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Pretty much every one-person operation in the futurepop/EBM scene has cause to envy Tom Shear's hard-fought self-sufficiency. In the studio he — and he alone — is Assemblage 23, fine maker of gloomy, industrialized synth-based dance confections since 1988. In his home office he's 23db Records, responsible for releasing albums by SD6 and Lost Signal.
There are other baseball-card-style factoids we could throw around, but basically Shear is a big, busy fish in the musical pond lorded over by acts like VNV Nation, Front Line Assembly, and — in its darkest waters — Rammstein. In fact the Assemblage 23 sound falls somewhere within ground zero of that threesome. Here there are hopeful, politically aware lyrics and harsh, intelligent synth layers, all held in place by Shear's imposing baritone, which sounds like it was imported from a Berlin vampire club.
The sixth Assemblage 23 album, Meta, was released this past April by Metropolis Records. Kickoff single "Binary" debuted at number 21 on the Billboard U.S. singles chart, a surprise given its subject matter. "There's a technique used by politicians, particularly the current administration, to sort of bully people into either supporting their cause or at least not questioning it. They set up these ridiculously simple black or white scenarios," Shear says. "The song is about that sort of either/or binary way of thinking."
Hitting the Billboard charts this hard would have been beyond Shear's wildest dreams back when he was struggling to get someone/anyone from a record label to give his stuff half a listen. His debut album, Contempt, was finally released by Canadian label Gashed in 1999, thus marking the beginning of a short-lived, shaky relationship. Shear signed in 2001 with Metropolis Records, and that's where he has been ever since, throwing the occasional single against the wall until hitting pay dirt with "Binary."
To date, the futurepop genre has led a sheltered life, with little radio play, despite Shear's more readily accessible songs, not to mention the yeoman efforts of bands like VNV Nation. Shear attributes the slow growth of the sound to many things, such as the lyrical subject matter. "It tends to be pretty dark and depressing," he acknowledges.
That said, um ... is Assemblage a goth band? "We certainly have goth fans, and some of the subject matter is similar, but to me, goth music really has been dead for a long time. Or maybe 'undead.'"
"We have fans from all over the spectrum," Shear continues. "I think one of the cool things is that we have a lot of fans where A23 is the only electronic band they really like. We have lots of fans who are normally metalheads or into really experimental stuff, but for some reason our material appeals to them."