The first Terminator movie was a major inspiration behind the man vs. machine themes of veteran industrial-metal band Fear Factory, but any similarity – even in name – between the new Terminator Genisys and the group’s ninth record, Genexus, is strictly coincidental. Actually, Fear Factory’s latest was far more influenced by one of vocalist Burton C. Bell’s other favorite films, Blade Runner.
“I was reading about Ray Kurzweil’s theory of ‘The Singularity,’ [the era when machines become sentient], and thinking about Blade Runner and the Rutger Hauer character Roy Batty,” Bell says. “[Director] Ridley Scott really touched upon empathy in that movie because the only ones who feel anything are the androids. The humans are totally disconnected. That got me thinking about what would happen to these machines when they developed empathy and started looking after one another.”
Like 2012’s The Industrialist – as well as Fear Factory’s landmark record, Demanufacture, which turned 20 this year – Genexus is a full-fledged concept album (with graphic novel to follow). But for all of Bell’s sci-fi lyrics, the themes are universal: war, climate change, religion and mortality all play into the story. And musically, Genexus is as recognizable and satisfying for fans as a good movie sequel. The staccato guitars, double-bass beats, ambient segues and mix of harsh and melodic vocals on new songs like “Soul Hacker” and “Protomech,” which can be streamed below, bring to mind a fusion of Demanufacture and 1998’s Obsolete. But Fear Factory have also made some changes, replacing the drum programming of The Industrialist with a new real drummer, Mike Heller, and using samples and keyboards (courtesy of co-producer Rhys Fulber) in an even more cinematic way than in the past.
The widescreen future world that Bell and co-songwriter, guitarist and studio bassist Dino Cazares dreamed up for Genexus is one that seems particularly relevant in 2015. At least in the movie theaters, it has been the year of A.I., with highly buzzed films from Avengers: Age of Ultron and Ex Machina to Chappie and, of course, Terminator Genisys taking on the subject. As he has been for the last 26 years since Fear Factory’s formation, Bell was happy to dive in, as well, when we talked to him before the band’s current European tour.
Have you always been a big science fiction fan?
Absolutely. As a kid, I used to watch the original Star Trek, and the stories by [its creator] Gene Roddenberry got me interested in the genre. I read Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein when I was eight years old and it blew my mind. I got into Ray Bradbury and Kurt Vonnegut. Then I read George Orwell’s 1984 when I was in ninth grade for an English project. As a young punk rocker rebelling against society and mass culture I really connected with it. I saw The Terminator around the same time and I loved it. I thought, “Could this actually happen?” It was such a wild concept that the technology man invented would rebel against him. Then I got into Philip K. Dick, whose book Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? was the inspiration for Blade Runner. All that stuff molded my creativity and personality. And when we formed Fear Factory I just felt like metal and machines went together really well.
How did you want Genexus to be a development from The Industrialist?
The Industrialist [the protagonist of the 2012 concept album] was its own character, and it was fighting for survival. It was going to be disassembled to make way for a new model. I had to think even more this time about proper artificial intelligence that was not learning, but was already sentient and was not only fighting for its survival, but was trying to create its own world.
What is the Genexus?
It’s the combination of two words, “genesis” and “nexus.” For us, this is the next stage of evolution for humanity, where nano-technology and machines and bionics become so much a part of us that the differentiation between human and machine becomes invisible. We were Cro-Magnon. Now we are the Genexus. Once we decide on the title, the concept and music really came together.
There was a recent article in The New York Times about how major media companies are using computer algorithms to create news, finance and sports stories.
I saw that. Programs like that are going to put a lot of people out of business. That’s another downside to the advancement of technology. People want jobs to be created, but the only jobs that are going to be left will be in the service industry. And even that is being taken over by machines. So what is everyone going to be doing? How will everyone survive? We are slowly eliminating humanity through technology. And it’s not even technology doing it to us; it’s us doing it to ourselves.
“Are we human just because we’re actual flesh and bone? Or are we human because of the way we treat each other?” –Burton C. Bell
Kurzweil predicts the Singularity will occur in 2045, which is just around the corner.
Thinking about that is exciting and terrifying at the same time. If there isn’t any difference between man and machine, what will happen to humanity? Are we human just because we’re actual flesh and bone? Or are we human because of the way we treat each other? How will machines treat each other and will they take on human qualities? We got into a lot of that in Genexus.
The album also addresses how mankind is self-destructive and vulnerable to disease, climate change and war, while machines can program themselves to adapt and survive.
Machines don’t need green grass or trees and they’re not affected by biotoxins. They’ll be the only ones left after the apocalypse – them and cockroaches. Man is the virus on the earth because of conflicting ideologies, greed and the need to mass produce garbage. We’ve gotten out of control and that could be our undoing.
Do you follow any other scientific philosophers besides Kurzweil?
I like Stephen Hawking and his theory of everything uniting the universe into one complete algorithm or equation. And I’m also into Alan Watts, who talks about the vastness of life and how we are one with everything. And I really like the ideas of Carl Jung. I can find a connection between all four of them. Jung can be related closely with Kurzweil because Jung speaks of archetypes and archetypes are very definitive personality traits that computers can generate. That’s where Ray Kurzweil comes in. He predicted machines will develop artificial intelligence. Well, that’s an archetype of a machine. So I see all of these people ideas as coming together like pieces of a whole.
Genexus has a strong cinematic vibe. There are spoken parts and orchestral flourishes throughout.
That was intentional. We worked on the record structurally the way you might work on a movie. We have ambience and these soundscapes – but I don’t call them soundscapes, I call them cinescapes.
Have you done any soundtrack music?
No, never, which is sad. A couple of our songs have been used in soundtracks here and there, but no one has asked us to do an actual score. That’s a lifelong goal that still had not been achieved. One day, hopefully, we’ll do that.
The album closer “Expiration Date” is unusual for you guys. It’s a textural, electronic rock song with all clean vocals.
I’m a big fan of melodic rock bands like U2 and even Sisters of Mercy and I’ve always integrated that influence into our music. It’s funny because back when we first started, people heard this crazy death metal with screaming and then these clean vocals and they went, “What the fuck is this?” They hated it. Then later, kids who were too young to know us in 2000 heard us and thought we were ripping off Killswitch Engage, so you can’t win. With Genexus we didn’t want to do away with the melodic vocals, so we approached every song in a new way and used a combination of growls, melodic screams and clean singing. For “Expiration Date” the music just didn’t call for death metal vocals at all.
The song represents a poignant moment in the story when the machines realize they will eventually die and there’s nothing they can do about it.
Everything comes to an end, even for machines. That is the one true thing in life: There is death. And it will happen to everything, including machines. That is something the machines are grappling with, just like humans try to grasp the concept of death. And maybe that makes them more human when they are trying to understand death.
So what is the difference, if there is one, between us and sentient robots?
I see that this shell that I am residing in – “I” being the ego – means nothing in this world, but this is still part of this universe and neutrinos are moving through me as I am speaking to you, and moving through everything that is around us. It’s all moving through us and these walls that can hold this energy within our bodies. We’re flowing through this gigantic universe, all part of the same energy. It’s a lot to think about. And I don’t know if we’re capable of really understanding it. But will a sentient being created by humans be thinking of this stuff? They’ll have this knowledge in their database. They’ll be able to search it out, but will they understand it any more than we do? And if so, what will they do with it? I would like to know.