Dystopia Chic: Fear Factory and Pitchshifter

In the early 1990s thrash metal and death metal came down with a severe case of something called ‘groove’. Patient zero was probably Sepultura, who caught groove from an unnecessarily macho flee; known to science as ‘Pantera’. Other notable sufferers included the likes of Slayer, Napalm Death, Destruction, and many more. This only worsened as nu-metal gripped the musical landscape throughout the 1990s.

Now I love nu-metal proper (partly due to my coming of age in its heyday during the early 2000s), but I hate seeing its creatively bankrupt influence on mature artists who should have known better. However, in a brief window between say 1989 to 1993, there was a group of artists utilising what could be called groovy rhythms, with cold, mechanical production, repetitive heavy riffs, harsh vocals, samples, static, and other general industrial trimmings. These progenitors included the likes of Godflesh, Pitchshifter, early Fear Factory, Ministry, Die Krupps, early Rammstein, and that one track on Napalm Death’s ‘Utopia Banished’ album from 1992.

Pitchshifter, from UK’s Nottingham, started life as a Godflesh clone, with debut effort ‘Industrial’ (the hubris of that title) in 1991. Taking their cues from the ‘Streetcleaner’ formula, they removing all subtlety, structure, and intrigue, to create a bludgeoning racket of an album that takes around forty minutes to end. Many weren’t buying it, so for 1993’s follow up ‘Desensitized’ they took a different approach. And these differences are obvious from the moment opener ‘Diable’ kicks in. There is patience in the composition, more focused structure, and less needless pandering to what they think industrial metal should sound like. In short, Pitchshifter were finding their voice. The guitars are what I would call ‘off-the-shelf’ distorted. But they lurch from repetitive, powerchord riffs to wailing, one or two note leads, akin to a siren or alarm.

The riffs are groovy, but in the context of repetitive, heavy, industrial music this makes sense. It sounds like a factory. Factories can be groovy. There is also a real dummer at work here, playing on an electric drumkit certainly, but creative enough to bash out engaging rhythms that lend enough urgency and energy to this music without becoming a distraction. Vocals are a standard bark of the hardcore punk variety, with minor tweaking in the production to make them sound more robotic, but lyrics remain perfectly audible above all this.

This album saw Pitchshifter at a crossroads. Because there is no doubt that ‘Desensitized’ is more accessible than ‘Industrial’, with hummable tunes, faster numbers, harsher numb…variation…it’s called variation. But on later releases they abandoned their more alternative roots and went full nu-metal, even going so far as to deny their first two albums a place in live sets, which is a real shame. Who knows how history would have remembered Pitchshifter if they had pursued the elegant balancing act that is ‘Desensitized’ further?

Fear Factory on the other hand, found themselves at a crossroads almost from day one of their career. Somewhere between ‘industrial death metal’ and nu-metal, they walked this line with varying degrees of success throughout their career. Their debut ‘Soul of a New Machine’ (the hubris of that title), which dropped in 1992, was Fear Factory’s transitional album before their career had even got going. Initially criticised for being a Napalm Death clone, SOANM is clearly a death metal album. But not death metal as I would have it be remembered. What Napalm Death were touting at this time was notable for its cold, clear production, triggered drums, lack of dynamics, and all round mechanical aesthetic. Worlds away from the emotive neoclassicism of Morbid Angel’s ‘Blessed are the Sick’ or Therion’s ‘Beyond Sanctorum’.

But Fear Factory had something Napalm Death did not, a vocalist who could sing. The story goes that Burton C. Bell was singing U2 in the shower of his hotel room, only to find guitarist Dino Cazares knocking on his door asking Bell to join his band. Finding a willing singer in this manner is unusual enough, finding one willing to sing in your death metal band is even rarer. And it must be said, without Burton C Bell, ‘Soul of a New Machine’ would be a rather dull affair. We are treated to fairly run of the mill atonal riffary, on the groovy side of death metal, broken up by the occasional sample or programming. Indeed, that last sentence would also describe the aforementioned ‘Utopia Banished’ by the Napalm Deaths, even down to choosing samples from ‘Full Metal Jacket’. But Bell’s voice lends a new dimension to this music. Crooning over the top of this cold, mechanical metal, to me, it almost called to mind a voice echoing across a ‘Blade Runner’ esque cityscape, maybe with his face broadcast on big screens, as part of some totalitarian consumer society nightmare. You know…dystopia chic…..dystopia chic.

So were Fear Factory just going through the motions of meathead death metal with a sprinkling of melodic singing? It seems to suffer from transitionitus. The segments one could call industrial are underdeveloped, and worked awkwardly into the rest of the music, and when Bell goes full crooner on us the music has to completely alter to fit round his voice, which only serves to remind us that we were rather bored before this occurred. Indeed, even a glance at the nearly one hour runtime – made up of seventeen songs – gives some indication that Fear Factory lacked focus here. Shoving together ideas and hoping people wouldn’t notice the Krusty the Clown load-bearing posters holding it up. So given that I keep calling this album transitional, it is important to note that it was a transition to 1995’s ‘Demanufacture’, which trimmed the fat, doubled down on developing song structures, and was not afraid to embrace poppier sensibilities with dystopia chic keyboard passages.
In the context, when metal goes full ‘nu’, groove is perfectly acceptable, but keep it the fuck out of thrash and death metal for god’s sake. So in short, ‘Soul of a New Machine’ is an underdeveloped historical curiosity, held up by a talented vocalist, and ‘Desensitized’ is a commercially viable industrial metal masterpiece that is criminally under-recognised by history, and by Pitschifter themselves. It does this by combining winning formulas like structure, variation, and dynamics, with brutality, aggression, and atmosphere. And much like my discussion of Godflesh’s ‘Streetcleaner’, it’s this foggy notion of atmosphere that remains such an underrated quality in industrial metal. Indeed, if industrially minded musicians were half as infatuated with atmosphere and rhythmic diversity as they were with ‘Full Metal Jacket’ samples, the industrial metal landscape would be rich with creativity, and this review section would feature industrial on an almost bi-annual basis. As it stands albums like ‘Desensitized’ remain a rarity, so give it a listen and cherish.

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