Man vs. machine.
This conflict has raged within Burton Bell's mind ever since he was a young child. As the Fear Factory vocalist recalls, his fascination with technology turning on humankind began when he watched "Terminator" for the first time.
"The 'Terminator' movies were fantastic," he explained. "I watched the first one, and it blew my mind. The idea of machines taking over the world inspired other ideas in my mind about what would happen if mankind fell to technology."
The most prominent of these ideas is the story line that has been featured on Fear Factory's last three CDs, "Demanufacture" (1995), "Remanufacture" (1997) and the recently released "Obsolete." These CDs focus on a future in which technology has enslaved humankind.
"'Remanufacture' told a story," Bell is fond of explaining, "and 'Demanufacture' was another chapter in the story. 'Obsolete' is another part of the concept. We're up to the point in the story where man is obsolete. Man has created these machines to make his life easier, but in the long run it made him obsolete. The machines he created are now destroying him. Man is not the primary citizen on earth."
But Fear Factory (whose lineup includes Bell, guitarist Dino Cazares, drummer/percussionist Raymond Herrera, and bassist Christian Olde Wolbers) takes the concept a couple of steps further.
The CD booklet for "Obsolete" contains a narrative that details one chapter in the conflict between humankind and technology. The songs are used to help that story along. The booklet also has several illustrations by acclaimed artist Dave McKean (DC Comics' "Sandman") that are based on themes or characters from the CD.
"That was the only way to totally bring the concept out," Bell explained. "When you read the words, you can visualize it in your head. The music helps to augment that. It's like a mini-graphic novel with Dave McKean artwork throughout it and a great story that goes along with the music.
"The challenge was to make a story out of it," he continued. "It was kind of difficult to join all of these elements together. But to us, challenge is the greatest thing. Challenge makes us strive for greater ideas and concepts."
Roadrunning with Geezer
When Fear Factory, which formed on October 31, 1990, signed to Roadrunner Records in its infancy, it wasn't because the group felt obligated to meet the challenge of breaking big on a small independent label. Mainly, the group weighed out the few options it had and tried to peer into the future.
"Roadrunner was the only label that wanted to sign us at the time," Bell stated. "We knew that we needed to start somewhere and Roadrunner, back then, was just starting out as well. We knew that we could grow within the organization. Since then, we've become a big fish in a small pond, which is pretty cool. We get priority and I like that."
Roadrunner Records has grown a lot larger since Fear Factory released "Soul of a New Machine" and the "Fear is the Mind Killer" remix EP in 1992.
The label has signed such upcoming bands as Coal Chamber, Soulfly, Type O Negative and Life of Agony in recent years. The label also managed to secure an exclusive contract with producer Ross Robinson (Korn, Limp Bizkit, Deftones).
Roadrunner's windfall has had a lot of positive effects on Fear Factory's career. The band was invited to perform on the main stage of the first Ozzfest (the group couldn't be on the second year of the tour because tour founder Ozzy Osbourne won't allow any group to play two years in a row, according to Bell).
Label connections also helped Bell land a coveted vocalist position in Geezer Butler's G/Z/R project.
Butler, the former bassist of Black Sabbath, first heard Bell's work with Fear Factory after his manager (and wife) called a friend at Roadrunner Records and inquired about the label's artists. This friend happened to be Fear Factory's manager, and she sent Butler a promo copy of "Demanufacture." He liked what he heard.
"I was in England at the time," Bell, a dedicated Black Sabbath fan elaborated, "so Geezer asked me to stop by his place in Birmingshire and audition for him. When I first met him, I was really nervous. But he's so down to earth, mellow and super cool, that I didn't think about who he was. I felt really at ease the entire time.
"Geezer auditioned many, many, many singers," he continued, refusing to give any specifics other than that a lot of the singers were members of really influential, popular groups. "So, I wasn't sure if I really had much of a chance. I auditioned in his studio/attic, went home that night and found out that I got the job."
G/Z/R turned out to be quite the project for Bell. Butler had most of the music done, but the vocals weren't started yet. Butler gave Bell a pile of lyrics and told him to pick some out and sing them over the songs. Bell did as he was told, and the songs "turned out killer."
But the real payoff for Bell wasn't the quality of the songs. The real payoff was that Butler, a heavy metal god, had enough faith in Bell to place all of the vocal arrangements in his care.
Playing with 'Mesiah'
Although Fear Factory's tour bus might look a little small on the outside, it is big enough to hold an arcade in the back. Well, it's not quite an arcade, but it is the next big thing.
Every time the group goes on tour, Herrera packs up his Sony Playstation and his several hundred games for months of video game mania. He is currently obsessed with "Final Fantasy VII," but claims he only plays video games occasionally.
Well, Herrera had better start playing his butt off because in a couple of months, Playstation is launching a new game called "Messiah" that will occupy a lot of the group's time, and with a good reason.
"One of the game's designers is a big fan of our group," Bell said. "The designers wanted Fear Factory music for the entire game, so we wrote the title track, which is exclusive to the game, and donated several other songs, both new and old.
"The game is kind of a mix between Tomb Raider, Resident Evil and Doom," he continued. "The main character is a cherub named Bob. He flies around this messiah world of machinery and has to possess other characters in the game to get to different levels and parts. It is very high-tech and complicated. It's going to be really interesting."
But more than likely Bell will still be the bookworm, hunting down anti-government books and anything that pits man against machine. One of his favorite books is George Orwell's "1984" because of its portrayal of the government.
"That book really molded the way I'd think for the rest of my life," he said. "I've always had an anti-government type of philosophy of my own. I always write that way. I always want to make a statement in my lyrics because growing up under a government like ours has always made me angry."
But Bell also makes it perfectly clear that even though some factions of the group may hold anti-government thoughts and might be pessimistic about humankind's future relationship with technology, the group isn't exactly against technology.
"A lot of people get the idea that we are against technology," he explained, "but we aren't. The advancement of technology is great when it benefits mankind. But when it takes the place of mankind, that's where it becomes a problem."
Bell also realizes that people who hold extremist views concerning technology, like Ted Kazynski, sometimes create more problems than they solve.
"I read some of the Unabomber's manifesto," Bell said, "and I thought he had some good ideas. But the first page-and-a-half is the best part of the whole thing. The rest is all gibberish.
"His thoughts about technology were a little extreme," he continued. "He saw technology completely taking control and humankind being completely under the gun of the government. He had a few valid points, but his methods were all wrong.
"He just went the wrong way in getting his ideas across," he concluded. "Instead of supporting ideas with violence, you should support them through education. Teach people about what you have to say, don't just blow shit up to make people listen."
Bell is following his own advice. His group is currently on tour with Kilgore and Slayer, and this gives him plenty of time to spread the word about the potential dangers of technology. It also gives him plenty of time to party.
"The audiences are packed and people are going wild," Bell said, with a slight touch of glee. "You are going to lose your fucking mind because Slayer is loud and they play an hour-and-a-half set, and its new and old music. They still kick ass and it's great to be on tour with them."
Fear Factory will be playing tonight at 7:30 at Supertoad in Des Moines. Tickets are $22.50.