As 2020 marked Fear Factory’s thirtieth anniversary, the year proved to be a less than happy occasion; with many suffering hardship due to the global crisis, the prominent cybermetal band had begun recording its tenth studio album in the year following 2016’s Genexus, but was subsequently placed in a state of halted momentum due to an onslaught of legal battles and other more personal issues behind the scenes. With vocalist Burton C. Bell having now departed from the band and leaving guitarist Dino Cazares as the sole remaining founding member, Aggression Continuum was perhaps already fated to become a notable entry in Fear Factory’s discography, but the extraordinary circumstances behind its production have also resulted in what is perhaps the group’s most sonically engaging and sophisticated record yet.
Of course, many of the tenets of Fear Factory’s established sound resound throughout the record, from the near mechanical precision of Cazares’ riffs and Mike Heller’s drumming to the darkly cinematic soundscapes and forward-thinking synthetic textures that adorn the expansive backdrops, all topped off with Bell’s signature voice vacillating between beauty and brutality. But just as Obsolete took a more organic and progressive approach after the runaway success of Demanufacture in the ‘90s, so too does Aggression Continuum more greatly incorporate a certain human element that contrasts with the band’s more recent efforts. This is partially due to the infusion of new blood as different keyboardists provide certain flavors that elevate the music; for instance, Igor Khoroshev’s decidedly orchestral palette enhances the title track with swells of strings and horns in vibrant fashion, adding to the epic scope of the song’s themes of the conflict of identity between man’s right to choose and the cold authority of the machine, Bell’s shouts of “No more” alongside the subtlety of glitchy electronics making for a perfect protest anthem. The same can be said of “Recode” as its instantly striking and anthemic chorus is classic Fear Factory, as well as the angelic pianos and strings in the chorus of “Fuel Injected Suicide Machine,” the major key progressions and Bell’s soulful performance almost belligerently ironic and saccharine against the pummeling energy its Mad Max-inspired title suggests. Meanwhile, the processional ahhs and sweeps of grating synthesized pads in the bridge section of “Cognitive Dissonance” give more of that cinematic flair to the emotive lament of Bell’s subtle harmonies as he sings “Why do you enforce your laws on me” and “Run ‘cause I’m taking you down with me.”
Other tracks are a touch more straightforward with a blunt force assault of staccato grooves and guttural riffs on leadoff single “Disruptor,” or on “Manufactured Hope,” in which the rhythmic interplay between Heller and Cazares is staggering in its technical brilliance. “Purity” perhaps best demonstrates the band’s propensity for catchy songwriting, the chord progression delightful in its simplicity, Rhys Fulber’s electronics as excellent as ever, and Bell’s vocals simply irresistible in their melodic urgency. His post-punk influences shine on “Monolith” with a lovely melody juxtaposed by shrill electronics, orchestral flourishes, and strident shuffling rhythms, the angular and energetic guitar solo by Max Karon adding a touch of progressive pop power that immediately stands out on the record (and indeed, all of Fear Factory). “Collapse” is rather conspicuous in its unrelenting fury with only a brief moment of respite in the form of winding strings and harmonious vocal layers in the breakdown, leaving “End of Line” to close the album out with percussive glitches on the guitar riff complemented by the resonance of a deep bell and thrusting beats; the ascending melody of “How can this be reality,” as well as the clean arpeggios augmented by lush strings and the laments of “This can’t be real” all deliver the perfect emotional apex to conclude Aggression Continuum… until the soundscape coda provided by Alex Rise, upon which a truncated recitation of the Litany of Fear from DUNE not only signifies a callback to Fear Factory’s early years, but also the end of an era/the beginning of another.
Burton C. Bell’s voice and lyrics had been such an integral part of Fear Factory’s sound for three decades that listening to Aggression Continuum certainly becomes a bittersweet but nonetheless poignant affair. As stated, many tropes for which the band is known are on full display, which might not garner many new fans, but along with the extravagant production and strong songwriting is sure to turn many heads and bodes well for Dino Cazares as he carries the mantle forward. If nothing else, Aggression Continuum is a firm statement of intent that solidifies Fear Factory’s singular place in the annals of industrialized metal – just as the band asked 20 years ago “What Will Become,” the answer comes simply that one must not fear, for “Fear is the Mind Killer.”
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Ilker Yücel (Ilker81x)