Front Line Assembly: Best 3 Songs per Album, Part 1

My introduction to industrial music at the end of the 1980s began with a few mix tapes from friends which included my first taste of many classic bands.  Ironically, because they would later become one of my favorites, one of the least interesting tracks on these mixes was “Digital Tension Dementia” by Front Line Assembly.  As I branched out to learn more about the various bands I’d discovered, FLA was one I saved until last because that particular song didn’t interest me that much.  When I finally started looking further into FLA, basically because I was running out of other bands to explore, I was surprised by how much I liked much of their other output.

The Initial Command; State of Mind; Corroded Disorder

 

 

I start out by cheating a bit, listing their first three albums together.  And actually it’s really four albums given that Corrosion and Disorder were originally separate albums/EPs that were later combined.

The reason I list these in a single entry is because, frankly, this is the era of FLA that I find the hardest to get into.  Sometimes, when I’m in the right mood, this stuff is amazing.  But these albums don’t get nearly as much play as the rest of their catalog, to the point where the track listings largely don’t conjure up what the songs sound like for me.

While there is some interesting stuff going on in some tracks, it all has a bit of a raw sound to it.  The first two albums feature very repetitive tracks, although the third does start to form into more traditional song structures which would be the norm for most of FLA’s later releases.

So, since I don’t know these early albums nearly as well I’m not going to try and list the three best tracks per album.  Largely the stuff blends together for me so it’s hard to identify true standouts.  In reviewing the albums for this page I was a little surprised to find I like more of this stuff than I thought, but even for the songs I like I generally find that I lose interest and move on before reaching the end.

Gashed Senses & Crossfire

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This album is where Front Line Assembly really starts to gel and find their sound.  This almost sounds like a different band than on the previous releases, with big changes in sounds used and in song structure.  The sound of Gashed is fairly unique compared to anything else in the entire FLA catalog and I’ve been told it’s because they used digital synths here as opposed to the usual analog fare, but I don’t know enough to know if that’s truly the case.  As I mentioned earlier, the track “Digital Tension Dementia” was the first FLA track I ever heard and at the time it didn’t really impress.  Even now, honestly, I find it fairly uninteresting.  I know this widely considered one of the best tracks on the album though, so I recognize that I’m going against the grain here.  Anyway, on to the best three tracks.

  •  Sedation – This is probably a weird choice, but this has always been the standout track for me on this album.  I could listen to that bassline all day, and I love the non-traditional rhythms.  There’s something chilled out about this song, with the finger snaps in some sections, but also menacing with the aggressive bassline.
  •  Shutdown – Probably another nontraditional choice but I’ve always found this track intriguing, it’s almost like it came from a sci-fi or horror film soundtrack.  I once played this track while doing a guest DJ spot on a college radio station, which I find amusing now because the audience was more into the alternative rock thing and were requesting bands like Soundgarden who were fairly new at the time.
  • Antisocial – I like this song largely for the plucky riff that plays during the voices.  The snare sounds a bit harsh to me now, although at the time I couldn’t get enough of that type of sound.

Worst Song: Prayer.  I hesitate to list this because I actually like how FLA and other bands of the era used to mix in an ambient track in with an album of dancefloor stompers, and sometimes wish modern bands still did that just for the change of pace.  But this one doesn’t really go anywhere for me.  I would also consider Hypocrisy for the title of worst song, just because it plods along without doing a whole lot.

Caustic Grip

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For me, this is the first truly great FLA album.  Gashes Senses was sort of a transition from the old sound, but this is where they finally nailed it with a sound significantly different than anything that had come before.  I remember seeing the video for Iceolate on MTV’s 120 Minutes and it caused me to waste many hours over the next months watching a bunch of alternative stuff I didn’t really like just in case they happened to play some other industrial track, which they rarely did.  That sounds a bit crazy in today’s internet age where everything is at your fingertips, but there was a time when it was a lot harder to discover industrial bands because there was no outlet for it on radio or TV.

This is a fairly harsh and noisy album overall, and I think seems moreso today than it did when it was released just because of the slick production in modern releases.  Sometimes it’s a bit too harsh for me, but at the same time that’s also a big part of the album’s appeal.  There are a lot of really good tracks on this album so I’ll see if I can distill it down to the best three.

  • Iceolate – I’ve listened to this track so many times that some of the effect is lost, or the greatness taken for granted, but there’s no denying this is a classic.  I’m especially a sucker for that melodic riff during the chorus — it was really like nothing I had heard up to that point.  There’s also a fair amount of metallic percussion on this track, which used to be a primary characteristic of the genre but which has sadly fallen mostly out of favor these days.
  • Overkill – The unrelenting aggressive energy of this song wins out over several other greats on this album.  This is almost like a punk song, just with keyboards.  I wish they’d done a bit more in this style.
  • Mental Distortion — For the longest time I only had the cassette version of this album and I had no idea that the CD version had two additional tracks:  Mental Distortion and The Chair.  So when I finally heard those songs, many years later, I was blown away by Mental Distortion especially.  A fantastic, catchy bassline and the same aggression that marks most of this abum.

Honorable Mention:  Provision.  You might be surprised it isn’t in my top three since I think it ranks that high with many fans, but for me the appeal is all in the admittedly awesome chorus.  During the verses, I’m just biding my time until the next chorus.  Also, I have to give a shout out to Victim — absolutely love that song and I always struggle over whether I like Overkill or Victim better.  Depending on the day, Victim might be up above and Overkill would be in an honorable mention.

Also worth mentioning is the song Virus which was only available via single during this era.  Harsh like much of Caustic Grip, but also catchy and fun.

Worst song:  The Chair.  As much as I love the other bonus track, Mental Distortion, I just can’t get into The Chair usually.

Tactical Neural Implant

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This album is an absolute monster, rightly considered not only one of FLA’s best but one of the best the genre has yet produced.  As with the previous two albums, the sound here is dramatically different than what came before.  This album is much less harsh and angry than Caustic Grip, but the songwriting is incredibly strong here.  My only frustration with this album is that today it sounds a bit muted – I would love a remastered version but somewhere I got the impression that this album and Caustic Grip are locked up in some sort of contractual thing so the band is limited in what they can do with them.

The most well-known track from this album is Mindphaser, which even got a fair amount of MTV airplay, but I’ve always found it a bit strange that this song was the breakaway hit.  I don’t find it as interesting as most of the other songs on the disc, maybe because the bassline is so straightforward without offering any particularly cool or catchy moments.  But all that said, it is still a really good song – there really isn’t a bad song on this entire album.

I’ll try to narrow it down to a top three although I feel like it will be an injustice to virtually every other song that doesn’t make the list:

  •  The Blade – Catchy bassline, catchy vocal patterns, great vocoder effect, this is darn near the perfect Front Line Assembly song.  Now, I should note that I’m referring specifically to the album version.  There were a lot of remixes of this song which seemed to be really popular, perhaps more well known, but to me they all diminished the perfection of the original.
  • Gun – I love how the bassline starts out slow and menacing and then, with the perfectly placed vocal sample “Front line!”, the pace and energy goes into overdrive.
  •  Lifeline – FLA doesn’t really do ballads, but perhaps this comes closer to qualifying than most of their output.  It’s a little slower and more full of emotion rather than angst, but it still fits in well with the rest of the album.  The bassline, the metallic percussion used to lay down a melody, it all just works perfectly.  And the chorus!  It’s perfect to sing along with.

Honorable Mention: The rest of the album, really.  As I said, it feels wrong NOT to include them all in the list above.  The album really is that strong.

Worst Song:  There isn’t a bad song on the disc but if I had to choose one, I guess I might go with Outcast.  It feels a bit like they were going for the same vibe as The Blade with this one, with the more funky beat, but it’s just a hair less successful.  But as I’m listening to it now, it really is great and doesn’t really deserve to be called the worst.

The Singles:  The TNI era was particularly strong when it came to single-exclusive tracks, with some easily matching the quality of the album itself.  I would particularly call out these:

  • Mutilate (Mindphaser single).  Apparently this and Toxic were included as album tracks in the Japanese release.
  • Re-Animate and Laughing Pain (The Blade single).  The first is an energetic dance track that would have been at home on the main album.  The second is a slower, darker track than what we get on the album but still great stuff.
  • Target and Heatwave (The Blade single, European release).  These are possibly my favorites from these singles, especially Target which could have easily replaced one of the album tracks.  They were later released in North America on the Reclamation album which is largely made up of remixes.

Noise Unit – Strategy of Violence

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Surprise!  This isn’t a Front Line Assembly album, but I’m including it because I consider it the “lost” FLA album and I’ve been surprised by how many fans are unaware of it.  There are other Noise Unit albums which are good in their own way, but Strategy of Violence in particular is practically an FLA album and is actually better than many of the official FLA releases.  This was released in the same year as FLA’s Tactical Neural Implant, which makes 1992 a very impressive year for Bill Leeb and Rhys Fulber.  Strategy of Violence is a more aggressive album though, with more biting basslines and harder percussion.

When I first heard Strategy of Violence, I was blown away by the complexity and creativity of several of the riffs.  They remain unique among the entire catalog of FLA and side projects, except for the FLA album Hard Wired which uses a similar style of riff in several songs.  I suspected at the time and still wonder if perhaps they used some sort of software to generate the amazing and somewhat unusual riffs that are found throughout this album.

Best three tracks:

  • Corroded Decay – This opening track tells you right off the bat that you’re in for an energetic, aggressive sound.  The bassline never gets old.
  • Alle Gegen Alles – This one has a more laid back tempo than much of the album, except for periods when it explodes in double time.  An incredible bassline iscomplemented by vocals which are lower-pitched and sound very different than Leeb’s usual delivery, not to mention that they’re in German.  And no, this song has no relation to the Laibach song of the same name although that is a fantastic song in its own right.
  •  Hollow Ground – It was much more difficult to choose the last of the three best tracks, and really the honorable mentions below could supplant this one depending on my mood on a particular day.  But this is a great song that starts out with militaristic percussion which turns into a driving four-on-the-floor all while another unusual bassline churns.

Honorable Mention:

  • Carnage – This one doesn’t make my best list because I find the verses a little less interesting than in other tracks, but the bubbly melodic riff that comes and goes in this song is one of my favorite things on the entire album!
  • Hate You Feel – Unlike Carnage, the cool riff in this song plays throughout instead of making you wait.  Another driving beat powers this one, and honestly I almost want to swap this one in for Hollow Ground on my best list.

Worst Track:  Maybe Kick to Kill, because it doesn’t really have a standout riff or moment like all the tracks above.  But also maybe The Passage, just because it’s an ambient track which breaks the high energy of everything else on the album.  But I don’t dislike either of these songs really.

Millennium

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This is the 4th album in a row where Front Line Assembly changed their sound significantly from what had come before (this trend doesn’t continue forever, eventually they settle into a familiar, consistent sound).  This time, the unique element is the introduction of heavy guitar sampled from many prominent metal bands of the early 90s such as Pantera.

The change to guitar was very controversial at the time, although honestly it wasn’t brand new — some of the tracks on Tactical Neural Implant also include guitar samples, although they weren’t nearly as prominent.  Although some of their existing fans of the electronic sound were not pleased, I believe this remains their most commercially successful album because of the crossover appeal it had with metal fans.

While this album is known primarily for its guitar and there are a few tracks where you have to listen hard to find any synthesizer sounds, there are actually several songs on this album which contain no guitar at all.  While these tend to be my favorites, I also think some of the guitar-heavy songs are great FLA tracks — I would just prefer that the guitar be turned down so that you could better hear the more traditional synth elements buried underneath.  Overall I think this is a fairly strong album even though at the time of release I was one of its detractors.  My three favorites, which are probably much different than the list you’d get from one of the metal fans of this album:

  • This Faith – A slower track compared to some of the thrashy guitar songs, this has a catchy bassline and a chorus that’s fun to sing along with.
  • Search and Destroy – This has a lot of great synth parts and a catchy chorus.  The guitar is present but not as dominant as on some other tracks.
  • Liquid Separation – Another strong FLA track with a great chorus, would prefer less guitar but it works well enough with the other elements.

Honorable Mention:  Plasma Springs, Sex Offender.

Worst Song:  Victim of a Criminal.  The other controversy with this album that I haven’t mentioned yet is the inclusion of a song with hip-hop vocals.  I agree with those who say it’s the worst song on the album, but it’s not completely terrible.

Hard Wired

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Although the previous album Millennium was the band’s biggest commercial success, there was also a significant backlash from fans of the electronic sound and so this release dials back the guitar samples a bit although they are still prominent in quite a few tracks.  Actually as I review the album now I’m surprised at just how much guitar is on it – it’s not really much of a step back from Millennium really.  Many fans claim this as their favorite Front Line Assembly release, but I would rank several other albums above this one even though it does contain some terrific tracks.  A few songs on this album, particularly in Neologic Spasm and Re-Birth, contain riffs that sound similar in style to what we heard on Noise Unit’s Strategy of Violence album mentioned above, and that’s not a bad thing at all.  Best three tracks:

  • Mortal – An unsual choice for me, because it starts out ambient and morphs into a slow instrumental whereas I usually go for the energetic stompers.  But this song is really powerful, especially when the actual song elements kick in after a few minutes of ambient soundscape and movie samples.
  • Neologic Spasm – A good opening track with a bassline you can really follow along with.
  • Re-Birth – Fantastic bassline during the verses, and a chorus that’s fun to sing along with.

Worst Track:  I give this to both Modus Operandi and Transparent Species, because both are plodding tracks without much to prick your ears up.

Plasticity

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I don’t usually list a band’s singles on these pages but I think Plasticity warrants special mention.  It is an independent release, not in support of any particular album, and the title track has become a must-play in their live act and is a true classic in the Front Line Assembly catalog.  The other track on the release, Replicant, is also pretty good with a great sing-along chorus, but it didn’t get much attention for some reason.

Continue to Front Line Assembly: Best 3 Songs per Album, Part 2

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