Front Line Assembly’s lengthy career has seen them take a number of turns, adapting their own sound and co-opting others as members of the band changed, with varying degrees of success. Their initial industrial sounds evolved enormously as technology progressed, took in all manner of metal influences in the nineties – arguably resulting in their peak period – and then went purely electronic again, before rediscovering past glories in the last few years, with a critical and popular resurgence in the industrial scene.
So post-Improvised.Electronic.Device, which was one of the strongest FLA albums ever, in my opinion, Bill Leeb and his band have taken another turn into the unknown. They’ve released a computer game soundtrack.
I was not the only one to raise my eyebrow when this got announced, as it seemed an unusual move initially. But then, thinking about it, it actually made a lot of sense. The game itself looks quite interesting, and the futuristic robot/war themes are certainly areas FLA have delved into lyrically and thematically in the past (and visually, lest we forget) – and not to mention that they have been far from the only “industrial” act to be involved in game soundtracks of late, with Trent Reznor having done so before, and Combichrist being involved since too. Which suggests that maybe it was more a case that industrial acts have finally been realised as ideal candidates for this kind of thing.
I am, though, no gamer – so I’m looking at this on a purely musical level. And this album is a departure in another way, as it is the first entirely instrumental FLA album (not counting the various side projects, in particular Noise Unit). Not that this is a problem – it is an album of soundscapes, but not so tied to the product that it is soundtracking, meaning it is an utter pleasure to listen to as a standalone release.
However, it has taken a heck of a lot of listening to be able to get to writing a review of it, hence why this is being posted some time after release – and why it never appeared in my end-of-year lists, either. At the time I hadn’t been able to devote the time to listening to it.
The first couple of tracks are classic FLA – with some Noise Unit nods, perhaps – in the epic sweeps and synth washes that permeate the first couple of tracks. The point where things get really interesting is about two minutes into Pulse Charge, where an almighty dubstep-influenced breakdown is unleashed to absolutely spectacular effect. Remember the way our jaws were on the floor when the drum’n’bass wallop of Buried Alive hit us, back in 2006 or so? Yeah, it is that much of a thrill once again. And once again, the band are co-opting styles rather later than others, perhaps, but what is really interesting is that it seems that they hold back, as if fully absorbing the new electronic influences, and then finding ways to use them properly.
And boy, this album really does. Of course, the key to this kind of thing is to not over-use the effect, so don’t think that this album is just “FLA goes dubstep and sells out, man”. It takes a few more songs for it to re-appear, with a juddering, floor-cracking breakdown at the heart of System Anomaly, a track that is otherwise almost pretty synth melodies drifting above a muscular beat.
One other thing becomes clear later in the album. As Mech Killer sweeps from more thrilling, thumping breakdowns into a second portion of gorgeous, piano-led melancholy – and then even more astonishingly, album centrepiece Everything That Was Before tugs at the heartstrings with a near-celestial synth motif and electronics that are held back on a leash until the last moment, before another of those breakdowns is joined by the synth motif again for an utterly, utterly gorgeous climax – it dawns on me that the band have nailed the emotional side of the interaction between human and robot, if you will. They clearly understand the emotional disconnect, the apparent sadness at the heart of humans creating their potential replacements, and it seems that their digging into this realm – nothing new, of course, seeing as the peerless Bio-Mechanic is now over twenty-years old – is more asking these kind of questions, rather than suggesting how cool it would be to be a robot.
Clearly the issue isn’t, if you will, a binary one.
What is also worth noting is that those emotional hits just keep on coming after that. Lose is six minutes of minor key elegance, with mournful, wordless melodies that I could see a chanteuse adding her vocals to spectacular effect sometime, while Burning Skyline is first time on the album where the restraint is lessened somewhat. In come subtle breakbeats, dense layers of synths, and monstrous levels of bass. This is bettered, however, by the all-out assault of Death Level, where gravity-defying breakdowns are coupled with beats that hit like giant robots stomping on the ground in slow motion, an orchestra of synth samples and a sense that FLA, as good as recent material has been, haven’t sounded this awe-inspiring in a long, long time.
There have been a number of things that have changed over the time that FLA have been active, both technologically and socially, and this has enabled them to advance, change, tinker and adapt their sound, and their fans have been able to find different ways of picking up their music (I have material of theirs on CD, on video, probably on DVD somewhere too, and also digital of course). But one thing that the internet has changed about music is the way that you can share things. I don’t just mean by sending a copy of an mp3. I mean by “word of mouth”. And this album has been one that links to – on Spotify, or places to buy it from – has been one that has been shared more than any other I can remember in some time, and over a period of a few months, which confirms that it wasn’t just me that took a while to realise just how brilliant this album is.
Some habits don’t change, happily. And crowing about an album to your friends about how good it is, is one of those things that I always love doing. I would always rather say great things about new material, than complain about how poor or boring, or uninspired, it is. So let me finish here by simply celebrating this album, and adding to the lengthy list of plaudits it has already received.
And who knew that it would take a computer game soundtrack for FLA to release their most nakedly emotional album ever? An absolutely essential purchase.