When his phone rings, Burton C. Bell is with his friends, enjoying an evening beer and stoking an outdoor pit fire.
It is appropriate that the affable Texan, respected worldwide for his exploits as the dual-voiced vocalist for industrial metal pioneers Fear Factory, is the one in control of the flames. Since 1990, when the Los Angeles band he co-founded with guitarist Dino Cazares recorded its first demos, Bell has sung frequently of burning to death.
"I have always been fascinated by fire," he tells me.
"I'm always the one starting the fires in the fireplace - I'm something of a pyromaniac. I won't start arsonist types of fires, but there's something about it that's calming to me."
The explosive violence of immolation and the dark calmness of death combine to paint a reasonable picture of Fear Factory's style, which is rooted in industrial metal and flavoured with electronica. Such duality is a trademark of Bell's vocals; for two decades he has blended coarse verses with chorus lines delivered clean. It's a nimble-throated technique that other singers, like Machine Head's Robb Flynn and Slipknot's Corey Taylor, have used to further their own careers.
Bell is proud of his band's pioneering, trendsetting role. Their 2004 album, fairly enough, was titled Archetype.
"We definitely forged our place in industrial metal, and we stand apart," Bell says.
"There are a lot of bands that sound like Fear Factory and I'm glad, because people can recognise where it really came from."
The changing, and changing, and changing of the guard
When Fear Factory takes the show back on the road, the schedule includes a concert at Auckland's Powerstation on Saturday, September 22. After two visits in 2010 - closing out a minor stage at the Big Day Out and playing in support of Metallica in Christchurch - and two cancellations in 2006 and 2009, Bell says it is "about time" his band brought their own tour to New Zealand again.
"I can't wait to be back," he says with a hearty laugh. "I'm really excited to get down there."
It has been almost 11 years since Fear Factory last headlined a New Zealand show. December 18, 2001, was supposed to be a day of celebration; it was founding drummer Raymond Herrera's 29th birthday, and Auckland was to host the band at the very end of a gruelling world tour in support of the Digimortal album.
It turned out to be the end of so much more. The "classic" Fear Factory lineup (Bell, Cazares, Herrera, and bassist Christian Olde Wolbers) walked off stage that night, never to play together in public again. The band announced its dissolution four months later - then quickly reformed without Cazares.
In the years that followed, Fear Factory released two albums with new bassist Byron Stroud, formerly of Strapping Young Lad, then went on a lengthy hiatus while Bell explored his softer side with Ascension of the Watchers.
By 2009, the old band was back together - sort of. The Fear Factory machine roared back into life with the news that Bell and Cazares had reconciled their differences and taken control of the band's organisation, relegating Herrera and Olde Wolbers - who had made the switch from bass to guitar by 2004 - to the sidelines.
It was this version of Fear Factory (with drummer Gene Hoglan, also from Strapping Young Lad) that brought songs from the 2010 album, Mechanize, to New Zealand.
Bell says the two years spent recording and promoting Mechanize strengthened his partnership with Cazares. It also gave the founding fathers a chance to consolidate their position as the leaders of the band.
"That was our 'getting to know you,' getting reacquainted phase," Bell says.
Things are "back to normal" for the duo, but Kiwi fans will see two more new employees at the factory. Hoglan and Stroud left, apparently on good terms, making way for drummer Mike Heller and ex-Chimaira rhythm guitarist Matt DeVries on bass. Neither man was credited with performing on The Industrialist. Instead Cazares, no stranger to doing double-duty on past Fear Factory albums, performed the guitar and bass tracks. He was assisted by former Divine Heresy collaborator John Sankey in the use of a drum machine to punch in the band's famous jackhammer patterns.
"Dino and I pretty much are the bosses of this band, and we realise that for the Fear Factory sound, we are the two main components," says Bell, who sees the rotating membership as a sign of show business reality.
"As soon as a band makes its first dollar, it's a business, and they really have to treat it as such. You want to find people who are like-minded and enjoy what they do, but who are also ready for the challenge. We were very fortunate to find Mike and Matt."
Bell agrees that the time he and Dino spent apart has ultimately been good for their band, which has long prided itself on innovation and exploring new territories.
"With our experimentation with our other bands, we were able to explore sounds and our talents and really try different things, and be positive while doing it. Those things that we've learned, we are able to bring them into Fear Factory.
"We always used to [experiment] but this time, I think there's a little more to it. There's more practical experience than just research."
Rediscovering the passion
Bell says songs from The Industrialist, such as the menacing and powerful title track, are getting "a great response" from the audience. The first single, Recharger, grabs the listener by the ears and turns their attention skywards. The frontman says it is among his favourite songs to perform. The song is a perfect example of the fusion of metallic grind and U2-inspired pop ear candy that makes the Fear Factory sound so unique.
Of course, there are the classics as well. The band has made a habit of closing the set off with songs from 1992's Soul of a New Machine and 1995's Demanufacture, including Self Bias Resistor and Zero Signal.
Bell is happy to drop some hints about what New Zealand fans can expect to hear.
"There are songs that we don't usually play very often that we're going to bring back.
"Resurrection's a really good song that's very personal. Every time I'm singing it, I feel passionate and it takes me back to that moment when I wrote the lyrics and put it to the song. It's like 'wow' and I'm reliving my therapy over and over again."
Demanufacture is the band's classic album, and the return of Resurrection to the Fear Factory setlist is an emphatic nod to the esteem in which its follow-up, 1998's Obsolete, is held by the band's supporters. The opening tracks, Shock and Edgecrusher, are live staples and the growling beast of a song that is Smasher/Devourer has been granted new life since 2010.
"Demanufacture is the album that set the standard for Fear Factory," Bell says.
"I'm not comparing it to these bands, but as an example, what Master of Puppets is to Metallica - that's the standard that true Metallica fans hold that band to, or Vulgar Display of Power to Pantera, or Slayer's Reign In Blood. That's the standard that fans hold to that band, because that's like 'you found your sound with that record.'
"Oddly enough, Obsolete is one of our more popular albums, but it's a very diverse album. Like you said, Shock and Edgecrusher will always be played because they are crowd favourites, but there are other songs I always wanted to bring back. On this last tour we brought back Descent, and that's a crowd pleaser. We play Smasher/Devourer, and we've been working on Resurrection."
Bell says other songs will be, well, resurrected for the next leg of The Industrialist's tour, including another gem from Obsolete: the Orwellian nightmare of Securitron.
"In America today..."
Fear Factory has been in the business of addressing social issues with sci-fi language since Demanufacture, and as Americans prepare to elect their leader for the next four years, Bell is uncomfortable with the state of his nation.
"It's very disconcerting, I will tell you that. I blame the media and its overexposure of ignorance; it's what people will believe without actually checking facts, topics and issues that people are really concerned about. There are not more important things we should be talking about than reproductive rights? Really? I'm really amazed that people are talking about this in the 21st century.
"It's like there are some aspects of society who want to take us backwards into time. It makes me wary.
"As an American, I will exercise my right to vote. A lot of people believe that doesn't matter, but I think it still does. I will vote, and because I vote I will be able to express my opinion. No one can give me shit for it."
At a personal level, Bell is happy with his life. The 43-year-old, who famously appeared in Nirvana's Smells Like Teen Spirit video as a younger man, says he takes the time to listen more.
"I think I'm a bit more understanding. More patient. Because of that, I feel a bit wiser in some respects."
Bell also has a very clear idea about what the future holds for him, and one day that will mean closing the factory for good.
"When I put the microphone down, I will continue to be an artist. I'll continue to write words, short stories, or a novel. I will continue my photography. I'll probably continue writing music, but in a different vein."
For now, and for the foreseeable future, Bell is committed to Fear Factory. The Industrialist is arguably the band's best effort since Obsolete, and New Zealand fans will have their chance to hear the trusted tunes and the new next week.
* Fear Factory (supported by 8 Foot Sativa and Just One Fix) play at the Powerstation in Mt Eden, Auckland, on September 22. Tickets are available from Ticketmaster.