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Like thoroughbred horses, industrial music has only a handful of forebears, so when the Big Three Skinny Puppy, Ministry, and Front Line Assembly seemed to be calling it quits or, at the very least, falling off around 1995, the future looked even darker than normal for the genre's propulsive, political wall of static. By 2000, rock and rehab had consumed survivor Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails, and even though the goths won't admit he's one of them Marilyn Manson had landed squarely in the Hot Topic camp.
Then, beginning in 2003, industrial music began a sluggish resurgence. Ministry's Al Jourgensen roused himself from a heroin-induced stupor to release three new albums. Nivek Ogre and cEvin Key of Skinny Puppy regrouped in 2000 from a falling out brought about by the death of founding member Dwayne Goettel, appeared at the Dresden Festival, and in 2004 released the politically charged The Greater Wrong of the Right. The triumvirate again became complete when Front Line Assembly's original members, Bill Leeb (who had once been in Skinny Puppy), Rhys Fulber, and Chris Peterson reunited, bringing in a new guitar player, Jeremy Inkel.
Front Line's new album, Artificial Soldier, drops on Tuesday, June 20, the very day the band is scheduled to play Fort Lauderdale. Artificial adds to Front Line's catalog of more than 20 full-length albums and nearly innumerable maxi-singles and side projects. Despite its place in industrial music's firmament, the trademark of the Frontline Assembly sound is that there really isn't one. Early singles like "Digital Tension Dementia" (from 1992's defining Tactical Neural Implant album) offer completely synthesized sounds, while 1994's Millennium CD experiments with sample and live electric guitars. Implode (1999) and Epitaph (2001) introduced harmonic, trancy synth lines, a bit of breakbeat, and other nondanceable tracks resembling Aphex Twin's ambient soundscapes.
But Leeb agrees it's time for industrial music to make a comeback. So he and the band are back touring behind the new disc.
"All of a sudden, we're doing a bunch of festivals," Leeb muses. "Ministry [and] all those kinds of bands are back up and about. I would say industrial music is having a bit of a resurgence. It's a good sign that Skinny Puppy is touring.
"It seems like maybe industrial music has stood the test of time. It's not just a fad or a fashion; there are still a lot of kids around who are into it. It seems to be, at the moment, alive and well in its own particular way not massive or anything. But it's found its own place; it'll always be there. It will never be at the forefront, and maybe that's a good thing."
Leeb notes that industriophiles have their own codified behaviors and sets of expectations.
"We have a new guitar player, and that goes over really well with what we've seen so far," he explains. "When we did the Millennium album, we actually did an Internet track, and in a forum to discuss it, people got pretty vicious. 'Why are you using guitars? Why are you crossing over to metal?' We got a divided camp, but at the end of the day, Millennium was one of our best-selling albums. As soon as we bring guitars into a concert, mosh pits get going people wake up. To me, it shows that it's another good element to use with everything else. It makes the electronic thing not as stiff as it can sometimes be."
One of Leeb's most successful side projects is the dream-poppy, new-age inflected Delerium.
"Delerium's revenue basically allows me to afford to continue Front Line. We just finished mixing and recording a new Delerium album due out in December. That's the project that I feel like I can continue for as long as I want; it's not an age-driven thing or a fashion-driven thing but more about aesthetics," Leeb says, adding that he foresees collaborations with singers like Sarah McLachlan whose vocals grace the hugely popular Delerium single "Silence."
Leeb is also working on patching things up with his long-ago bandmates in Skinny Puppy.
"When we get into Los Angeles, I'm going to be calling cEvin and seeing if he wants to go to dinner," Leeb says. "We all used to be best of friends long before we started this whole music thing. We were just fans, and we partied and went out and established friendships. I think Skinny Puppy is a very influential band in its own way. I hope they stay around for a while and keep doing creative things."
Leeb goes on to describe another collaborative partnership, this one with Dave McKean, a graphics and photo montage artist who did the traditional and computer-generated animation as well as the handheld puppetry for the 2005 fantasy feature film MirrorMask. McKean has designed all of Front Line Assembly's album covers since 1986, each framing the band's conceptual fascination with the melding of humans with machines.
"McKean is sort of the fourth member of the band. When I finish recording something, I send Dave the music, and we literally go with what we get back for the cover," Leeb explains. "It is kind of a neat collaboration, because I am not telling another artist how to be an artist I'm just letting him be inspired."
The image on the cover of Artificial Soldier is of an androgynous, bloody child whose body melds with an array of weaponry.
"I am interested in the whole concept of technology versus man," Leeb continues. "We're dead with technology, and we're dead without it. When we go down these paths of self-righteous destruction, it just kind of interests me."
Reflecting on the drug addictions and deaths that have ravaged many members of other proto-industrial bands, Leeb, now in his late 30s, cautiously offers a hopeful outlook for the future, saying he thinks the worst has passed.
"I think that you can sort of make plans, but I think that circumstances and fate seem to ante up and get the best of you," he says. "I'd like to say and think that between all these things, some of these things will sort of keep a life of their own and bring you to another point in life we haven't gotten to yet."
But Leeb doesn't want to spend the rest of his days being the "old man" on stage. "I'd like to some day compose a few scores for some films or something," he says. "Music and art are my only two passions. I'll keep on doing this till I fall off a chair. My biggest fear in life would be losing my memory."
Warming to the idea of heading south from Vancouver and then east to Broward County, Leeb gushes over the Massive Attack and Boards of Canada CDs he's been listening to on the long bus ride, adding: "We've always had some good tours in Florida. We've never toured and had an album available at a gig on the release date. It's kind of cool. Another interesting page in my memoirs."