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I dig this album a lot, though whether that enjoyment hinges more on musical quality or on nostalgia to when I was first getting into metal is anyone's guess. To deny the obvious and pervasive nu-metal leanings of the material here is essentially impossible, but equally impossible is to deny some of the purely excellent songwriting that is indeed present. Well, excellent as far as pop music goes; by this point, Fear Factory had left essentially all vestiges of death metal behind apart from the barest of aesthetics, and was clearly leaning towards a much more mainstream direction. If you can get past that, though, you can find a core of great songwriting, which is not only accessible, but also surprisingly deep and a worthwhile listen for even the more jaded metal listeners among us.
Weirdly enough, I feel that the most ignorant and lame songs on 'Obsolete' are those that stubbornly cling to the 'Demanufacture'-era sound instead of just abandoning that. 'Shock' is a clumsy attempt at an aggressive opener, and it's hard to enjoy beyond a sort of 'WHOA THIS IS HEAVY' adolescent fervor. But it's for that same reason that I can still enjoy 'Edgecrusher', with it's ridiculous tough-guy lyrics and silly hip-hop influence: instead of masquerading as death metal, it finds that big, stupid delight in the new sound and delves fully into it, resulting in what's possibly the ultimate metal 'guilty pleasure'. The title track is similar to 'Shock' in clumsiness, but that's about as far as the particularly offensive tracks go; the rest range from a tad mediocre ('Hi-Tech Hate') to really excellent ('Descent'), and unsurprisingly, the most fundamentally pop-leaning are the best on here.
The trio of ballads- 'Descent', 'Resurrection', and 'Timelessness'- are legitimately great songs that stand as some of the best that Fear Factory ever turned out. Burton C. Bell's clean vocals are used to amazing effect on these tracks, and are woven into the fabric of the music much better than on previous releases. 'Descent' and 'Resurrection' are the obvious standouts, with anthemic choruses and mammoth riffs, but closer 'Timelessness' is a more subtle beast, devoid of percussion and relying on pure, keyboard-soaked melody. It works. Each of this trio is a great example of what stereotypically progressive influences can do FOR an album instead of TO it, and, open mind provided, could likely convince a lot of people that the inclusion of poppy melodies, keyboards, and (to some degree) uplifting things can, in fact, be used to the benefit of extreme metal.
On the more genuinely underground side of things, there's two more standouts: 'Smasher/Devourer' and 'Securitron (Police State 2000)' are particularly of note, with sets of great riffs and memorable song structures in each. Admittedly, a great deal for my admiration for them comes from the past: they were some of the first extreme metal songs I'd ever heard. I have to say, though, that they're still great in their own right, even if they are a very poppy and accessible version of extreme metal. Even in their earliest, heaviest days, Fear Factory was never lacking in catchiness, and in this regard, I can't really accuse them of selling out as much as resorting their priorities in songwriting. Is 'Obsolete' essentially a pop album? Yeah, I'd say that's a fair assessment. However, it is a pop album geared to a metalhead crowd, and it does succeed in the attempt of crafting such a release. Plus, you have to give them credit for attempting such an ambitious concept and pulling it off so well; clearly a lot of time and energy was put into it.
I feel about this album the way many people probably feel about, say, 'God Hates Us All'. I still like it, even though my tastes have 'advanced' past it in a lot of ways. It's a disc that I like to bring out occasionally to remind myself of that feeling of discovery when I was first getting into metal. It makes me happy to hear; transports me back to being eleven or twelve years old, furtively downloading Meshuggah MP3s off Kazaa nonstop and always sharing what new musical discovery I'd stumbled upon with my friends. Such a view is a bad way to critique music. It's a great way to experience it, though.