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Caught in the ongoing stasis of the COVID-19 lockdown, 2020 has been conspicuously short on real rock drama for the most part. It meant that when Burton C. Bell posted a simple post to his personal website on September 29 announcing his departure – after 31 years as frontman – from Los Angeles industrial-metal giants Fear Factory, it hit fans like a bolt from the blue.
His statement was self-explanatory. Blaming the ongoing series of lawsuits that have indefinitely held up their long-awaited 10th LP and “the consistent series of dishonest representations and unfounded accusations from past and present band members; a toxic drama I choose to not be part of…” it was easy to imagine a musician at the end of his tether.
As we catch up on a mild morning in early-autumn, however, we find an artist in high spirits, sipping his morning coffee and caught in a flurry of business correspondence. Key to this mindset is the resurgence of Burton’s other band, Ascension Of The Watchers.
Originally formed with Ministry/False Icons keyboardist John Bechdel following Fear Factory’s 2002 hiatus, the band dropped 2004’s Iconoclast demo and 2008’s Numinosum LP – strangely airy cuts of ambient, gothic-tinged post-rock – to some acclaim but limited fanfare and appeared to disappear. Burton stresses, however, that the band never went away, and after over a decade of songwriting, the recruitment of Welsh solo-artist Jayce Lewis and the metamorphosis of a project initially titled Stormcrow into second LP Apocrypha (due October 9), they’ve only gone from strength to strength.
Having spent time with Apocrypha, we’d tend to agree. Its textured soundscapes are still far from the hard-edged angularity of Fear Factory, but there’s a more propulsive rock feel – not a million miles from the progressive metal of Tool – that keeps drawing us back to the deeply personal explorations of a legend striving to move on to the next chapter.
“The soul without the machine…”
It’s been 12 years since Ascension Of The Watchers’ debut LP Numinosum. What makes now the time to come back?
“This is where my heart is. This is where my passion is, these days. I’ve been working on these songs for years – basically ever since Numinosum came out. We’ve been demoing them and building on them, travelling between studios and sending files back and forth. With the introduction of Jayce – not just as a drummer, but as a part of the production team – we created something so special and unique that we had to release it. We had to move forward.”
Explain the unlikely bond between yourself on the West Coast, John in Pennsylvania and Jayce in Bridgend, Wales…
“It’s hard to describe the chemistry between friends when we connect. I first met John all the way back in 1998 when he was brought into Fear Factory as a live keyboard player. When you’re out on the road, you align yourself with people that reflect your personality and who you connect with better. John and I hit it off really well, sharing rooms on the road, talking all the time about life and music. We share a lot of the same interests and philosophies. I actually met Jayce [after] messaging him through MySpace: we hit it off immediately and became online friends before anything else. It wasn’t until a few years later that we actually met in person. John is five years older than I am, and Jayce is nine years younger, but I don’t think the age difference really matters. It’s the maturity and mutual engagement. That, and that we just get on.”
For fans unfamiliar with Ascension Of The Watchers, how would you contrast their sound to your other works?
“These are experiments and explorations in sound. The first two records, very much so, very ethereal and ambient. I’m writing from the soul, from those poignant moments in my life. I’m baring my heart for everyone to see. In that, there were bands whose sound I wanted to emulate. I think we achieved that up to a point.”
What kinds of bands were those?
“To pick one song, it would be the live version of U2’s Bad from [1985 EP] Wide Awake In America. The original from Unforgettable Fire is a beautiful, ethereal song, but whoever mixed that live version really captured the intensity. It’s a song I want played at my funeral. The post-rock band Swans are another huge influence. Their albums are intense recordings, but live they just become so much more powerful. I’ll never forget the first time I saw them at the original 9:30 Club on the Children Of God tour. They were so loud and powerful that it made me throw up – in a good way! Then there’s Pink Floyd with their great songwriting and production. On the darker side, Sisters Of Mercy are in there, particularly the  album Floodland. Every song is different and so powerful, going from hard-pumping beats to ethereal soundscapes. Wayne Hussey is just one of the most underrated songwriters.”
There’s something of a soundtrack quality there, too.
“I love soundtracks. The classic Blade Runner soundtrack by [Greek composer] Vangelis is a favourite. I also live the modern Dredd soundtrack by Paul Leonard-Morgan. That was an electronic soundtrack, but it had this dirty, gritty, analogue quality to it.”
The sound of Apocrypha feels more than the previous records. Was that a conscious drive for that grittier intensity?
“It was only after those first records were released and we started to play live – doing some shows with Killing Joke and as a headline act – that I understood the sound that I really wanted for this band. Those earlier records’ sound is a great sound, a very produced sound, but not really a live sound. When we performed live, it was more organic and intense. Over the years, I’ve been learning to achieve that on record. Jayce was the one who really enabled that. I would play him songs and soundtracks and he would help me translate it."
To what extent are the more ambient sounds a reaction to the harder-edged music of your other projects, and to what extent is it a true reflection of where you’re at right now?
“It’s definitely more of the latter. It’s definitely more a reflection of my personality than a reaction to Fear Factory. It’s a reflection of my thoughts over the three decades of the existence of Fear Factory. It’s no secret that I’m not a huge metal fan – I do like some metal but, as a whole, I lean towards post-rock, post-punk, industrial and avant-garde.”
Track two on Apocrypha is titled The End Is Always The Beginning. Is it coincidental that you announced your Fear Factory departure with this release looming?
“The title of that track is definitely coincidental. I was demoing it in New York with [live guitarist] Edu Mussi and he was commenting on how the end of my guitar parts always [loop back to] the beginning, hence the name. In no way did I plan to make this [departure] happen at the same time as Apocrypha album coming out. It’s just the way life works sometimes…”
It came as a shock from the blue for fans – and even Dino Cazares, if reports are to be believed. Has walking away from Fear Factory been on your mind for some time?
“It’s been on my mind for a while. These lawsuits just drained me. The egos. The greed. Not just from band members, but from the attorneys involved. I just lost my love for it. I’ve been working [intensely] on The Watchers for the last two years. Working with people who I can trust and who I love, and with whom I have grown to find a niche musically definitely pushed me towards it. There are a lot of surprises. I’ve had a lot of surprises for the last four years. With Fear Factory, it’s just constantly been like ‘What?!’ You can only take so much. I felt like 30 years was a good run. Those albums I’ve done with Fear Factory will always be out there. I’ll always be part of that. I just felt like it was time to move forward.”
What are your feelings when looking back over the last 31 years with that band? Have these last few years soured them permanently?
“I’m proud of my legacy. We achieved great things. We made incredible music and left an indelible mark on the music industry and on fans around the globe. We’ve had peaks on top of mountains with our highs and we’ve plumbed the deepest trenches with our lows. There just comes a point where you have to move forward to do more great things with a different band…”
Will you still feature on the new Fear Factory album, whenever it emerges?
“We recorded and delivered an album in 2017. It was written and demoed in late 2016 with Damien Rainaud. In 2017, we recorded. The artwork was finalised. We designed the new Fear Factory logo, as always. The album was delivered to Nuclear Blast, and accepted. We’ve just been waiting for all of these lawsuits to be over for it to come out. So, yeah, I’m supposed to be on it because I recorded all the songs!”
You describe AOTW’s sound as the “soul without a machine…” Aside from the live intensity, to what extent is the greater edge on Apocrypha a cathartic reflection of those struggles with Fear Factory?
“The work with The Watchers was very therapeutic. The songs are very personal. They’re full of love for the people in my life and the people who have been in my life. Those I’ve lost. Those I’ve found. Repentance. Remorse. Joy. It’s the connection with people that really inspires me. One way that Fear Factory has influenced Apocrypha [more directly] is that Jayce felt that the standard of production needed to be equivalent to the power of a Fear Factory record. I’ve been associated with a lot of albums that sound fucking incredible. It became important to keep that going. I think that we succeeded.”
What role did Jayce’s Northstone studio in Wales play in that?
“The studio was a big part of it. He built exactly the studio that I would’ve built. We demoed a lot in different studios over the years, but [Northstone] became key. Before this album I’d only ever been in Wales a couple of times, playing in Cardiff or en route to Bristol. It wasn’t until Jayce invited me over with my guitar in 2016, and we went to Bridgend that I really fell in love with the place. It has the same pastoral, bucolic type of countryside that Pennsylvania had when I first went there to work with John in 2002. It was just so serene. The fact that the studio is in these rolling hills, connected to a 250-year-old manor with no cell-service means you’re able to create without distraction. It’s about that introspection, not trying to create something outside yourself but to release the feelings within.”
How frustrating is it, having captured that live essence, but not being able to go play live?
“Every musician is having the same issues at the moment. Touring is not happening. Our goal is to tour this album whenever it is possible to tour. That’s looking like late-summer 2021 at this stage. We’re also planning a livestream event so that people can have something before then. We’ll do whatever we can to keep this album going, because we believe in it.”
And with more time having opened up for you, are there any other projects you’d like to explore?
“Musically, I dunno… Nothing has presented itself yet. Later on, I might toy with the idea of performing as a solo artist, drawing from every band I’ve been a part of over my 30-plus year career. I’ve been a part of a lot of bands, so something like that might be fun. In terms of other artistic endeavours, I’m focusing on writing and photography. I have written a follow-up to [2015 graphic novel] The Industrialist, which I just need to edit down because it’s far too long. I’m also working on something called The Apocrypha Of Stormcrow. It’s reading like the Dead Sea Scrolls: ancient writings upon which all these [AOTW] songs are based. I have two photography projects I’m working on, as well. One is a series of black and white photos of the desert from 2002-2003, inspired by the landscapes of Ansel Adams. The other is a series of colour photos from a town in Pennsylvania [Milton] that I fell in love with and moved to.”
Finally, looking further down your own path, is there any prospect of reconciliation with the Fear Factory guys down the line?
“I’m done. I haven’t spoken to Dino in three years. I haven’t spoken to Raymond [Herrera, drums] and Christian [Olde Wolbers, bass] in longer than that, and I have no intention to. I’m just moving forward with my life.”
Apocrypha is released October 9 via Dissonance Records.
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