For the frontman of a pioneering industrial-dance group that celebrated its 20th anniversary last year, Bill Leeb of Front Line Assembly is still very enthusiastic about what he does. And still very topical.
"At our last festival in Germany, two guys came up to us in full army gear," Leeb recalls. "They said, 'We listen to your music every day. You guys kick ass!' So I guess there's no turning back. Everything's so surreal -- you turn on the TV and see live combat footage. People are being saturated with this imagery every day, and they're numb to everything."
It's disturbing to discover how many solders use aggro-industrial music to pump themselves up for violence. But the violence Leeb's currently worried about is much more personal: His girlfriend, a thousand miles away, just got mugged in his hometown of Vancouver.
Surprisingly enough, that relatively tranquil Canadian city was responsible for a lion's share of the North American industrial scene in the early '80s. Inspired by the likes of Throbbing Gristle and SPK, rhythm-oriented distorto-synth outfit Skinny Puppy emerged from Vancouver; its early members broke off to form both Numb and Front Line Assembly. The only U.S. city with such influence was Chicago -- home to Ministry and to Wax Trax Records, which gave FLA its first U.S. releases and substantial college radio airplay in the '80s with Gashed Senses & Crossfire and Caustic Grip.
And a new genre was born, shedding the term "industrial" for the more dancefloor-friendly "electronic body music" (EBM); its followers became known as "rivetheads." Front Line Assembly indeed fought at the front lines of the new genre, churning out album after powerful album of brooding synth pulsations, pounding mechanized beats and Leeb's gravel-voiced lyrics, dealing with the subjects of technology, control and paranoia -- like a William Gibson cyberpunk novel translated into post-apocalyptic Terminator soundtracks.
Though its creative pace was relentless, FLA never rested on its resume. In 1994, the group shocked its core fanbase by switching to hard-rock label Roadrunner Records and releasing an industrial-metal album with heavy, crunchy guitars. Millennium became its best-selling work to date.
But FLA's followers were truly dismayed when Leeb's creative partner, Rhys Fulber, left in 1997 to concentrate on producing Fear Factory and his dark trip-hop project, Conjure One. When Leeb's successive releases leaned towards techno and electronica, and his ambient-groove side project Delerium (with angelic female vocalists such as Sarah McLachlan and Sixpence's Leigh Nash) proved financially lucrative, many believed Leeb's trademark aggression had run out of gas.
Boy, were they wrong.
Rhys Fulber rejoined in 2003, and with a lineup now bolstered by younger members (and former FLA fans) Chris Peterson and Jeremy Inkel, they triumphed on Artificial Soldier, the 2006 album on Metropolis Records (today's answer to Wax Trax). With guest vocals by Front 242's Jean-Luc De Meyer, Artificial Soldier is more than topical, considering how technology has turned the war in Iraq into a virtual-reality, media-manipulated video game.
"With this whole Iran thing, there's no shortage of shit to draw from," Leeb adds. "And with this religious war, the world's way more politically correct and it's easier to piss people off. Fifteen years ago, you could put anything on your record, whereas now people are less tolerant. Look at the Dixie Chicks -- their career almost ended because they stated an opinion. There's a lot of unspoken censorship."
After the latest remix album Fallout, which includes contributions from today's industrial heroes such as Covenant and Combichrist, Leeb promises there's at least one more new album that will join the FLA canon. And who knows, maybe it'll be about global warming.
"Do we have a future -- should we be putting everything aside and trying to save the planet for the next generation?" he asks. "Or doesn't it really matter, because half the world cares and the other half doesn't and is still trying to catch up to us, while elsewhere, people are still starving to death? And then these new companies will be coming out -- making billions like the new Bill Gates, going 'save the planet, you've got to buy one of these.'"
Looks like FLA has no shortage of material for a long time to come.
Front Line Assembly with The Start, Acumen Nation and Rein[forced]. 8 p.m. Sun., May 6 (doors at 7 p.m.). Mr. Small's Theatre, 400 Lincoln Ave., Millvale. $20 ($25 day of show). All ages. 412-821-4447 or www.mrsmalls.com