For 35 years, Front Line Assembly has been at the forefront of the underground industrial and electronic music scene, with each album serving as a soundtrack to a dystopian future in which the boundaries separating man and machine have been decimated and the worlds we explore are laid to waste by perpetual conflict and our very hubris. Mechanical Soul is no different in this regard, as the duo of Bill Leeb and Rhys Fulber have more than three decades of experience to draw from and having established a signature sound that is identifiably Front Line Assembly.
“Purge” starts us off with an energetic bass line and mangled samples that immediately plunge the listener into a sonic environment ravaged by violence, the trickling layers of synths and Leeb’s guttural and subtly manipulated vocals eventually giving rise to swells of a mournful melody in the chorus. There’s no doubt it is FLA as the punch and thrust of the bass loops and beats of tracks like “Komm, Stirbt Mit Mir” and especially “Glass and Leather” offset by Leeb’s whispered screams evoke the vehicular slaughter of Mad Max, while the grunt and roar of Dino Cazares’ guitars on “Stifle” add a menacing weight to the song’s strident rhythm, the chorus full of ascending tension and monotone vocal layers taking the listener back to the sound of past efforts like Millennium and Hard Wired. Similarly, the percolating and spastic arpeggios of “Rubber Tube Gag,” along with the repeated subsonic hums and throaty vocals with faint vocoder embellishments instill a sense of unease, as if to remind the listener of the pain of a failing human body – appropriate in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. Slower tracks like “Time Lapse” and “New World” are more meditative and trancelike as they emphasize the synthesized atmospheres that are at once otherworldly and introspective, while “Barbarians” sees FLA utilizing the same vocal track sung by Front 242’s Jean-Luc De Meyer on “Future Fail” from 2006’s Artificial Soldier; within this more expansive and aurally engaging instrumental, the true power of De Meyer’s voice and the poignancy of the lyrics is all the more palpable, although some will likely feel cheated at having been denied a new collaboration. The album also features the Black Asteroid remix of “Hatevol” from 2019’s Waking Up the Coma as the whiplash beats, stuttering repetition of the bass, and swells of distorted synths make for a nice bit of futuristic techno that dissipates into silence as a brief instrumental vignette brings Mechanical Soul to a close.
It has been said that truth is stranger than fiction, while others would argue that it is simply less imaginative. Although the post-apocalyptic futures predicted by great sci-fi and often referenced in FLA’s music and imagery have not quite come to pass, it is perhaps far more insidious that the corporatization and industrialization of modern society has, making the themes this band continues to explore more relevant than ever. However, after the stylistic diversity that the last several albums have pursued, there is a certain familiarity – even a monotony – to Mechanical Soul that despite some strong arrangements, dynamic production, and potent songwriting render it less than the sum of these parts. It is by no means a gamechanger, nor is it the worst entry in Front Line Assembly’s extensive discography, and there’s certainly plenty to appease longtime fans… maybe that’s enough.