Rhys Fulber of Front Line Assembly Talks Tech, Music Trends, And Classic FLA

photos by Bobby Talamine

I’ve been asking every artist this question, and my apologies if you’ve already had to answer it many times: How did the pandemic affect your workflow- both for this album and for your other projects?

A lot of the best known records I have made were all made under self imposed lockdown like conditions, but usually with a few other people in the room. This time I am alone and sending files back and forth, which Bill and I were doing already because we lived in different cities, so its not a major adjustment as far as working on music goes. In fact the pandemic brought me back to Canada and Bill and I actually completed the song “Unknown” in the same room so that’s an inverse effect.

I feel like Mechanical Soul has a much more old school “classic” FLA sound than say, the previous release Wake Up The Coma. I know it when I hear it but it’s sometimes hard to describe. At this point if somebody asked you to describe the “classic” FLA sound, what would you say? How much of it has stayed the same for all these years and what has changed?

I guess the “classic” FLA sound is a one-bar EBM bass line and then a big chorus part supported by pads and Bill’s voice. I think music goes in cycles and its come back around to where we started in a way. EBM was a techno buzzword a few years ago with new, younger artists exploring that style. I guess if you stick around long enough your original suit comes back in fashion. However Bill and I are always listening to new music and that will always influence you to some degree. I think the key here is adding upgrades here and there while keeping the body intact. Also doing live techno sets in that environment helped me incorporate some of those dynamics into the new FLA as well. There are arrangements we would not have done in the early 90s on this record.

I love that you brought on Jean-Luc DeMeyer for “Barbarians.” How did this collaboration come about? I see it’s a reworking of “Future Fail” from Artificial Soldier…

It was just a case of reusing a great vocal and giving it a backdrop where it can shine more clearly. Bill loved that vocal and felt it got a bit buried under a busy uptempo track and though slowing it down and going more epic would highlight it more. He sent me the half time drum loop and then I built the music around that and the vocal. Vocals are usually added last to our music so this time it was the other way around. Jean-Luc has such a unique voice and lyrical style it can easily function as a foundation.

 Tell us about some other projects you worked on in 2020, i.e. Cyberpunk 2077 and your solo album Diaspora. I love the track with Sara Taylor [of Youth Code], not just as a Black Flag fan but because it has such a cool energy between the two of you.

Cyberpunk was a fruitful project. I did 6 pieces for it but only 2 made the game, but working in that style spun off into my solo album Ostalgia. The tracks “Fission” and “Apostel” were developed from the game demo tracks and the style of the others influenced a few others on the album. The FLA track Stifle was also originally for the game. I had the idea of doing an electronic version of “Slip It In” for a while because the riff to me sounded like a great EBM riff. I was worried about the perception of the lyrics, so I thought having a female voice would be a more interesting juxtaposition, and Sara immediately came to mind with the power of her delivery. She came by my studio in Los Angeles and we had it down in a couple hours.

You guys also worked with Dino Cazares from Fear Factory on this album…I’m assuming this connection dates back to your work with them in the 90s but it was surprising and refreshing to hear guitar on an FLA album, since it doesn’t happen often. Was this your idea or Bill’s?

This was Bill’s idea. Stifle was a Cyberpunk track originally and Bill liked it and put down his vocals. After that he thought adding some guitar stabs would elevate the track even more so I asked Dino and of course he did a great job with minimal instruction. I have been doing some keyboards on an upcoming Fear Factory album (!!! -Ed.) and talk to Dino fairly often so it was easy to make happen.

I’m asking about the track with Dino also because it seems like guitars are showing up in a lot of electronic music lately, which again reminds me a little of the late 90s, yet it seems like there is a lot more crossover nowadays between genres.

I hate to phrase it this way because I sound like such a stereotypical clueless music journalist, but where do you see electronic music going next?

Its hard to say because electronic music is a broader and broader term. Most hiphop and pop music is technically electronic music, so in a way it’s already everywhere. I think we are seeing more circling back as well. I am hearing productions that now sound like the early and mid 90s as opposed to the 80s influence thats already everywhere, so it will probably just be overlapping circles in either direction.

Review of Front Line Assembly, Mechanical Soul

by Adrian Halo

It seems that every Front Line Assembly album hits closer and closer to home with their themes of cold, eerie dystopia and isolation. This one in particular feels brutally apt, almost prophetic, given the pandemic and the turmoil it caused around the world in 2020. For example, in the opening track “Purge,” Bill Leeb’s trademark Vocoded growl warns us that “ the war has begun/we all need guns.” The desolate brassy synths in the chorus instantly takes us back to the band’s roots circa Gashed Senses & Crossfire or perhaps Tactical Neural Implant. The swirling, atmospheric  intro to “Glass And Leather” turns abruptly to a gritty four-on-the-floor kick and a stuttering lead synth. The hi-hat rhythms and sampled vocals in the background add sort of retro, glitchy electro vibe which, combined with Leeb’s rasping vocals, makes for an interesting contrast. The dystopian theme continues on “Unknown,” which has all the makings of a classic FLA anthem, capturing a feeling of hopelessness that feels all too timely, such as the chorus: “Thinking about tomorrow/lost and forgotten sorrows/new horizons come and go” asking, “Do we live forever? In the future we call never?” The epic chorus builds up beautifully with swelling synth pads and stacked layers of vocals, raising goosebumps on one’s arms. 

There are a couple of notable collaborations on Mechanical Soul as well. The guitar on “Stifle” courtesy of Fear Factory’s Dino Cazares, adds a driving, quintessential industrial rhythm to a lurching, grinding track which was originally composed for the Cyberpunk 2077 soundtrack. I don’t have the first clue as to why it was rejected, as it anchors the album and provides a sort of intermission, a sonic checkpoint between the songs which flow so easily from one to the next. Another major standout is “Barbarians,” which features Front 242/C-Tec vocalist Jean-Luc DeMeyer. While it’s actually a rework of “Future Fail” from the 2006 album Artificial Soldier, the slower pace and DeMeyer’s authoritative yet soulful vocals take it in a totally different direction.

We even get to hear Bill Leeb speaking German in “Komm, stirbt mit mir” (Translation: “Come, die with me”) which will most definitely put a smile on the faces of the most hardcore old-school rivetheads. (Or at least, since we rarely smile, maybe we’ll want to stomp around to this one in a dark club someday…) And last but certainly not least on the album is the Black Asteroid remix of “Hatevol”. The noise/dark techno project of Bryan Black, the mix is as brutal as it is precise; make sure your subwoofers are hooked up for this one. 

Mechanical Soul marks a return to form for Front Line Assembly. As much as their sound is so instantly recognizable no matter how their style may shift slightly from one album to the next, this album feels strongly inspired by their own history and their “classics” in a way that achieves a compelling sense of timelessness. 

Buy the album on Bandcamp here.