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Original members include Michael Balch, (left band 1990) keyboards, sampling, effects; Rhys Fulber (replaced Balch, 1990; left band, 1996) keyboards; Bill Leeb (born in Austria), bass, vocals, sampling, effects; Chris Petersen (replaced Fulber, 1996) keyboards. Addresses: Record company--Off Beat Records, Horster Strasse 27, 45897 Gelsenkirchen, Germany.
The name Front Line Assembly may not be familiar to fans of pop music; but to those who appreciate the hard-edged, electronically- generated sounds of industrial dance music, this Vancouver-based duo is truly a favorite. Founded by Bill Leeb (formerly of the band Skinny Puppy), Front Line Assembly has created a string of techno recordings over the last decade that has made it one of the genre's most popular acts. Leeb has changed partners twice since the band was founded--Rhys Fulber replaced original member Michael Balch in 1990, and was in turn replaced by Chris Petersen in 1996--but the band's dark vision and relentlessly aggressive approach to sound have remained constant.
Leeb was born in Austria and emigrated to Canada as a child. He learned the ins and outs of electronic music during his stint with Skinny Puppy in the first half of the 1980s. Known at the time as Wilhelm Schroeder, Leeb eventually felt that his contribution to Skinny Puppy was not substantial enough, and he left to launch a project of his own. Seeking to escape the jarring sounds of Skinny Puppy without sacrificing any of the integrity and grit, Leeb began experimenting with a captivating combination of rhythm, sampling, keyboard effects, and anguished vocals. Working mostly by himself, with occasional assistance from a friend, Michael Balch, Leeb recorded two cassettes in 1985, War and Total Terror, and Front Line Assembly was born. These homemade tapes were later remastered and released by Cleopatra Records as Total Terror I and Total Terror II.
The limited-release cassettes were strong enough to capture the attention of the Belgian label KK Records, and it was on that label that Front Line Assembly--at that point a two-word name, Frontline Assembly, and essentially a one-man band, namely Leeb--released its first real album, The Initial Command, in December of 1987. The band followed up with two more albums in two months, each on a different label. In January of 1988 Leeb and company released State of Mind on Dossier, a German label. Only a month later, the band jumped to the British label Third Mind for its next album, Corrosion. By that time Balch's role had grown from mixing and producing help to full-fledged membership in Frontline, and another friend, Rhys Fulber, was on board as a studio assistant. The band put out a mini-album, Disorder, (again on Third Mind) just three months later. Later that year, seven tracks from Corrosion, four tracks from Disorder, and three previously unreleased tracks were combined and released as a new full-length CD under the title Convergence.
Front Line Assembly became a dance club sensation in 1989 with the release of the album Gashed Senses and Crossfire. The album contained two major hit dancehall singles in "No Limit" and "Digital Tension Dementia." It also led to the band's first European tour and the production of a live album, Live, recorded at its last U.K. concert of the tour. Around this time, Balch decided to leave the band in order to move on to other projects (including a stint with the popular industrial band Ministry). Subsequently, Fulber became a full-time member of Front Line Assembly.
The year 1990 was a banner one for Front Line Assembly, as that year two of the bands singles, "Iceolate" and "Provision," became huge hits among the techno/dance crowd, and were played incessantly in clubs all over the world. The band also became a favorite among music critics--at least the tiny minority of them willing to subject themselves to the sonic assault that bands like Front Line Assembly tend to provide. Their 1990 album Caustic Grip received rave notices in just about every journal that writes about electronic dance music. For example, Paul Lester, writing in Melody Maker, gushed that "It's been a long time since a reinforced battery of sequenced bleep-beats and programmed splashes of electric interference have been marshalled to such overwhelming effect. 'Caustic Grip' is as close to being wired to an Electronic Body Music studio console as it gets." He called Leeb and Fulber "two men who make the noise of 50 Uzi-toting renegades gone AWOL in Baghdad." Caustic Grip was in many ways a breakthrough album for the band. Leeb's lyrics, while dealing with many of the same themes as those of earlier projects, seemed to have matured. At the same time, the interaction between sampling, electronic rhythms, and other effects was a notch more complex than before. The success of Caustic Grip led to Front Line Assembly's most successful U.S. and European tours to date.
Upon their return home from touring, the band released two singles, "Virus" and "Mindphaser." The video for "Mindphaser" was named Independent Video of the Year by MTV in 1992. The song also appeared on the band's new album, Tactical Neural Implant, that year. Tactical Neural Implant was Front Line Assembly's most accessible and melodic album, which did not necessarily please its more hardcore industrial fans. The techno/dance audience, on the other hand, loved the album, although, as reviewers The Stud Brothers pointed out in Melody Maker, "their perpetually dour disposition will doubtless still be off-putting to many, no matter how good they are with a tune."
Front Line Assembly left Third Mind in early 1994 for the Dutch label Roadrunner. The band's first release on the new label was the album Millennium, with a single of the same name. Millennium represented a new musical direction for Front Line Assembly. Although the hard industrial edge and danceable beat remained intact, the album made effective use of guitar riffs for the first time in the band's history, using both live work by guitarist Devin Townsend and samples from a variety of heavy metal bands. The band jumped labels again in 1995, this time to Off Beat, a German outfit. Its first Off Beat projects were the album Hard Wired and its featured single "Circuitry." With Hard Wired, the band continued using a lot of guitar, with much of the playing again contributed by Townsend. Released in CD-ROM format, the album included graphics and text in addition to music. On the CD-ROM track for "Circuitry," Leeb explained that "Hard Wired is a concept album trying to merge industrial and technology based soundwaves into a new transformation of neural programming." A live double-CD called Live Wired was culled from the tour that followed.
In 1996 Fulber left the band, and was replaced by Chris Petersen. In spite of the partner swap, Leeb expected to carry on in his mission to create sounds using electronic gadgetry in innovative ways, and to use those sounds to promote both his dismal view of the universe and the desire to dance one's way through it.
by Robert R. Jacobson
Front Line Assembly's Career
Formed in 1985; released self-produced cassettes War and Total Terror, 1985; signed with KK Records and released The Initial Command, 1987; first European tour, 1989; released hit dance singles "Iceolate" and "Provision," 1990; made "Mindphaser" video, 1991; signed with Off Beat label and produced CD Hard Wired, 1995.
Front Line Assembly's Awards
MTV Independent Video of the Year, for "Mindphase," 1992.
- Selective Works
- The Initial Command, KK, 1987.
- State of Mind, Dossier, 1988.
- Corrosion, Third Mind, 1988.
- Convergence, Third Mind, 1988.
- Gashed Senses and Crossfire, Third Mind, 1989.
- Live, Third Mind, 1989.
- Caustic Grip, Third Mind, 1990.
- Tactical Neural Implant, Third Mind, 1992.
- Millennium, Roadrunner, 1994.
- Hard Wired, Off Beat, 1995.
- ARC Magazine, #4.
- Melody Maker, April 22, 1989, pp. 27, 35; August 18, 1990, p. 38; September 1, 1990, p. 9; September 29, 1990, p. 39; May 16, 1992, p. 33.
- Sonic Envelope, February 1996; March 1996.
- Additional material for this profile was obtained from the Off Beat Records pages on the World Wide Web, as well as from other independent websites.
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