I’m inside of a cavernous nightclub, flanked by a packed bar that’s humming with anticipatory commotion. The room is dark, swollen with people, all tense and wide-eyed, waiting at attention like pious proselytes. An ominous, mechanized hum ripples over the masses and light smoke swirls around us. There is a nearly religious fervor emanating from the throng. The Rapture is scheduled for this very minute on May 21, 2011, predicted by an octogenarian zealot in California. If his prophecy is true, I’m about to spend my last seconds on Earth at a Front Line Assembly show at the Highline Ballroom in New York.
Suddenly the crowd erupts with throaty screams and applause. In the haunting light, three figures emerge, purposefully stalking across the stage. Jeremy Inkel, Jared Slingerland, and Jason Bazinet each ascend to their respective stations in front of the crowd. The conflux of Front Line fans let up an ardent cry as the lanky founder of the group, Bill Leeb, attacks the mic with the spirited charisma of a cult leader.
“I’m a Bill-iever!” an audience member shouts.
Front Line Assembly’s stage show is as tightly orchestrated and thought out as any successful attempt at mind-control. One could argue that after a quarter of a century making music, that should be expected and, moreover, after so long, Front Line fandom could be considered a religion. While in that mass of sweaty, starstruck FLA fans, I realize that I’m pretty lucky to have spent some time with Bill and his band of musicians backstage before the aural assault began.
Formed in 1986 after Bill Leeb (aka Wilhelm Schroeder) left Skinny Puppy, Front Line Assembly has been at the forefront of the industrial scene, churning out a massive and relentless catalog of heavily-layered, electronic-influenced tracks that throb with an unassailable beat. FLA may have undergone several mutations over their 25 year existence, but their driving force remains Leeb’s aggressive, unapologetic tenor and purposeful resonance. It’s why the Highline Ballroom crowd spans several generations and levels of frenzy. There are the younger, more decorative attendees, some with steampunk-influenced accessories like gas-masks and goggles, others with haircuts and facial piercings that indicate that they either work within a subculture that shocks society, or still live with their parents.
The majority are older, serious in both attire and countenance, yet no less enthusiastic in demeanor. Many are in their 30s or 40s and look as though they might write code, or provide IT support for the company who manufacture the computers you’re reading this article on right now. They all look savvy, put-together, and excited to be seeing one of the stalwarts of a music scene that most likely influenced their high school experience. One thing is universal among the crowd, a respect for Mr. Leeb and co., and the music that they’ve created over the years.
Despite FLA’s wide catalog of songs and personnel, certain characteristics and themes persist, most noticeably the militaristic overtones in both name and sound. For example, their latest release is named Improvised. Electronic. Device., or I.E.D., riffing off of the improvised explosive devices(IEDs), that litter battlefields across the Middle East. After watching the horrors of elective war from their native Canada, this most recent record is a belligerent response, with battlefield-bucking imagery that defiantly screams for the listener to join in the resistance. And FLA’s sound is apparently ready to be brought into battle.
“There was a guy we met the other night who was in the military, in Afghanistan, and he said he gets pumped by listening to Front Line before he goes out in the field. That was pretty cool to hear,” guitarist Jared Slingerland told me as I observed their wares backstage. The rider wasn’t any sort of diva shit, no “green M&Ms only” snootiness, only the typical rock ‘n roll liquid lunch of alcohol, ice, and mixers. Someone has abandoned a half-eaten bag of Doritos.
“We all tossed around names and we came up with it,” Slingerland continued, shedding light on the fact that, even with a violent title, Front Line Assembly isn’t insensitive or insulated from current events. “I mean, I.E.D., it’s obvious what it is, but because it’s still kind of a sensitive issue, Bill came up with the idea of “electronic device.” There’s obviously some overlap there.”
“We watch a lot of CNN,” Jason Bazinet piped in.
Even though they’re from Canada?
“I’d rather watch CNN than Canadian news, to be honest,” Slingerland added.
One would think that, with an album title so clearly ripped from the headlines, there might be some furor, uproar from conservative groups or even anti-war demonstrators. Perhaps the name only contributes to the raw, untethered aural assault that the band is known for. Or maybe the name of the album is much like the name of the band, a title that could be regarded as somewhat ironic, given that they share part of a moniker with PBS’s stellar news documentary series, “Frontline.” It’s no surprise that they watch CNN.
It’s evident how much pride and ownership the band takes in their work, beyond their stage performance. Jeremy Inkel, the enigmatic keyboard player and programmer, isn’t simply an energetic force in front of the crowd. Backstage he was practically an enforcer, making sure that all loose ends were being tied up and the p’s and q’s are minded. He also conscientiously took the time to chat with the die-hard FLA fans who stand awestruck and slack-jawed after having made it backstage before the gig. Even with this level of courtesy and professionalism, it must be hard for a veteran of the scene and no touring amateur, to keep his cool with the endless shenanigans of his still wet-behind-the-ears bandmates.
“Not really,” he replied, smiling.
“Bill sets the tone,” Slingerland chimed in. “He’s like the ringleader.”
Again, it’s further evidence that this isn’t a band sidetracked by much in the way of drama or unruly personalities. They have a singleness of purpose: to delight their impassioned followers with a live show that is merciless and unflinching, and also combines enough of a range of songs to connect with their wide berth of fans. How do they refine a set list when there’s so much to choose from?
“We all met up with a list and went through it and Bill would be like, “No, not that.” Or, “Okay.” We came up with it together,” said Slingerland. “Front Line songs have a tendency to be pretty long, like, six or seven minutes each, so you’ll play four or five of them and then you’re like, “That’s it?” But that’s a whole set. You can’t even play one song from each Front Line album, that in itself would be a whole set.”
After a few more minutes discussing the perks and perils of touring, all four members convened in the dressing room. It was time for the show to begin. Although they vary in age and years in the industry, it was suddenly very clear that these men were united in a single purpose. It felt like a huddle before a basketball game as the lights panned over the crowd. I hastily made my way back out into the throng.
While in the crowd, physically feeling the bass vibrate along my spine, it’s hard not to stamp my feet and throw some elbows. FLA’s music is a visceral experience, both recorded and live. Leeb thrashes as he orally assaults the mic, Slingerland slays the axe and keyboard alike, Inkel screams and threatens the crowd from behind his kit, and Bazinet wallops the drums with enough vigor that I’m convinced Dick Cheney would have drafted him to interrogate prisoners at Guantanamo Bay. The show is 26 years of musical professionalism distilled and distributed by veterans of the business. After an hour and a half and an additional encore, the band waves to the still-screaming mass of sweaty fans. I creep my way backstage to see if they’re as spent as the rest of us. Back in front of the nearly-spent rider, after loading up their gear, the guys are smiling, pouring drinks, as relaxed as stock brokers at a bar after a long day of trading.
There have been countless FLA tours, including the still-painful 2006 tour attempt to promote Civilization and Artificial Soldier, a road trip that was abruptly curtailed by a snag with the bus company. Afterwards, while the guys transform from performers to roadies, I caught up with them as they loaded up their gear in order to ask if this particular jaunt around the U.S. is any different than the wandering FLA caravan that has wound around the globe off and on since the Clinton administration?
“It’s not really. I mean, it’s a little different now. I remember playing one of our first Puppy tours and being in New York. There was nothing. We were buying bags of pretzels. We made, like, ten dollars a night. We were starving, we were so poor,” Leeb remarks, relaxing with a drink, seemingly unchanged after his impressive barrage on the crowd.
And even though their fans may be impassioned to the point of lunacy about their idols and industrial music as a whole, Front Line Assembly themselves have broader tastes.
“I like a lot of different stuff. I’ve been listening to a lot of dubstep. And he likes hip-hop,” says Slingerland, pointing at Bazinet.
“I listen to a lot of melodic stuff, ambient type of stuff,” Leeb says. “I’m a huge Portishead fan. Massive Attack. Dead Can Dance, Cocteau Twins, that type of stuff.”
“When you’re on an industrial tour, this is the last music you want to listen to. You want to go to a jazz club,” remarks Jason Novak, the maestro behind the opening act DJ? Acucrack and one of the founders of industrial artists Acumen Nation.
“Or a comedy club,” adds longtime FLA engineer and mixing genius Glen Reely.
There’s discussion about what the band is going to do after the show. A plethora of ideas are thrown around the room, everything from getting pizza to heading to their afterparty in the East Village, visiting 30 Rock to stopping by Ground Zero. It’s nearing midnight. The bus leaves for their next tour date in Buffalo in less than six hours.
“That’s the pain in the ass about it,” says Slingerland. “You don’t really get a chance to do all the stuff you want to do.”
Just like Front Line Assembly, the world rolls on. There will be no end times for this interminable group, and the only rapture will be what they bring to their fans.
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