Whenever I see a Frontline Assembly album, I'm reminded of an interview I did some twelve years ago with FLA frontman Bill Leeb. Though most of the details are hazy, I distinctly recall Leeb expressing his dislike for guitars. He hated them, as he hated all of the trappings of rock 'n' roll.
Though Frontline Assembly eventually gave in and added guitars to their icy-cold industrial sound -- it was, after all, the best way to sell albums in Nine Inch Nails' heyday -- Leeb and his various collaborators have, in general, taken a surprisingly conservative approach to their music. Thanks to his lengthy list of side projects, which include Noise Unit, Cyberaktif and Delerium (which has now eclipsed FLA in terms of commercial success), Leeb hasn't had to tinker with FLA's formula in order to boost sales or jump-start his creative process; he can afford to ignore the genre's trends. He makes albums when he wants to, and refines the group's approach a little more with each new release.
In theory, there's relatively little difference between Epitaph (which is not the posthumous release its title suggests) and vintage Frontline Assembly. The recording quality is obviously better, and Leeb's use and understanding of melody has improved over time, but FLA is essentially the same cold, clinical group it has always been. And that's fine; for every tight-t-shirt-wearing kid who expects an emotional payoff from every CD he buys, there's a black-clad kid who assuages his own feelings of loneliness and alienation with Frontline Assembly's bloodless, techno-ascetic grooves. There's a definite demand for FLA's art, and on Epitaph, they're at the top of their game.
Nobody combines dystopian ferocity with high BPMs better than Bill Leeb, although you sometimes need to hack through the music's grim granite facade to find its riches. Tracks like "Dead Planet" perfectly evoke the grey, Big Brother-style menace of post-apocalyptic sci-fi landscapes; the threat is tangible and ferocious, the energy and adrenaline high. Dismantle the song with your ears, however, and you'll find the artistry: layer upon layer of complex keyboard sequences create that so-called "linear" sound, and the palpable sense of menace is evoked by half a dozen interlocking melodies. Listen to "Backlash" and note the surprising impact of its looped sequence of "live" percussion; Leeb may despise rock 'n' roll, but "Backlash" rocks all hardcore.
"Everything Must Perish" shows Delerium's undeniable influence -- not just in the didgeridoo-aping chords that float deep in the mix, but in the unabashedly tuneful chorus, which offsets the harshly-whispered verses with honest-to-goodness singing. The same is true of "Insolence", which clearly wants to be dark and forbidding, but can't hide the compelling, danceable prettiness of its intricate melody and drill-and-bass-derived rhythm. This is FLA's distinguishing trait, and sometimes their saving grace -- a hidden stretch of flowering beauty in a ruined landscape. It's not unique to Epitaph, but this is the best they've done it.
As for low points...well, you'll find far deeper sentiment in the average fortune cookie than you will in FLA's lyrics. Vocals in this context are little more than a special sort of keyboard, grinding out trite couplets that reinforce the music's underlying imagery while investing it with an emotional perspective. If you don't understand a word that's said, don't worry; it's more important to perceive the mood behind them.
Frontline Assembly's sound is the purest remaining form of the "industrial" ethic pioneered by Wax Trax and Nettwerk in the mid-1980s. It has changed, and advanced, but the alterations are subtle, motivated more by improvements in technology than external forces like musical trends. For my money, that's a good thing; it shows Leeb and Peterson's confidence in their abilities, and in the long-standing appeal of their chosen genre. Even after fifteen years, and countless albums and EPs, Frontline Assembly still doesn't rock.