That avant-garde industrial dance music produced by Belgian art terrorists could compete in the early-’90s American mainstream says much for the progress of the digital beat through the ’80s. While Front 242’s early records (best exemplified by their debut album, Geography) were firmly rooted in the clinically crisp synthesized sound of Kraftwerk and Cabaret Voltaire, the group’s initial approach was no more threatening than Depeche Mode.
When Richard 23 (aka Richard JK) joined founding members Daniel Bressanutti, Patrick Codenys and Jean-Luc De Meyer in 1983, however, Front 242’s sound began moving away from alternative pop and into harder, trans-European disco garnished with politically relevant samples. A series of 12-inch singles (later assembled with other ’82-’85 material on Backcatalogue) and the six-track mostly instrumental No Comment chronicle this progression, but the music remained stark and controlled; it wasn’t until Official Version that Front 242 became a truly distinctive force.
Ranging from the subliminal pop of “Quite Unusual” through the pummelling industrial dance of “Aggresiva Due,” mixing up sub-symphonic instrumentation on “Slaughter” and using sampled bible-thumpers to frightening effect on “Angst,” Official Version at last captured the band’s potential on tape. Having already established a reputation for demonic audio-visual performances, the album helped Front 242 emerge from relative obscurity to become a significant cult force, selling records all over the world.
Front by Front took this confrontational manifesto a logical step further. Images of control, power and war are evident in titles like “Until Death (Us Do Part)” and “Terminal State,” and in the frequent use of militaristic beats and samples. But variety again abounds: “First In/First Out” takes their dancefloor obsession closer to the mainstream, while vocal tracks (“Circling Overland” and “Headhunter V 3.0”) use dark imagery to commercial gain. (As a single, “Headhunter” became Front’s anthem.)
The long wait prior to Tyranny (for You) was marked by one unexceptional single (“Never Stop”) and a licensing deal to just the sort of mega-corporation their imagery and music had so frequently attacked. But anyone imagining a temperate performance would have been disappointed: released at the start of the first Gulf War, Tyranny‘s edge matches its era. With a fuller sound and less use of straightforward songs, it’s a soundtrack to the chaos of a violent world. The “Tragedy for You” single aside, vocals appear sparingly — the chorus of “recession, regression, repression” on “Gripped by Fear” is consciously unnerving — but the hard dance feel is ever present on semi-instrumentals like “Moldavia” and “Neurobashing.”
Of Front 242’s two 1993 releases, 06:21:03:11 Up Evil (the title is coyly coded to the order of letters in the alphabet) is the more diverse in style and rhythm — which isn’t necessarily a good thing. Variation costs the band its essential driving force; the album is strong but not striking. “Religion” still carries the one- sided ideology that originally drove Front 242’s passion, but not many other tracks stand up to the heritage of this once-great industrial collective. The songs on 05:22:09:12 Off work better because Front 242 is willing to expand on its formula, seemingly inspired by those groups who regard them as genre godfathers. “GenEcide” is a sulky mid-tempo groove that puts the vocals through a whispery processor and makes them complement the swooping keyboards. With its increased use of samples and abrupt rhythm changes, the album became a techno cornerstone.