FEAR FACTORY SINGER RETURNS WITH ASCENSION OF THE WATCHERS
Fear Factory singer Burton C. Bell is finally back with a new project, Ascension of the Watchers, along with John Bechdel (Killing Joke, Ministry) and Edu Mussi (Still Life Decay). As other Fear Factory members have gone forth and prospered in the metal world — Dino Cazares with Divine Heresy, and Christian Olde Wolbers in the producer’s chair for Mnemic and Threat Signal — Bell has been relatively quiet in recent years, and has taken a decidedly different path than his former Fear Factory brothers.
Bell’s silence is about to end, relatively speaking, with Numinosum, the debut from Ascension of the Watchers, due February 19. Numinosum is Fear Factory’s ambient alter-ego, with its atmospherics and electronics representing everything Fear Factory was not. Imagine the filler tracks on a Tool album, full of samples, atmospheric keyboards, and whispers. Picture the brooding, dark, tripped-out explorations of the soul that have always made up the majority of Nine Inch Nails’ album tracks. Now imagine those on top of beats reminiscent of a darker, dirtier Portishead — and you should have a pretty good idea of what Numinosum sounds like.
The lack of traditional metal on the album certainly doesn’t mean that certain metal-heads won’t take to Numinosum, nor does it mean that the album isn’t without merit. Those who enjoyed the most brooding piano-heavy cuts from Nine Inch Nails The Fragile, or the darker, stripped down emotion of Filter earlier material will revel in the dense melodies of Numinosum. Keyboard samples and flourishes weave their way through spacey guitars and programmed beats beneath Bell’s airy voice. Not all songs are of the brooding variety; “Canon For My Beloved” and “Moonshine” are triumphant, major key orchestrations that incorporate live drumming and acoustic guitars. Bell’s voice varies from a Peter Steele-esque bellow to higher, throatier, yet still graceful incantations, covering the same range of emotions the music evokes, sometimes even within the same song. The band’s cover of the Simon & Garfunkel classic “Sounds of Silence” is a great showcase for Bell’s voice, propped up by layer after layer of vocal harmony and synth-strings for epicness.
If Fear Factory was about aggression and brutality, Ascension of the Watchers is about mood and orchestration. In fact, if there’s one word to which I keep coming back to describe this album it’s “orchestration;” all the tracks truly unfold like full orchestrations, as does the album as a whole. Layer upon layer of sound are laid on top of one another to create a dense aural experience; this is one of those albums where every instrument, note and phrase has a distinct purpose in both the immediate and grand scale, where attention is paid to every detail. Audio treats such as background vocals, horns, and acoustic guitars reveal themselves in every nook and cranny of this work of art.*
Numinosum is lyrically conceptual in a way that Fear Factory never was, at least to this reviewer’s knowledge. According to the press release we received with our copy of the album — which is actually a missive written by Bell himself — the album explores religious themes without being preachy in the slightest. “Lyrically, I wanted to explore the true nature of my soul, the place where my heart was headed. After reading the Dead Sea Scrolls, I was inspired by the Book of Enoch. In that book, I read about the Watchers, and their incredible story of desire and abandon. In a strange way, I related to the story. In my poetry, my words expressed the same desires and losses. After much thought, I came up with the band name Ascension of the Watchers; and built a story around the name of a Watcher who dreams of redemption.”
If you’re looking for a Fear Factory redux or a modern riff-fest with Bell’s grunts on top, Ascension of the Watchers is not for you. For those in search of a low-key, atmospheric rock record that’s good for both late-night hangouts and private headphone examinations — one that’s truly different — you ought to give it a shot. Ultimately the album’s downfall is the focus on mood and orchestrations over songs — there’s not a whole lot that’s immediately memorable here. While I can’t say that Numinosum is necessarily an album I’ll come back to often it’s an extremely ambitious and interesting project. If anything, Burton C. Bell should be applauded for stepping far outside a mold he helped to create.
Numinosum comes out February 19th via Al Jourgensen’s 13th Planet Records.
(three out of five horns)
*It should be noted that the New York City stop of the band’s February tour is at Chapel of Sacred Mirrors, the gallery of long-time Tool artwork collaborator Alex Grey. This leads me to think there may also be a visual element to the band’s live show? Either way, it’s intriguing.