If you haven’t seen Martin McDonagh’s fantastic film In Bruges I strongly recommend you mend the error of your ways. In fact stop reading this and go and watch it now. Go on. No? Well, for the benefit of those who are reading this at work, have an elapsed Netflix subscription or simply can’t be arsed to watch it, here’s a ‘very’ brief synopsis. The film follows Ray and Ken, two Irish hit-men who in the aftermath of a botched job, and upon the orders of their boss, lie low in the city of Bruges to await further instructions, instructions that will likely result in one them being blamed and summarily executed. During their forced exile the pair wax lyrically about the culture of their new host country; a subject of which Ray is particularly despondent, “What’s Belgium famous for? Chocolates and child abuse, and they only invented the chocolates to get to the kids”.
Well, fame being relative (this series is about underrated bands after all), I’m pretty sure Ray never heard of Front 242. Granted Belgium is not exactly internationally renown for it’s musical output, although dEUS fans might disagree, but Front 242’s influence on electronic music is positively seismic. From a European perspective they sound-tracked 80’s Reganomics as good as anyone.
Front 242 formed sometime in 1981 with the name being chosen purely because it looked typographically interesting. After the usual bit of personnel reshuffling that’s part and parcel of fledgling bands, they settled on the line up of Daniel Bressanutti, Patrick Codenys, Richard 23 and Jean-Luc De Meyer, the later becoming lead vocalist. With the band now stable they wasted no time and within a year they’d already released their debut album, the rather anonymously titled ‘Geography’. Listening to it now it’s an undeniably primitive beast but arguably all the classic Front 242 elements were already in place. Thunderous electronic drums? Check! Portentous keyboard refrains? Gotcha! Stark, hard edged samples? Definitely! Monotonous, accented vocals with very simple yet deceptively clever lyrics? All present and correct!
It seems that Front 242 were born virtually fully formed. Subsequent albums, 1984’s ‘No Comment’ and 1987’s ‘Official Version’ saw them tweaking their machine, buffing and polishing it to an ever increasing iridescent gleam. Whilst these records have their champions even the most die hard Front 242 fan would concede that it’s on their forth album, 1988’s ‘Front By Front’ that the band truly come of age, that this represents the purest distillation of their sound.
It was also the album which spawned the song ‘Headhunter’, an industrial dance monster that rivals ‘Head Like A Hole’. It’s one of those tracks that once heard becomes instantly recognizable from the first note. On any given Saturday night at the Slimelight, London’s premier Goth and Industrial dance club, all it took was a split second of this songs opening riff for a tsunami of Mad Max and Escape From New York extras to flood the dance floor. And with good reason. The baseline is so fantastically slippery it’s virtually impossible not to give in and move to the damn thing. As with most Front 242 songs the lyrics are relatively simple, with ‘Headhunter’ telling the tale of a bounty hunter searching for his quarry, but they also function as an indictment of the corporate practices that were running rampant in the late 80’s, often under governmental sanction. Practices that continue to this day.
Having over the course of four albums perfected a sound tailor made to destroy dance floors across Europe, where do you go from here? The follow up, 1991’s ‘Tyranny >For You<’ turned out to be a far more downbeat, introspective proposition. It’s arguably less consistent than ‘Front by Front’ but it’s highs are positively stratospheric. The whole thing is riven with a kind of corroded melancholy that I’m sure must have alienated those fans more attracted to Front 242’s dance floor leanings, yet for my money it’s their best, with the track ‘Gripped By Fear’ being the crown jewel of the lot.
It starts off very ominous yet as the song progresses there’s a counterpoint, the chorus makes room for a little uplifting ostinato that cycles in the background, gradually pushing it’s way through the droning storm cloud tones. The point where De Meyer’s voice nearly cracks as he goes into the chorus still raises the hairs on the back of my neck.
“Your tyranny I was part of
Is now cracking on every side
And your own life is in danger
Your empire is on fire”
The key part for me has always been “…I was part of”, the acknowledgement by the protagonist of his complicity in the very tyranny he is railing against. Sound pertinent? At the mid point they break the song down to an almost absurdly simplistic level, before hauling the whole thing back up by the boot straps on the back of that uplifting refrain, although now it’s brighter than ever. If you only listen to one Front 242 song in your life make it this one. Quite simply it’s fucking brilliant.
1993 saw Front 242 sign to Epic, a subsidiary of Sony, and then surprise release two new albums, firstly ‘06:21:03:11 Up Evil’ and then within a couple of months ‘05:22:09:12 Off’. What became more surprising was the sizable shift in sound they’d taken. Whilst ‘Tyranny >For You<‘ represented a change, this was veritable body swerve. Front 242 now had a whole load of new electronic toys to play with, no doubt bankrolled by their major label deal, and boy did they want you to know it. The signing to a major also sparked rancor amongst fans who felt the band was now straying too far from their independent roots; philosophically was this even the same band that penned the lyrics of ‘Headhunter’?
Heard retrospectively this shift in sonic direction, with what I’m sure was cutting edge tech of the day, marks these two albums out as distinct products of their time; far more so than any of their 1981 – 1991 output. Maybe that’s due to the current fetishization of all things 80’s ‘sounding’. What is ironic is that during the 90’s Korg, Yamaha and Roland could barely give away the kind of equipment Front 242 had originally built their ‘classic’ sound with. Now that very same kit changes hands for huge sums of money.
Nevertheless despite their inherent 90’s-ness both albums are sporadically brilliant and I still maintain there is a good single album nestled in there. Here’s the punishing track ‘Religion’, one of the notable highlights from this era.
The change in sound also fractured the band, and following disagreements over the future direction they should take Front 242 became dormant for most of the 90’s. What it took to reconcile and reactivate them was, sadly, a sponsorship deal from Roland. The classic Front 242 sound is such a product of the synths and samplers of its day that to update this would do a grave disservice to the music. Of course this is exactly what they did with Roland’s equipment, radically reworking songs until they sounded more like the Prodigy. It was predictably shit.
Since this nadir Front 242 have been content to push out an endless stream of live and remix albums featuring further pointless re-tooled versions of their songs. Evidently buoyed by this they found time for a new album and in 2003 released ‘Pulse’, a horrible digital smear of MOR techno. Much like Cabaret Voltaire before them, Front 242 were now content to chase the tails of second rate bands they’d originally influenced.
So where does this leave my feelings for this once great act? I’ll finish by mentioning that I have seen Front 242 live, once, back in 1993 on their Animals and Angels tour. This was before the Prodigy facsimiles, before the Roland love-fest, before they felt the need to include live drums *shudder*. To this day they are still the loudest band I’ve ever seen. They were so loud I couldn’t discern between sounds let alone have any idea which songs were playing. It was all one monstrous roar. I left after 30mins, the exact point as it turned out, that me and Front 242 parted company.