n some ways, Fear Factory are the U2 of metal. Their sound changes from album to album. People like the new albums, but they like the old ones better. With soaring, anthemic choruses, Fear Factory's new album, Transgression, even sounds like U2 at times. Transgression is full of melody, energy, and hooky riffs. But it is not what made the band "the mighty Fear Factory."
Without Fear Factory, metal (and Hot Topic) would not be what it is today. Their legendary debut, 1992's Soul of a New Machine, was brutal, uncompromising death metal with churning, detuned riffs and the incredible vocals of singer Burton Bell. Bell's innovation was to mix guttural death growls with haunting sung vocals; he single-handedly invented the dirty vocal/clean vocal style that countless metalcore and emo bands cop now.
The following Demanufacture was also groundbreaking. The band started working with Frontline Assembly's Rhys Fulber, who helped establish the band's signature sound. Intact were Dino Cazares' monolithic machine-gun riffs and Bell's demon/angel vocals. But atmospheric keyboards now added melody, and a round, compressed mix made Raymond Herrera's precise drumming sound like a machine. The increased accessibility made Demanufacture a worldwide hit; its mixture of metal and electronics would strongly influence bands like Mnemic, Soilwork, and Strapping Young Lad.
Fear Factory's sound continued to evolve. Remanufacture, Obsolete, and Digimortal experimented with gabber remixes, nu-metal, and hip-hop, with considerably mixed results. Eventually, internal differences drove Cazares to leave Fear Factory. Bassist Christian Olde Wolbers became the band's guitarist and primary riff-writer for 2004's Archetype. Amazingly, Wolbers sounded exactly like Cazares, and the aptly-named album was a strong return to the Demanufacture sound, compressed drums and all.
The first notable difference on Transgression is the production. The mix is thinner, rawer, and more human-sounding than before. Herrera's drums sound more natural now, and his once-gated snares ring out. This isn't a bad thing—it's just different. In abandoning one of the band's signature sounds, it's also a bold move. Bell wanted to depart from the "man vs. machine" theme of past Fear Factory albums; the sound here definitely leans toward "man."
The album also finds Olde Wolbers coming into his own as a guitarist. His riffs are less forceful but more colorful than Cazares'. There are spacious suspended chords in "540,000° Fahrenheit," glistening, Andy Summers-esque guitars in "Echo of My Scream," cool pick squeals in "Empty Vision," Godflesh-esque harmonics in "Spinal Compression," and old-school death metal trills in "Moment of Impact."
But while the riffs are there, the songs aren't. Tracks run long and often go nowhere. Clean vocals dominate the album, which sometimes feels like one big chorus. "New Promise" gets lost in syrupy melodies, while "Contagion" is a mess, with dirty vocals mixed too loudly, clean vocals buried in reverb, and silly symphonic keyboards. "Supernova" is U2 gone goth, complete with pianos and major-key harmonies. Adding to the suspicion that Fear Factory has turned into another band is a faithful cover of U2's "I Will Follow." There's also a cover of Killing Joke's "Millennium," perhaps the first time a metal cover has sounded weaker than the original song. Have Fear Factory gone soft?
15 years into their career, with two hugely influential albums, Fear Factory don't have much left to prove. It's to their credit that they continue trying new things, even at the risk of alienating their fans. On Transgression, the band's sonic palette is wider than ever, but the colors don't quite mix. The album is the sound of a band moving on, albeit with a stumble.