Frustrating electro-industrial record from seasoned Canadian group
While 2020 may have finally ended, the world thankfully hasn’t quite yet. As 2021 is ushered in, people are left picking up the pieces of last year’s hardship and injustice, but there’s still hope for a brighter future–unless you contributed to Front Line Assembly’s 2021 doomer electronica release, Mechanical Soul.
On their 17th full-length release, the iconic Canadian industrial outfit conjure images of a burnt-out, hopeless future. Permanent members Bill Leeb and Rhys Fulber are joined by Jean-Luc DeMeyer of Front 242 and Dino Cazares of Fear Factory to create a dark, brooding listening experience, albeit one that sometimes lacks variety or ingenuity. The record is full of unsettling ambience, biting synthesizers and raspy vocal deliveries, but that collectively uneasy mood is a bit cliche and overdone.
The building blocks of Mechanical Soul are, fittingly, techno synthesizers that often play a frantic, digitized riff on each track. Opener “Purge” features this cold synth sound heavily alongside a heaping helping of off-kilter white noise and pulsating kick drums. “Glass and Leather” builds around those same synths; this time, Leeb and Fulber pair them with brooding, caustic white noise and a blown-out bass that’ll catch even the most resolute of listeners off guard.
The pulsing, driving sounds of Mechanical Soul’s earlier offerings continue onto “Unknown,” which has a heavy-hitting sound of its own. Rather than relying on acidic basslines or distorted synths though, the track swells into an electropop chorus reminiscent of the energetic sound of New Order. However, Leeb’s raspy whispered vocals maintain a clear feeling of dread and doom.
“New World” seems to mark a thematic shift on the record, introducing the listener to Front Line Assembly’s dystopian vision of the future. After a soothing introduction with light synths and gentle strings, the brooding of the previous tracks creeps back in, and Leeb reenters with his abrasive vocal delivery. Yeah, the world is still fucked up.
But the album’s potentially novel and interesting subject matter loses steam in its second half with tracks like “Alone” and “Barbarians,” two songs that lack a clear direction. Both are messy and lack color, fizzling out by the end because of a lack of change or dynamism throughout. Then there are tracks like “Rubber Tube Gag” and “Stifle,” which are a bit more compelling with their wonky, creepy production, but they still leave a bit more to be desired.
After another couple of duds at the end of the tracklist that don’t really have memorable sounds or messages, some of the band’s missteps are righted on closer “Hatevol (Black Asteroid Mix).” A remix of the same track on the band’s previous album Wake Up The Coma, the tune has more of a dynamic house feel to it, fitting perfectly within the vibe of a grimy nightclub. But the track’s outro really elevates it, as the sounds slowly fade out in an eerily beautiful stew of glowing synths and glitchy sounds.
On the whole, Mechanical Soul is a frustrating album with moments of keen sound design and production as well as passages of pedestrian or redundant instrumentation. Front Line Assembly earns points for consistency here, as the album at least maintains a cool, dystopian mood throughout, but a lack of variation and personableness hold it back from reaching its full potential.