The return of founding guitarist Dino Cazares last year was incredibly exciting news for Fear Factory fans. When it came at the exit of founding drummer Raymond Herrera, however, skepticism was abound... even when the legendary Gene Hoglan was announced to be his replacement.  That was before Arkaea, Wolbers' and Herrera's new band, put out their incredibly bland debut, though. Particularly with the knowledge that their album was largely composed of material intended for the next Fear Factory album, attention now shifted to Burton C. Bell, Cazares and co. to see if they could do any better, and my God, have they ever. Both Archetype and Transgression certainly had their moments, the former with its raging sentiment throughout as well as the latter's experimentation. The songs however, as good as some of them were, could never overshadow the fact that essentially the bassist was filling in for the guitarist. There was just something missing, and they were unable to recapture the quality of their earlier works. Now that the Fear Factory's seventh studio album, Mechanize, has finally surfaced, it has utterly demolished any doubts about the band's direction.

Cazares' return is obvious immediately. Right from the opening title track's vicious attack, the riffs crush in a way they haven't in a long, long while. They blend superbly with the keyboards added in Rhys Fulber's production, something that the band has steadily gotten better since Digimortal. The pop element is played down, though, leaving for a more harsh, industrial sound. The improved balance has resulted in something of an amalgam of Fear Factory's best. Industrial Discipline's chorus has got a certain pop-inflected finesse to it, while the verses (and the bridge in particular) are darker and more aggressive, but with catchy hooks that piece the song together. Much of the diversity the band has shown over the years is present in tracks like Christploitation - in five quickly passing minutes, they display unsettling soundscapes, decimating riffs, alternating tempos, warm and inviting synths, and overall, some of Cazares' best playing to date. Then there are absolute scorchers like Fear Campaign and Controlled Demolition, where Cazares and Hoglan work in pulverizing conjunction while Bell takes center stage with his dynamic vocals, bellowing some of his most intimidating roars and crooning some of his best sounding melodies. The opening itself (as well as the instrumental  Metallic Division) also seems to hark back to the band's heyday, with an ominous, industrial sound reminiscent of that on Demanufacture.

Another thing Mechanize has to boast is Final Exit, an epic closer on par with those of their earlier albums, which was failed to be replicated on Archetype, and perhaps wisely ignored altogether with Transgression. The alternating brutality and soulfulness is absolutely flawless, with synths and samples thrown in at just the right moments - for example, there are several parts with the band mercilessly thrashing away, but a single gentle synth renders these moments as incredibly soothing (doubly when Bell sings over them). The song's slow fade into ambience is, to Fulber's credit, very well done, and overall the song's eight minutes just melt away. One more noteworthy pro is that this album isn't weighed down by a cover, something that was done very well on Demanufacture and Obsolete, but felt gimmicky and unnecessary on their last two efforts. Overall, while it's true that Mechanize isn't quite as strong as the band's best (the lyrical focus on autonomy and man vs. machine is starting to repeat itself a bit), it's leagues away from their most recent work, and a decisive step in the right direction.

Mechanize feels like the album that was intended to follow the band's 2001 pop flirtation that was Digimortal. It's an impressive combination of their different facets, perhaps melding the elements of death metal, industrial, electronica, ambient, and even pop as well as they have since Obsolete. It's unrelentingly brutal, yet incredibly melodic and tightly composed, and most importantly with the familiar soul that graced the first four albums. Fear Factory's latest proves quite decisively that while Wolbers and Herrera were significant contributors at their respective posts, it was Bell and Cazares at the helm. With them together again, the band sounds as good as they ever have, and it feels like they're picking up right where they left off nine years ago.