Having returned after a five year absence, Fear Factory sounds rejuvenated on their seventh album.
Although they played a crucial role in broadening the sound of metal music in the 1990s and were able to hang around long enough to put together a respectable career, Fear Factory has never been able to top their two most important albums, 1992's Soul of a new Machine and 1995's landmark Demanufacture. Still, the Los Angeles band's straightforward but very effective formula managed to retain a strong fan base with audiences still showing interest in Fear Factory's classic "man-machine" sounds well into the 2000s. In the Fear Factory world, mechanical riffs are in perfect lockstep with double-kick drum beats, synthesizers providing some welcome ambient touches, and the lead vocals deftly shifting from powerful death metal growls to soaring melodic choruses. Even if albums like Digimortal and Archetype tended to sound repetitive, they still were not without a standout track or two, the band still showing signs of life even when guitarist and founding member Dino Cazares refused to rejoin after their brief split in 2002.
However, that comfortable momentum came to a screeching halt with 2005's disastrous Transgression, a poorly produced, mediocre-written effort that instantly rendered Fear Factory as metal has-beens, the songs painfully self-parodical, the two covers (U2's "I Will Follow", Killing Joke's "Millennium") unimaginative and boring. After that major disappointment, everyone went their separate ways: vocalist Burton C. Bell recording and touring with Ministry, guitarist Christian Olde Wolbers and drummer Raymond Herrera forming the middling Fear Factory knock-off Arkaea, and bassist Byron Stroud continuing to work with Canadian bands Strapping Young Lad, Zimmer's Hole, and Tenet. Interestingly enough, by 2009 it was Cazares who was sounding the most rejuvenated, his band Divine Heresy riding out some early turmoil and putting together a unexpectedly good second album in Bringer of Plagues. So when Cazares reconciled with Bell and the pair resurrected Fear Factory one more time for an eighth studio album, there was genuine cause for optimism.
Indeed, Cazares's return to the fold seems to have brought the passion back to Fear Factory's music after years of creative malaise. From the outset Mechanize is far more aggressive than much of the band's post-Demanufacture output. Cazares's guitar work is exactly what longtime fans expect to hear, alternating between punishing palm-muted crunches and churning, sustained down-tuned riffs, as Stroud and new drummer Gene Hoglan (could there be a better replacement for Herrera than metal's greatest journeyman?) anchor everything superbly. Bell, too, sounds reinvigorated, settling back into the Fear Factory template nicely, and it's great to hear the four musicians tear through the first two tracks "Mechanize" and "Industrial Discipline" with gusto.
The further we get into Mechanize, however, the sooner it becomes obvious that whether or not it's a total success depends upon the listener's willingness to buy into the band's formula, which despite the five year absence, hasn't changed a lick. Even though it's not exactly cutting edge anymore and has a tendency to get repetitive, when that trademark sound is performed with conviction, it can work just as well as it did 15 years ago. "Fear Campaign" and "Powershifter" display some excellent use of dynamic songwriting, both song shifting gears with ease and precision, bolstered by some truly excellent vocal work by Bell. Meanwhile, producer Rhys Fulber, who returns to the Fear Factory fold for the first time since 2000, adds some terrific touches of piano and synth on the pummeling "Christploitation".
If there's one big sticking point, it's the lyrical content, which, despite the palpable energy of the arrangements, recycles clichés a bit too often. The aforementioned "Christploitation" contains some of the most hackneyed anti-Christian rhetoric this side of Kerry King, the best lines he can come up with failing to sound convincing ("Your god is just a lie / Void of all meaning"), while the more hostile themes of "Designing the Enemy" and "Oxidizer" lack any imagination whatsoever, appealing only to fans of WWE and UFC entrance songs.
Despite the considerable mid-album bloat, Mechanize does redeem itself somewhat on the closing epic "Final Exit". Whenever Fear Factory attempts a slower song, it usually turns out to be a knockout, and this is no exception, as the band plays up the atmospherics perfectly. Any other metal singer might have over-emphasized the song's melodrama, but Bell's chanted singing style works tremendously in his favor here, adding a surprising emotional punch as Cazares, Stroud, and Hoglan shift from machine-gun cadences to uplifting melodic passages. It's enough to render the album's flaws excusable and compel the metal world to welcome Fear Factory back with open arms.