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Unique, if Ultimately Unsatisfying - 45%

DawnoftheShred, December 27th, 2013

Fear Factory, along with Godflesh and Ministry, is a pioneering industrial metal band that I can’t fucking stand. Their vast influence on later extreme metal is so often overstated considering how grating and repetitive they tend to be: their definitive album Demanufacture not surviving one playthrough in my collection despite it being acquired for pocket change. However their debut still managed to pique my interest, as allegedly Soul of a New Machine confined itself to the harsh realm of death metal without the mechanical attributes of industrial music and unnecessary melodic passages that so taint their later material. Unfortunately, though the band were indeed performing death metal at their earliest stage, their fascination with the static, unpleasant, non-musical industrial movement is pronounced, if not fully implemented, and the album suffers appropriately.

Perhaps the only thing that Soul of a New Machine successfully achieves is a wholly unique atmosphere for its era, as it’s hard to imagine anything else this minimalistic and degenerative about in ’92. Its cold, processed sound and repetitive riff structures punctuated by sampled film clips was surely alien for its time, with only the Napalm Death material of the time being remotely similar in nature. Still, its unique nature is not necessarily appealing, particularly to those fascinated by the increasing complexity brought to death metal, both American and Swedish. Fear Factory’s regressive approach is stifling to the imagination and it’s no wonder that that their post- “Industrial Revolution” works are compared to nu-metal. One can only assume that groups like Drowning Pool and Disturbed were impressed by Fear Factory’s plain yet crushing rhythms and tonal ambiguity, though those others clearly ignored the more extreme portions of Fear Factory’s sound, as you won’t hear any tremolo blasting in any of the derivative works.

That Fear Factory sound roughly alternates between stuttered, yet simple Meshuggah-like patterns and unexpected explosions of Napalm Death-like intensity. The minimal rhythmic approach is supported by Burton C. Bell’s weakened Barney Greenway impression, which nonetheless becomes more appropriate as the album plays on. The tonal ambiguity I find so jarring is that, despite the group’s supposed dedication to providing the most oppressive, dystopian atmosphere possible (in approximation of early Godflesh, which despite my dislike, I can at least admit they achieve what they’d set out to do and probably care little about my opinion on their work), the odd melodic bits glare through the murk and undermine the general dreariness of the record. I had figured that these parts hadn’t been implemented until later in their career (Demanufacture onward), but Burton’s tuneful, if a bit monotonous, clean singing feels out of place on this otherwise singularly discordant piece. Additionally, the subject matter leans toward the personal and juvenile, whereas a more abstract and speculative approach might have been more cogent and appropriate given the musical accompaniment.

There is a forward-thinking ebb and flow to the way these tracks are constructed, with numerous thoughtful riff progressions and a strong, varied approach to percussion that stands out in the wake of future records, where said percussion devolves to match Dino Cazares' uninspiring guitarwork. But repetition is still the fatal flaw, particularly in a track like “Martyr,” which staggers over the same passages over and over again (particularly in the chorus, a mistake to be repeated throughout the album), not to mention has these queer growl-whispering passages from Bell. There’s also an unusual arrangement of the many, many songs on the record, with its slowest tracks occupying the opening slots while the most consistently death metal-ish tracks show up in its final third or so. It is the hybridized middle tracks that tend to be the most memorable, such as “Arise Above Oppression.”

Call me a traditionalist, but I’d probably have preferred a more conventional death metal record, devoid of the experimentation and with a more complicated rhythm section. But as you may not be me (in fact, I’m sure you’re not), this record’s particular atmosphere may provide enough appeal to justify its shortcomings. There is far more depth here than on their future recordings, none of which I can recommend. Its unique qualities may grow on you even should it provide an unimpressive initial listen, though as of this writing, I cannot yet consider myself a fan.