DJ & Music Writer from the UK

Front 242 – A Listeners Guide

06:21:03:11 Off?

Front 242 – 06:21:03:11 Up Evil (Cover)

It was at this point that Front 242 flew off in a new direction. Their next album was 1993’s 06:21:03:11 Up Evil. Richard 23 was still credited but barely featured. Jean-Luc De Meyer remained behind the mic, but the bulk of the lyrical credits went to the Pauly brothers from the band ‘Parade Ground’. An admirable pairing, sure, and they do hit upon many memorable phrases in the process, but they’re not true ‘Frontmen’. Or are they? Front 242 have never hidden the fact that they see themselves as non-musicians. Switching personnel was no more an issue to them than swapping out an old synthesizer for a new one. To the die-hard fanbase, however, such line-up fluidity was simply deviating further and further from the EBM roots that drew them to the band in the first place.

Which is a pity, because this album actually works in it’s own idiosyncratic way. The lush chords, irregular bass stabs and mix complexity of Crapage aren’t typical of the 242 sound, but as a stand-alone electronic composition, you have to admire the ambition. Motion gets closest to the straight-ahead body beat sound, but with an intro that distantly harks back to “Kampfberiet” (remember that one?). Religion sees the heaviest use of guitar samples yet, the one enduring anthem this album provides.

And I could keep going. Songs like Hymn and Fuel are very un-242 like lyrically and musically, but there’s just enough of the original spirit of the band to survive on an artistic level. Melt is even more of a diversion – it’s the most ‘rock’ 242 song ever in terms of structure, seething electronic bassline meeting prominent guitars and a chorus that couldn’t possibly had been sung by either of Front 242’s resident singers. Flag is a late album highlight, the tinkly synths giving way to one of the biggest beats they’d record. Even the slow, plodding closer Mutilate provides one more chance to hear Jean-Luc do his downtempo star turn. And the result of all this – I still insist this is a good album. The only bad thing you can say about it is that there’s not as much ‘Front 242’ on it as those that came before.

Singles and Versions: ‘Religion’ was released as 2-part single and an all-in EP. The highlight of this is the ‘Pussy Whipped’ mix, an awesomely noisy adaptation by J.G.Thirwell of Foetus that is also included on the CD versions of the album. He actually provides three remixes, but the other two are just minor adaptations of this. There’s also a couple of mixes by The Prodigy – these retain only some elements of the original tune, but as standalone compositions, stand up well as their ‘Jilted Generation’ era material. Rounding things out are two mixes of ‘Crapage’ by The Orb, but we can skip these as a bad joke.

Front 242 – 05:22:09:12 Off (Cover)

There was a second Front 242 album in 1993, 05:22:09:12 Off, but this one deviated even further from their template. Jean-Luc only appears via remixed tracks from the first album, with the bulk of the vocals handled by Kristin “99” Kowalski. A female singer on an industrial album is rare enough now, but in the early 90s, it was practically unheard of. Daniel and Patrick – the non-vocal half of the 242 line-up, are still very much present, but they continue the dense, complex mixing style, with more ‘ambient’ moments than ever. And that’s where this album falls down. There’s too much synth noodling and texture generation. Not enough substance.

It’s a pity. Animal takes the bassline of “Melt” from the last album and tries to make it work with the female vocal, but multiple versions just confuse things. Modern Angel is a more straightforward scathing industrial tune, but this track is still two steps removed from the definitive version that I’ll get to later. The one true great from this album is Crushed. Here, Kristin’s voice gets to be aggressive, delicate, sexual and vulnerable at different stages, and finally the multi-layered mixing technique than the Frontmen  have tried so hard to make work has a song that really fits the vocal. It’s totally unrecognisable as Front 242, but as a song in it’s own right, it works.

Whilst the album is technically only 10 tracks long, virtually all versions have an additional 6 tracks, reworking tunes from this and the previous album. Welcome as it is to get a less mucked-around version of “Animal”, the most notable of these is a rather extreme remix of “Modern Angel” called Happiness (More Angels), removing most of the original vocals and adding an uptempo throbbing bassline and choral samples. This would eventually become 242’s later-day anthem, the one enduring track from this part of their career. But this recording wouldn’t be the one that everyone remembers. You’ll have to keep reading for that one….

Singles and Versions: As if we didn’t already have enough alternate versions, we got an 9-track offshoot EP called ‘Angels Vs Animals’. As the title suggests, it’s mainly versions of “Modern Angel” and “Animal”. The radio and extended mixes of “Animal” are welcome no-nonsense takes on a song that wasn’t allowed to be itself on the original album. KMFDM get to remix “Modern Angel” – a version that tries hard to make you like it but never quite hits the mark. Better are the in house takes – the ‘Wipe Out’ and ‘Der Verfluchte Engel’ up the noise quotient substantially, whilst ‘L’Ange Modern’ is a quite unexpected orchestrated version. Orchestra 242? Now I’ve heard it all.

Front 242 - Still & Raw (Cover)

And as far as studio records go, that was it for another decade. Live albums, remixes and side-projects aplenty. But no new music. It took until 2003 before the Still and Raw EP appeared. The electroclash fad was at its peak and somewhere close by, artists like Terrence Fixmer and The Hacker had found the techno/electro/EBM intersection and had begun to work the possibilities. Front 242 seemed set on cutting their own slice of this action, though what we really got here was a form of minimal techno voiced by Jean-Luc De Meyer. Sure, it’s technical proficiency was review bait amongst certain electronic music critics at the time, but a decade and a half on, does it really stand out from everything else out at the time? No. For the first time since their debut, other musicians were doing what 242 were doing, and doing it better.

Front 242 - Pulse (Cover)

The full length album Pulse followed later that year, with a most bewildering tracklist. 20 tracks in all, with the titular ‘Pulse’ being fully in evidence during the five-part opener SEQ666. If you like your sequencer-driven analog knob-twiddling, it’s a real tour-de-force. But it’s also essentially a rework from the previous years Male or Female album, and hence it’s role in the Front 242 canon is questionable at best. But that’s the pattern for this album. Patrick and Daniel programme their sequences, twist and modulate them in all manner of directions and let Jean-Luc De Meyer vocalise as he see fits. Richard 23 is credited but he’s never really audible.

So what we have here isn’t really a Front 242 album, but a Male Or Female album with a guest vocalist who just happens to be a Front 242 member. On the plus side, the intensity of past recordings has at least returned after the overly-relaxed EP that came before. So I could wax lyrical about the dark atmospherics and minor keys of Triple X Girlfriend (love that title), the tension building through One (With The Fire) or the Tangerine Dream-esque Never Lost (Riley). But there is only one truly great track here – Together. Whilst stylistically closer to big beat than pure EBM, it’s here that the Frontmen finally find their touch, the electronic trickery creating a raucous build-and-release dynamic that finally screams “I AM AN ANTHEM” like nothing else they’ve released this millennium.

And that’s it. Their last new studio recordings to date. They continued as a live band thereafter, though, and that’s where we’re heading next.

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