It might sound dismissive to say that Fear Factory’s discography consists of botched attempts at making an alt-metal version of OK Computer, since their formative albums actually predate Radiohead’s opus, and its clear that the industrial rock vets are fellow travelers, not imitators. Like Radiohead, Fear Factory embraces the digital age, sonically, complementing their riff-driven rock numbers with electronic sampling, while bemoaning said age lyrically, with alienation and dehumanization tropes frequently providing a thematic focus. And when singer Burton Bell stops shouting and starts singing, he reveals another similarity with Thom Yorke: a potent strain of Bono-worship, which he forthrightly acknowledged by wrapping up 2005’s Transgression with a hard-knuckled rendition of U2’s “I Will Follow.”
Though they’ve never managed a landmark album of their own (their best, 1995’s Demanufacture, is an enthralling near-miss), Fear Factory has turned out a solid catalogue of haunting industrial metal. But the last few years have been particularly rough for them, with lineup changes and legal woes bringing their productivity to a standstill. Nonetheless, they’ve rallied for a third decade, and while Mechanize is certainly flawed, it’s also a promising new beginning.
For much of its runtime, the album showcases Fear Factory’s leanest, most aggressive performances to date. During the heyday of ’90s guitar rock, many alt-metal bands, Fear Factory included, succumbed to the promise of a mainstream breakthrough, diluting their sound and giving rise to the awful hybrid of radio-rock and post-Korn aggro that came to be called nü-metal. Thanks to new-millennium Internet culture, that temptation has waned: Extreme metal acts can find wider audiences without softening their edges, but perhaps more significantly, the profusion of micro niches and mini scenes means there’s just less of a mainstream to cross into. So where previous dalliances in post-grunge and hard rock too often left Fear Factory sounding like second-rate substitutes for Faith No More or Marilyn Manson, Mechanize fully embraces the possibilities of thrash and metalcore.
The title track provides a ferocious opening, with snarling guitar riffs breaking hard and fast over a punishing double-bass drum assault. In the next 12 minutes, the band dishes out three tracks and no compromises. The mayhem culminates on “Powershifter,” which alternates galvanizing choruses with passages of utterly berserk instrumentation. With each succeeding track, though, one suspects that Fear Factory has gotten a little carried away with their new emphasis on speed and precision. Without variation, relentlessness can sound a lot like unimaginativeness. The rushes of machine-gun metal that invigorate the album’s opening run start to go stale, beginning with the impossibly unsubtle “Christploiation.” It’s the fifth track in a row to see the band lock into a (admittedly decent) Slayer impersonation, and it’s not also the last. Fear Factory tries admirably to break up the monotony by playing around with samples and ambient passages, but they tend to affix them, somewhat artlessly, to the intros or outros of their songs, rather than finding interesting ways to work them into the mix.
The album does recover in its last few tracks: “Designing the Enemy” is held together by a terrific vocal performance from Bell and some creepy, atmospheric keywork, while “Final Exit,” uses the bands last real hit, 2001’s “Invisible Wounds,” as a departure point for a closer that is, by turns, ethereal, anthemic, and terrifically heavy. Fear Factory has always been most appealing as a thinking man’s metal act, and if Mechanize largely dials down the thinking in order to ratchet up the metal, its final act suggests that a better balance is within the band’s reach.