DJ & Music Writer from the UK

Front 242 – A Listeners Guide

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Front 242 - Official Version (Cover)

By now, Front 242 were big enough to be an influence themselves, and not just to other ‘industrial’ bands. Look up New Beat or early Detroit Techno if you need convincing. But in terms of their own recordings, Official Version arrived in 1987, and for the first time, their EBM sound worked across an entire long-player. It’s also the point where they got their extended-length song structures to work. Album opener W.Y.H.I.W.Y.G. is seven and a half-minutes of hard beats, descending synth lines and cries of ‘They’re Coming Down!’. And that’s all it really needs to be. They’ve made their formula work as a long game.

Rerun Time gets into the collection of solid body-beat workouts that make up the ‘meat’ of this album, with the centrepiece being Master Hit. Another extended length affair, the two parts taking up seven minutes between them, the synths twisting and turned as Jean-Luc delivers a surprisingly understated vocal, yet one who’s turn of phrase holds the whole piece together. Quite Unusual is the late-album highlight, taking the 242 concepts into a slightly more tuneful, radio-friendly direction. Until you “get” the apocalyptic tone of the lyrics and realise that far from selling out, they’ve actually sneaked one in under the radar

Versions and Singles: CD versions of this album generally add some of the 12” single versions as bonus tracks. The original CD issue features the extended mixes of “Quite Unusual” and “Agressiva” – this being an era when remixing was just about adding extra beats and repeating key phrases  to make the tracks DJ-friendly – not the total overhauls we get today. Later CD versions also add the “Masterhit” reworks – again, genuine ‘remixes’ rather than ‘messed about until it’s nothing like the original’.

Front 242 - Front By Front (Cover)

But if you want the central reference point for Front 242’s work, you need 1988’s Front By Front. Whatever ‘Official Version’ did, this album just does more of it. The opening salvo of Until Death -Us Do Part, Circling Overland and In Rhythmus Blieben leverage in turn the traditional Christian marriage vows, military terminology and the German language and nail home three all time EBM classics right from the start! Many believe the fourth track Felines suffers in comparison, but I’ve always believes it’s downtempo musings serve as a suitable counterpart to the headrush of the opening trio, and Jean-Luc De Meyer would subsequently develop an occasional taste for animal-related metaphor, so it’s good to know where it started.

We still haven’t got to the two megahits, though. Headhunter is the one you probably already know. That distinctive synth line, born after a ‘happy accident’ with a sampler and a cello waveform, is iconic, the layers of percussion make it a natural choice for any industrially-fuelled dancefloor, whilst the lyrics provide the catchiest of refrains from the least likeliest of sources – Jean-Luc De Meyer’s employment history in human resources. The other hit (technically a bonus track but included on every version except the original LP) is Welcome To Paradise. Here, the rock-solid sequencers are overlaid with samples of Jerry Falwell, one of the most zealous of the Southern Baptist preachers, setting his rants in such an ironic manner that it’s hard to believe so many people took him serious. My hearing of this tune in an obscure corner of the old Kensington Market was the first time I ever knowingly heard Front 242, and one could say the love affair started here.

Versions and Singles: Some CD versions include the ‘V1.0’ – aka ‘single mix’ of “Headhunter” – the album mix is ‘V3.0’. The V1.0 is preferred by many – that iconic synth line is front and centre in this version. Some versions also bundle the Never Stop single – as good as anything here but still a little anti-climatic when heard tacked onto an album this good. The 12” version of this single includes a few reworks from the album, though these are only really notable for actually referencing the number 242 within their sampled content – they may do so in German, but since when have the Frontmen taken the obvious route?

Front 242 - Tyranny >For You< (Cover)

1991 saw Front 242 sign to a major label (Sony/Epic). Initially at least, this didn’t have impact on their artistic endeavours. Tyranny >For You< hence became what would be best described as their ‘maturity of sound’ album. None of the elements that earned them greatness had gone, but their overall sound was denser, more complex and more intense. Nothing exemplifies this more than opener Sacrifice. Jean-Luc De Meyer could make a nursery rhyme sound ominous and foreboding, but his no-hope-for-mankind demeanour here, accompanied by huge dark synths rising from the mix like the walls of a vile citadel, creates something downright terrifying.

The next two tracks, Rhythm of Time and Moldavia see them return to the mid-tempo EBM territory, but with renewed textural depth that sets them apart from what came before. Neurobashing demonstrates that they can pull of a complex mix without losing any dancefloor potential. But amongst all this, there is one all-time stand out – Tragedy >For You<. It’s the place where Front 242 conquer the last bastion of EBM – actual songwriting, and do so with such aplomb that we have surely now have found the crowning moment in their back catalogue. The route they took musically from here would be ‘interesting’ to say the least.

Versions and Singles: ‘Tragedy >For You<’ got a two-part CD single release, the most notable version being the “Punish Your Machine” mix, reworking elements of the original into a full-on dance epic, the hard beats and looped phrases producing something quite hypnotic. ‘Rhythm Of Time’ gets a couple of remix treatments from The Orb – if you know the state of ‘Aubrey Mixes’ of the time, you’ll know these are a curiosity, not some major dance music innovation.

There’s also the ‘Mixed By Fear EP’, with the four ‘DSM0’ (Dancefloor Sountrack Music) tracks and various takes on ‘Gripped By Fear’ – rather than bring in 3rd party remixers, the EP reworks concepts and phrases from the album into a new form. This disc has it’s followers, but for me is pales into insignificance following what they did with ‘Punish Your Machine’.

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