirlwell and the Brothers Humberstone, where the concerns of composition and studiocraft flow together as one with a singular purpose. Read our making of the album featureand our full review.
7. Gary Numan Splinter (Songs from a Broken Mind)
The popular telling of Gary Numan’s career is so well-established at this point that most music writers and fans take it for granted. The genius musician and genre forefather whose classic work has only recently begun to be acknowledged for it’s strength and influence is a compelling narrative, although it leaves some enormous gaps; most glaringly, what has Numan been up to for twenty years or so? Splinter makes for a handy answer to that query, an incredibly engaging and compulsively listenable collection of tunes that summarizes the dark, synth-based rock that Uncle Gary has been gradually perfecting over the course of his career renaissance. It’s probably a given we would love it (the name of the site is no coincidence), but how much it speaks to why we like Numan and his specific influence on what we do is here in no short supply. Gary Numan is a progenitor of Our Thing, and in a grand and circular way has ended up forging a new path through it. Read our full review.
6. Distorted Memory The Eternal Return
[Disciples Of The Watch]
Adrift in an uncaring hinterland of Canadian industrial, who dotes upon the cavorts of Distorted Memory? We do, motherfuckers. Whether you noticed it or not, Jeremy Pillipow cashed in his chips after 2012’s Temple of the Black Star, and synthesized that EP’s nods to witch house into one of the most refined expressions of dark electro we’ve heard since Bunkertor 7. Coming through the speakers like a special Marvel “What if Futurepop had never happened and I didn’t give a shit?” issue, The Eternal Return kicked our asses upon its emergence and has managed to insist upon its presence on car speakers and commute headphones ever since. As angry and slick as Alec Baldwin in Glengarry Glen Ross, we owe this record a set of steak knives. At least. Read our full review.
We have the fourth installment of We Have A Technical hot and fresh out the kitchen and ready for the freakin’ weekend! This time out we’re talking the last couple of records from Vancouver institution Front Line Assembly (Airmech and Echogenetic), plus recent side records from Stefan Poiss, mostly known for his work with mind.in.a.box. There’s also some quick talk about recent gigs we’ve caught from Peter Hook and The Legendary Pink Dots. Additionally, the podcast is up and running on iTunes, so head over there and rate, review, and/or subscribe if you’re so inclined. You can also stream it in the player below, or download it directly here.
In Conversation is a feature in which the senior staff talk about a recent record we’re listening to. Not exactly a review, it’s pretty much exactly what it says on the tin: two music nerds having a conversation about an album with all the tangential nonsense, philosophical wanking, and hopefully insightful commentary that implies. This outing involves a long-running electro-industrial band from Our Thing who are trying out some new (although not unexpected) sounds…
Front Line Assembly Echogenetic
Alex: I don’t think anyone is really surprised at the amount of dubstep wubs slathered all over the new Front Line Assembly album. After all, 2012’s Airmech soundtrack was full of tasteful nods to that most popular of electronic genres, and honestly, I feel like people were a lot more excited for it than they were for most of the recent releases from Bill Leeb and company. So yeah, Echogenetic feels like it flows pretty naturally out of that to me, and you know what? I like it. I like it a lot, actually. I’m actually probably as surprised as anyone by that, but I have a couple ideas why.
Firstly, and this is important, the pump has really been primed going into the listening experience. FLA put their best foot forward by releasing “Killing Grounds” as a single, that song is straight fire from beginning to end and wasn’t shy about showing off the integration of EDM into the Front Line arsenal. And that leads us to the second thing, that it (and the whole record really) still sounds like FLA. The song has wubs and lots of those stuttering synth lines, and the quirky rhythmic features of d’step, but under the hood it still has the deep production, the layering, the high-tech atmosphere you want when you toss on an LP by these guys. I’m sure there are people who heard it and instantly wrote it off based on their dislike of the dubstep tropes, but to me it was like okay, these guys have proven they can do this hybrid really well, so why not give the record the benefit of the doubt? How did you find it matched up to your expectations?
Bruce: The priming the pump point is a key one. Many of these markers have been floating around the FLA cosmos for a couple of years now, and that releasing Airmech might have been used as a bit of a testing ground for some of them in a more controlled environment (instrumental, soundtrack, not toured for). Hell, even in thinking back to our interview with FLA I’m beginning to wonder if that idea was already kicking around Jeremy and Bill’s heads. Airmech definitely took a few spins to work its charms on me, but once it had it was locked in pretty good.
Going into Echogenetic, I guess I wanted FLA, but I wanted “modern” or contemporary FLA, and I got that in spades. We have those dubsteppy breaks and smooth, blurry EDM tremors, but it feels as though they’ve been blended into very classical Front Line structures. I think what jumped out at me even more than those current tropes, though, was the amount of, well, flat-out poppy tunes that were on it. The bubbly but somehow mournful tone of “Blood” brought Necro Facility’s “Fall Apart” to my mind for example. In a sense, I think this can almost be backdated to “Social Enemy”, the stand-out cut from 2006’s Artificial Soldier, in which we had the classic speedy FLA groove welded to a very insistent melody. Parsing the division of labour within the FLA camp’s always been tricky, but I feel as though our boy Jeremy Inkel coming into his own not just as a producer but as a songwriter (specifically one who grew up blasting classic FLA jams) has a fair bit to do with retrofitting earlier FLA templates to new sounds. Are you getting that same poppy, melodic feel from Echogenetic?
Alex: Absolutely. I’m not gonna be so bold as to credit any one individual as the font of melody on the record, (you and I are both relatively friendly with pretty much all the non-Leeb FLA principles of the past decade or so, and are no closer to really understanding how they work together), but there’s no doubt that between Bill, Jeremy, Jared, Craig and Sasha a bunch of rock solid tunes got written and recorded. I was expecting their to be a lot more OMGDUBSTEDSUCKS commentary from the peanut gallery, but I think the strength of songs like “Deadened” – which coasts on some hard syncopation and has a really intricate interplay of sequences – has pretty much killed that criticism on arrival. If you pause to pick apart “Ghosts” or “Exo” and you can find some really simple and easy to “get” songs that have been enlivened with deep production.
Front Line Assembly are to my mind one of the most cyberpunk bands, and when I say that I mean the kind of cyberpunk that first emerged in the 80’s and is now a distinctly retro sensibility. The samples, the mechanical structure of their songs (and in fact their albums: give a listen to the pre-Millenium records with that in mind and you actually discover some smart choices in song sequencing), the subject matter: it’s the music you imagine Deckers and Keyboard Cowboys blasting as they coast through virtual neon worlds. One of the really cool things with Echogenetic is the clash of this very old school cyber motif and this very modern production sensibility. It could have really fallen flat really easily, with tired cliches dressed up in 2013 clothes, but instead there’s a real energy that flows out of that friction. It kind of reminds me of that recent trailer for the new Cyberpunk 2077 game, it’s recognizably the thing we came for, but built with new tools and ideas.
Here’s a question: in spite of being informed by the current hottest mode of electronic dance music (and having two bangers in the form of “Killing Grounds” and “Exhale”) do you get the sense that this record isn’t geared for the club particularly? And does that actually matter for an electro-industrial record in 2013, or for FLA in general?
Bruce: Hmm. I’d like to back up a sec and say that we can point to Echogenetic as a solid example of how to integrate current sounds into your template without sounding like you’re either cashing in or in danger of releasing something that’ll sound dated by the time you tour for it. FLA have been constantly plugging in the styles of the day for a couple of decades now, with mixed results (and even poking fun at themselves while doing so), but like you said, this feels very much like a classic FLA album under the hood with some modern body work. I kind of got on my soapbox about reactionary panic when it came to dubstep touches while discussing the new XP8 album, and I feel the same principle applies here: as long as you’re not shoving all of your chips into the corner of the current sound, industrial’s proved pretty resilient when it comes to synthesizing new touches.
Anyway, to your question: it did take three or four spins for Airmech to truly click with me (though when it did, whoah…), while Echogenetic felt a lot more immediate. I think that has to do with the emphasis on programming over atmosphere more than the question of big, clubby singles, though. There aren’t any tasteless bids for club play here, no, but that didn’t stop FLA from becoming one of the most important bands of their era when they first emerged and were similarly resisting the temptation to make albums chock-a-block with big bangers (according to the diktats and aesthetics of the day). I don’t want to extrapolate too much from one single album and the recent history of the city which birthed it, but I don’t think it’s overstepping to say that the industrial club (in the abstract) isn’t the driving force behind trends in Our Thing that it was in the nineties and oughts. When I think about electro-industrial tracks I’ve built up in clubs over the past few years, the majority of them have been ones I wanted to find ears and succeed, full stop, not tracks which “demanded” to be played by contorting themselves into club-friendly forms.
That said, sometimes good tunes are catchy tunes, and you point out a couple of this record’s high points and high energy numbers. What about its less obvious tracks? You’ve got something resembling a classic FLA “ballad” in “Ghosts”, and in “Prototype” a slight beefing up of the more drawn-out compositions from Airmech (like the stunning “Everything That Was Before”). Like you hint at, club play isn’t necessarily going to be driving these, but I know for certain that they’ll be major factors in my future decisions to toss Echogenetic on. How are the album’s chiller moments sitting with you?
Alex: Quite well, although I don’t know if I’d call them chill so much as just really downtempo. Even at its least kinetic there’s still a sense of intensity to every song on here. The intro song “Resonance” and “Prototype” are both pretty excellent as instrumental links to the sound of Airmech, and as mentioned “Ghosts” makes for a nice update of the FLA-style ballad. Additionally I really like the atmosphere on the first couple minutes of “Heartquake” a lot; when it busts out it’s a bit disappointing because I was enjoying the build of it so much, and I’m waiting for when it breaks down again. That said, the mix of the more textural songs and the harder dance-oriented songs is a good ratio overall. I know this is gonna sound super backhanded, but most of the latter Front Line albums are plagued by a lot of half-baked ideas that seem like they had potential but just aren’t executed that well, whereas I think Echogenetic nails what they were going for pretty much 100% of the time. Something to be said for that level of consistency: if the sound they’re doing isn’t your thing it’s all gonna be a wash, but if you do dig it (and most responses I’ve read have totally been on board with the approach) then you get it done really well.
Okay, so here’s a weird thing that occurred to me just now: how do you feel about Bill Leeb’s presence as a vocalist on the album? Like, he’s never been super versatile, but vocally he’s always been a constant through all the FLA experiments and shifts in sound. His lyrics are almost always built around the same themes and ideas (The perils of technology! Mechanical metaphors about feelings! The future or the lack thereof!), but the more I listen to him here the more I’m willing to give him credit as a front man for the project. It’s his band and obviously he’s gonna be a presence on anything with the Front Line Assembly name on it, but I kinda like how him just doing his thing here helps anchor the whole shebang. You know, it’s quite possible the sounds on this might not age all that well (that isn’t a critique, you can’t bash something for what could happen in a decade), but maybe Leeb’s processed, vocoded voice is insurance against it ever feeling totally out of step with the greater discography.
Bruce: I was actually thinking along those lines when I was listening to those slower songs and checking classic FLA jams for reference. Leeb’s vocal melodies are definitely a staple, reminding you of who you’re listening to no matter how the vocals might be chopped and/or screwed along contemporary lines, and the melodies he’s wrung from them are as much of a part of the consistent FLA DNA as the lyrical themes you point to.
Rounding this talk off, I don’t want to pull too heavily from off-site conversation, but both of us are on record as enjoying listening to Echogenetic more than Skinny Puppy’s Weapon. I realise that this is somewhat arbitrary; despite their mutual Vancouver origin and personnel/production crossover the two bands have taken very different courses over the past twenty-plus years. That said, comparisons, unfair or not, have been circulating since the pair’s earliest days, and with Puppy’s much ballyhooed (non)reemergence, it does feel somewhat appropriate to reflect on their mutual histories. Unlike Puppy, FLA haven’t had the luxury of absence making the heart grow fonder, but on Echogenetic I feel as though they’re consolidating their strengths: moving forward with contemporary sounds added to the classic mix, welding advanced programming to solid song construction, and finding new ways to bring the future-shock fun we’ve come to love them for.