The flagship in the Cryogenic flotilla, Frontline Assembly (FLA from here out), is a monster in the world of electronic music: on top of being a pioneering force in industrial and EBM, Bill Leeb and Rhys Fulber’s forays into glitch, IDM, sampled metal guitars and ambient soundscapes, they have enjoyed a long-running career in what is essentially a fringe scene. Partnerships with more mainstream artists like mezzo-soprano Sarah McLachlan on Delerium records may have aided in financing the pet project, but it has also allowed scope for these uber-creatives to delve into their many side projects – from Pro>Tech to Equinox, from Will to Conjure One – and one of my personal favourites among these has always been the ‘harder’ offering, Noise Unit, whose 1992 release Strategy of Violence (and its associated single “Hollow Ground”) unalterably shaped my experience of industrial music, stirring my musical evolution alongside such greats as Skinny Puppy’s “Assimilate,” Ministry’s “Psalm 69” and Nine Inch Nails’ “Wish.”
And now, after 16 years (2005 saw the release of the Voyeur album) there is finally a new record from the duo under the Noise Unit moniker and my nostalgic excitement is, understandably, overflowing. Deviator is not, however, the record I expected. In short, I was hoping for club-oriented electronics with a firm focus on driving rhythms and heavily treated vocals. Instead, I received nine FLA outtakes stripped down and remixed for dancefloors, with a few traces of vocoder-overlays sprinkled across the ensemble. The addition of guest vocals from KMFDM/PIG vocalist Raymond Watts on “Atrocity Obsession” is a well-positioned change in pace, but it does (once again) recall FLA more than classic Noise Unit – specifically John-Luc de Meyer and Eskil Simonsson’s vocal contributions on Artificial Soldier (2006). The guitars are also a welcome throwback to 90s industrial, specifically the Wax Trax! era.
The single in question, as a visualizer.
Please don’t misunderstand me: describing Deviator in this light is by no means a denigration. FLA is such a deeply layered, profound form of musical expression that any comparison should be viewed as a favourable one. Even a simplified, club-focused version like this is still a nuanced, multifaceted affair with so much clever arrangement and abstract sound design at work that it should be celebrated beyond the limited scope of the industrial/EBM community. Despite being electronic, the complexity and sensitivity of Leeb and Fulber’s compositions border on symphonic arrangements – and the profound emotional value this generates (far beyond my simplistic nostalgia) emphasizes this impression.
Long-time visual collaborator, Dave McKean (who shot to prominence for his run as a cover artist for the acclaimed Sandman comics by Neil Gaiman from 1989, among others) is the perfect foil to FLA’s intricate productions: feeling his presence on Deviator further reinforces the connection between the two acts. Again, I am not complaining – just stating the obvious, really.
Artoffact Records’ official unboxing of the vinyl version showcases the artwork beautifully.
Given the remarkable similarities between FLA and this side project, it becomes difficult (bordering on futile) to discuss standout moments for a wider audience; nevertheless, more personal highlights do exist. First and foremost, “Empath” not only delivers the most punishing (yet attractive) introduction on the album, it also feels the most like an old-school Noise Unit track, followed only by the first single release, “Body Aktiv” in terms of four-to-the-floor tribal primitivism.
Deviator may not have been the Grinding Into Emptiness for a new millennium I was hoping for, but there was no part of the record I did not enjoy: the lyrics are gentler than expected but still emotionally charged; the production is flawless; the pacing is dynamic and engaging; and the unavoidable associations with Noise Unit’s parent act are a friendly reminder of just how damn good FLA is, really. I can only hope that some numbers off Deviator make it onto a live setlist when FLA hit the road with Ministry and Helmet in October for their “Industrial Strength Tour” – in celebration of the 30th anniversary of Ministry’s The Mind is a Terrible Thing to Taste album.
If pressed, one minor complaint could be the album’s register – while the overall effect is a delight, just shy of an hour of any hard, driving EBM can become monotonous. More groove and variety would be a nice touch, but not a necessary concern: when buying Noise Unit, you don’t expect ballads and downtempo work amidst the industrial chaos. Other than that, I am in rivethead heaven while Deviator spins.
The aforementioned tour teaser announcement.
Deviator Track Listing:
2. Body Aktiv
4. Fargo Field
5. Atrocity Obsession
Run Time: 52:50
Release Date: September 17, 2021
Record Label: Artoffact Records
The record label, Artoffact, has also been obliging enough to share a full album stream.