[Reviewed by Peter Marks]
How quickly twenty five years have passed. FLA closed out the 1980s in high style with this record, displaying greater accessibility and also remaining true to the dark ambient nature of their earlier releases. After the transitional output of ‘Corrosion’ and ‘Disorder’, Bill Leeb and fellow member Michael Balch honed their sound down to an extremely profound point. This wasn’t what was expected and even now, this one sounds like nothing else which has had the Front Line name stamped on it. Perhaps if Balch had stuck around for another year or so, we’d have seen where this approach would have ended up. But, as with all things Leeb, he’d served his purpose and was gone by the time 1990 rolled around. ‘Gashed Senses & Crossfire’ was quite the note to go out on.
To try and carry on as they had been was an impossibility, the musical scene was changing too rapidly around them but unlike now where this band latch on to safely proven trends, this duo opted to take a route which to my knowledge has not ever been followed up on by anyone else. Heavy beats, manic vocals, disarmingly effective bass lines and a penchant for malevolently cold atmospheres. This was the world of dark electronics being as high tech as possible in 1989; many times I’ve attempted to understand why they chose this avenue and the only thing I can come up with is this: they could. Because before this, Frontline Assembly (there’s a very good reason for this alternate spelling) were known more for their soundtrack tendencies than the brutality of rhythm which would become their trademark.
I certainly wasn’t prepared, few around me were. With their decision to begin issuing actual singles, the band had certainly taken a big step away from who they’d been before. The lead one dropped a few weeks before the album and contains their most demented composition, the epic and yet seldom heard “Lethal Compound”. Replete with samples from Wes Craven’s “The Serpent & The Rainbow”, this charmer held nothing but anger and flippant aggression. Yet for all the dour nadir and resistance it espoused lyrically, the music itself was grimly accepting of how things had to be. Not long after their first big club killer came out.
“Digital Tension Dementia” packed the floors, no one stood on the sides sniping about what others wore or who they knew, this was a call to arms. Even if the words were rather dodgy and at times degenerated into a barking delivery, they spoke to us. And we listened. We moved.
Believe me, Front Line Assembly sounded like very little else out there when this one came into being. Of course, many took the easy route of dismissing them as just another bunch of Puppy plagiarists but if you read the interviews and seriously listened it became obvious that Leeb and Balch had a range of influences which went far FAR beyond the usual. As a matter of fact, if you weren’t in Europe it was highly unlikely you’d even know whose names they were mentioning were. The Klinik? Portion Control? SPK? Fad Gadget? If there had been an internet in those days, the majority of readers and listeners would have had just this to say:
You had to keep me from tearing the store doors off their hinges to get this thing on the day it was released. This was the level of excitement I, and certainly the rest of the fans felt. The tour came nowhere near where I lived, fortunately Third Mind issued a live album (which will never be properly re-issued) so you could somewhat approximate how it felt to be in the same room with these borderline electronic punks. Would it even be worth hearing on any other format than vinyl? Probably not. Clips from this live era have appeared on youtube and they certainly show a much more dangerous entity than what you get now.
The album itself was perfectly sequenced, a more precise setting of mood through track listing I’ve yet to hear elsewhere. “No Limit” smacked you in the face to get this little mayhem fueled party going. From there, the tempo descended gradually until you didn’t have a prayer. Then side two (cassette? yeah I owned a few) launched into it with the album version of “Digital Tension Dementia”. Unlike side one, the hidden barb of “Bloodsport” exploded out of the background and clothes lined your ears with wickedly done programming and some of Leeb’s most virulent vocals; no, that wasn’t an aside about the “Virus” single from 91… quit grinning.
“Sedation” finished things off and by the time I’d heard it, the only thing I was doing was flipping back to the first side in order to play it again. In 1989, it was quite clear that this was a band on the rise, the momentum which they generated by doing these songs truly was something to have been around for. Theirs was a name which only the seriously committed individual would drop, to be into FLA in the 80s was to be part of a very select yet incredibly varied crowd. You would not get something like this now, the attention span of most fans now only lasts up until the chorus where they expect to “hear something cool”. The futurism which would define much of what they’d unleash in the next decade got it’s start here. It was an extremely militant, regimented sound they’d switched on to; for better or worse, Front Line Assembly -the mechanized technological menace- were born on this record.
A few other projects from Wilhelm were birthed in this same time period: Delerium and Noise Unit. And while later records strayed mightily from the noble origins of 89, for a short while it was rather impressive what was going on. Ultimately, Delerium would devolve into making mini-van mommy anthems and Noise Unit would become little more than a dumping ground for Front Line out-takes… but ‘Gashed Senses & Crossfire’ has a timeless grace to it which cannot be denied. A resilient masterpiece in the realm of sampler-driven music, the influence of it can be felt and heard quite easily today if you have the eyes and ears to discern.