Former Fear Factory frontman Burton C. Bell is treading a new creative path with a re-activated Ascension of the Watchers. And as he explained to Rich Holmes, the possibilities are endless…
Last month, after nine albums – including one of the 90s’ greatest metal records – Burton C. Bell called time on his career with Fear Factory.
Legal battles and mudslinging have plagued the US act for years. And they’ve taken their toll on the band’s singer and co-founder.
His statement described this tumultuous period as “profoundly agonizing”, the conflicts between members as a “toxic drama”.
Guitarist Dino Cazares may be pushing on with Fear Factory – and planning to release a new album featuring Bell’s already-recorded vocals – but the vocalist who graced the likes of Demanufacture and Digimortal is done with that band.
For Houston-born Bell, it’s time to move on.
A new chapter for Burton C. Bell
Bell’s future now lies with Ascension of the Watchers, the melancholic, goth-hued act he formed as a side-project with Ministry keyboardist John Bechdel in 2002.
And the band – who also feature renowned Welsh musician and producer Jayce Lewis – released their second full length, Apocrypha, this month.
It’s a world away from Fear Factory’s thunderous, mechanised assault.
The Killing Joke pulse of The End Is Always The Beginning, Bells Of Perdition’s pitch black Goth rock and Wanderers’ glistening alt-melodies… they all form part of a richly diverse record that nods respectfully to the 80s and 90s undergrounds, and sees Bell walking into calmer pastures.
The successor to 2008’s debut album, Numinosum, has “exceeded expectations”, according to the LA-based frontman.
Yet Apocrypha’s birth has been drawn out and at times, tortuous.
Writing for the band’s third release started a decade ago, with Bell piecing together ideas over several years.
And in 2018, Ascension of the Watchers decided to jumpstart the project with a PledgeMusic campaign.
Talk about bad timing…
PledgeMusic was hit by bankrupty in 2019, plunging many artistic endeavours into crisis. The funds dedicated to Apocrypha were never released.
Yet Bell, Bechdel and Lewis persevered… and the album finally emerged this year on Dissonance Productions.
“It has been a very long time coming,” admits Bell. “I am relieved to finally get it out and I am very happy with the way it sounds.
“Over the last 10 years I was trying to get us signed. No one was interested.
“I realised after a while that if I was going to get a Watchers album out I was going to have to get it out on my own and record it and package it the way I wanted labels to hear it. That was the only way to get labels interested… and after 10 years we were finally able to do that.
“It was disappointing, people not being interested – and having to wait to do – the songs, but it all worked out in the end.”
Apocrypha is a very personal album to the vocalist.
Key To The Cosmos is a touching homage to a friend who died of a brain tumour nine years ago.
A Wolf Interlude focuses on Bell’s feelings when he is away from his son, Atticus Wolf. “It is a melancholy song but it is very heartfelt,” he says. “I hope he understands it one day.”
And Apocrypha’s emotional depth ties it umbilically to Ascension of the Watchers’ previous works.
Bell explains: “I didn’t want to change anything. I wanted to stick with what the essential nature of what Ascension of the Watchers is and my personal relationships when it comes to love.
“The ideas of love, the loss of love, the newness of it, the distance of love, the emptiness of love… it explores all of those feelings.”
Enter Jayce Lewis…
Sonically, the vocalist attributes much of Apocrypha’s strength to Jayce Lewis.
The album was recorded, mixed and produced in the Welshman’s own Northstone Studios, nestled in the South Wales countryside near Bridgend – and built with the stones of an ancient monastery.
Lewis – who has four solo albums to his name and has collaborated with the likes of Gary Numan – played drums on Apocrypha, as well as contributing backing vocals and programming.
And just as Bechdel became something of a mentor to Bell in the early noughties, when the pair holed up in rural Pennsylvania to work on 2004’s debut EP, Iconoclast, Lewis has been key to the singer’s ongoing evolution.
“Jayce came into the picture organically,” explains Bell. “The first time we communicated was in 2005 and I met him through MySpace.
“He posted that he was being managed by Darth Vader (actor David Prowse) and I was like, ‘what?’.
“I contacted him and he knew who I was. We talked about music. That was where the friendship started.
“I didn’t meet him physically until five years later, backstage at a Fear Factory show and he told me then that he was building a studio and would love to do music with me.”
The partnership was solidified when, in 2016, Bell was in France with his family. Lewis found out that Bell was in Europe and invited the singer over to Northstone.
“I had a couple of weeks. I grabbed my guitar and flew to Wales,” he recalls. “We demoed (Apocrypha opener) Ghost Heart and The End Is Always The Beginning.
“It was during those two weeks that Jayce and I became really very good friends.
“I fell in love with the studio, I fell in love with the area and I fell in love with South Wales.
“He understood what I wanted to achieve. He understood the goals. We talked at length about music and production how we wanted to move forward.
“I believe that if it weren’t for Jayce, this album wouldn’t have happened. That’s what he brought to the table.”
Bell, who also plays guitar in Ascension Of The Watchers, continues: “When Numinosum was released, I was very proud of that record and I love the way it sounds.
“But it wasn’t until we started playing live shows after Numinosum – when we opened up for Killing Joke in particular – that I realised that was the sound I wanted to capture, the sonic intensity, the live drums, the organic nature of the musicians working together…
“With Jayce, we captured it. Using the live drums made a huge difference. Recording at a modern analogue studio made a huge difference.
“I hadn’t recorded an album like this in a long time. It was a lot of fun and quite refreshing, actually.
“Jayce has become a musical soulmate. It’s that chemistry that you rarely get in music and I am very proud to call him a friend and to have him as part of the Watchers.”
Does Ascension of the Watchers feel like a true ‘band’ now?
“Yes it does. Despite the locations and the miles and space between us I do feel like it’s a proper band because we communicate with each other, we understand what we are trying to accomplish.
“I am of course looking forward to getting everyone together to play live. We haven’t done that since 2017, when we did the Cold Waves festival in LA.
“Playing live was fantastic and we are looking forward to doing that. It’s going to be very special.”
Burton C. Bell looks to the future
Bell’s career outside Fear Factory has seen him work with a host of other musicians.
He has contributed to three Ministry albums, was part of Geezer Butler’s G/Z/R project and guested on Pitch Shifter’s re-recorded ‘Brexit’ edition of Un-United Kingdom, released this year to coincide with ‘Brexit Day’ on January 31.
And that doesn’t even scratch the surface.
Does he still have a few collaborations on his wish list?
“I would collaborate with Justin Broadrick in a heartbeat,” he exclaims. “I’ve been a Godflesh fan since before Fear Factory, since the first EP came out on Swordfish. And Head of David’s Dustbowl is still one of the best late 80s albums that was never heard. Steve Albini’s production and the music… it’s just fantastic.”
And there are some surprises too…
“I would love to work with Willie Nelson, Nick Cave and Trevor Horn,” he admits. “I do feel like I am working with a dream team already, so whoever I want to ‘dream work’ with would have to be someone way out of my league!
“It would be interesting. We’ll see if it ever happens. I doubt it… but they can be dreams!”
The chances of the frontman returning to extreme metal, though, are slim. The death metal onslaught of Fear Factory’s 1992 debut, Soul Of A New Machine, is firmly in the rear view mirror.
“It’s no secret that even though I have been in a metal band for 30 years, I am not a big metalhead,” he says. “That is reflected in the melodies that I have been coming up with over the years.
“When it comes to metal, it would have to be really ground breaking and interesting for me to get involved.”
Ascension Of The Watchers – moving forward
For now, Bell’s focus is on Ascension of the Watchers.
He is currently working on a writing piece, The Apocrypha of Stormcrow, which will be an addendum to the album. Describing it as his version of the Book of Enoch, Bell says it will bring together several years’ worth of writing – the source material for Apocrypha’s lyrics.
And the Coronavirus pandemic has left him time to shape new musical ideas – even if he has had to rely on recording on video, rather than demoing songs in a studio.
So what will the 2020s look like for Bell and his soulmates?
“The Watchers could go in any direction,” he says. “I am an explorer. The doors are wide open.
“I am just going to write what I am feeling. When we start building upon it, and John and Jayce come in and we start creating… that’s when the magic really happens!”
Apocrypha is out now on Dissonance Productions.