Front Line Assembly: Improvised. Electronic. Device.

[9 August 2010]

By Mike Schiller

Imagine this: Front Line Assembly has been around for just short of 25 years now. Apparently—and I can’t be 100% sure that this is true, because I just don’t have the patience to go through 12 albums and countless EPs worth of material, but the press for Improvised. Electronic. Device. says it’s true—apparently Bill Leeb has never penned a track in the 5/4 time signature before. And this is progress!  After 25 years, here it is: “I.E.D.”, the first ever Front Line Assembly song with five beats in every measure.

And yet, it still sounds like Front Line Assembly. It sounds so much like Front Line Assembly, in fact, that it would have fit right in on just about any Front Line Assembly album since 1994’s Millenium.

The truth is that Front Line Assembly has maintained a consistency of sound for such a period of time that its only rival in the clunky (and relatively dormant) electronic subgenre commonly referred to as “industrial” is KMFDM. On one hand, such faithfulness to a given style can spawn some awfully tired, rote-sounding albums (Implode and Epitaph come immediately to mind), but on the other hand, just a few tweaks to that style can result in an album that sounds uncommonly fresh in the ears of those who’ve been around for the long haul.

Picking which of the two categories Improvised. Electronic. Device. falls into isn’t quite so easy, however—to be sure, apart from one track that substitutes the Front Line formula for Ministry’s, there is nothing here that hasn’t been done before. It’s a guitar-heavy album, but so was Millenium—and the two albums even share the commonality of ballads on the eighth track (“This Faith” then, “Afterlife” now). “Angriff”, perhaps the album’s best track, borrows the beat from Implode standout “Prophecy”. “Laws of Deception” could be a remix of Millenium‘s “Surface Patterns”. The electronics and breakbeats of “Hostage” borrow heavily from “Corruption”, Flavour of the Weak‘s classic opener.

Still, despite the constant appropriation of material from years past, Improvised. Electronic. Device. sounds more like an album than anything we’ve heard since Hard Wired. It used to be that Front Line Assembly albums had themes: Caustic Grip was fast and rough, Millenium was the metal album, Tactical Neural Implant was the melodic masterpiece, Gashed Senses and Crossfire was a brief history of ‘80s EBM. In this tradition, Improvised. Electronic. Device. is, to this point, Front Line Assembly’s “band” album, on which it sounds as though Leeb, programmers Chris Peterson and Jeremy Inkel, and guitarist Jared Slingerland all have significant input into the final sound. The layers complement each other but never get in the way of the songs, and there’s a loose sound to the end result that’s difficult to quantify but permeates the majority of the album.

All of this is both despite and because of “Stupidity”, a collaboration with Al Jourgensen that turns Front Line Assembly into Ministry for four minutes. The lyrics are all recent Ministry, what with its “humanity is irrevocably doomed” sentiment and “shooting people in a shopping mall” fantasies, but musically, it’s actually a pretty impressive mashup of “I Prefer” and “The Missing”—classic Ministry, at least as much as the metal slog that now passes for Ministry.

The point: It sounds as though we’ve finally reached the stage at which Bill Leeb is simply making music with Front Line Assembly because it’s what he enjoys doing. He’s letting other people in on the act, he’s not afraid of repeating himself, he’s making music that sounds evil but having fun doing it. The result is an album that should go down easy for anyone already acquainted with the Front Line Assembly sound.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/128553-front-line-assembly-improvised-electronic-device/