There’s no shortage of live recordings of Front 242 out there, but I’m not going to cover bootlegs for now. With the exception of Live Target, a 1992 recording that was of sufficient quality to be acknowledged by the band as a semi-official live album and get a limited release. It’s still lo-fi by today’s standards, but it’s of great interest to fans due to it’s ‘classic’ setlist, the only live album issued before their radical musical diversions the following year. It’s also the point where we really begin to appreciate what Richard 23 brought to the 242 live experience. He may primarily be a backing vocalist on the studio recordings, but on stage he’s always been a proper rabble-rouser, particularly when let loose on tracks like “Welcome To Paradise” or “Punish Your Machine” that were sample-driven in their original forms, but have plenty of ‘shout over’ potential when taken to the stage.
The fully-official Live Code arrived in 1994. Despite being sidelined in the studio the previous year, Jean-Luc De Meyer and Richard 23 are still very much the leading men in 242’s live incarnation. The setlist in made up of songs which have been extensively overhauled. None of them are twisted beyond recognition, but most basslines have been reworked, the live mixing brings different elements to the fore and some tracks have been totally restructured. The real beneficiary of this process is (surprisingly) “Headhunter”, in this form even more up-and-in-your-face than any of the studio versions.
1998’s Re:Boot saw an even bigger sonic overhaul. The late 90s was the era of big beat and possibly inspired by the Prodigy remixes of “Religion”, Front 242 decided that was where their live sound had to go also. And it’s at this point that “Modern Angel” finally morphed into “Happiness”, the fury of the Front 242 live delivery and the added tweakin’ analog resonance finally unlocking this tracks true potential and giving them a contemporary dance anthem that guaranteed their continued play in an era when “EBM” had begun to mean some kind of synthpop/techno/trance hybrid.
It’s a pity hardly any of their older songs survived this latest shift in stylistic direction with much of their original integrity intact. The self-conscious insertion of contemporary dance music influence into sounds from a different era fails more often than it succeeds. It reeks of bandwagon-jumping. I made no secret of my distaste a few years ago for how a number of industrial bands grafted Skrillex-style bass drops into music that simply wasn’t designed with that in mind. But it had all the ‘name’ critics saying the right things. One was wondering if this album was the late 1990s counterpart?
Front 242 carried on with this concept for a few years. Their 2005 live DVD Catch The Men saw their first live videos available on a digital format (for technical reasons, I’m not covering their VHS live releases) is largely in the same style, though a few songs, notably ‘Religion’, have been tidied up in the interim. There’s only one new track here – luckily it’s “Together” from ‘Pulse’, by far the strongest and most live-friendly track from that brief revival in recording activity. It’s not the best demonstration of what this band can do live, to be honest, but if you’re after something on a contemporary format, there’s not much to choose from. Luckily there is ONE other choice…..
By the mid-00s, Front 242 has worked out that adopting current dance trends wasn’t for them and instead reworked their backcatalogue into a kind of ‘Modern Classics’ style – advanced from the original album recordings on a technical level but still retaining the ‘spirit’ of the tunes. This would be the format of their live shows to this day, and it’s nicely captured on the Moments in Budapest collection. Available in single CD, double CD or DVD formats, it’s finally a chance to get a career-spanning live set.
It’s not perfect – there’s some very tinny drum sounds in places, and it’s a pain to have to acquire all the versions to get a completion. But unless you’re one one those people prone to chasing their favourite band round the world (or Europe at least), this is going to be your best bet at sampling their live show. Most of the tracks work well in their new incarnation – the ‘Up Evil’ tracks are an exception, none of “Melt”, “Religion” or “Crapage” really fitting the new-cum-old way of doing things. But all is forgiven when you hear the new version of “Kampfberiet”. A ancient classic of the catalogue now features a haunting piano melody, German AND French vocals and a lyrical excerpt from Kraftwerk’s ‘Radioactivity’!
The recent cessation of live shows forced upon us by the COVID pandemic led to further slew of archived Front 242 concerts being released in early 2021, lieu of the band actually touring. Hamburg 97 (covering the ‘Official Version’ tour) and Ancienne Belgium 89 (covering ‘Front By Front’) were download-only releases, whilst a couple of 1991 concerts centred on Tyranny-era material were released as limited-edition CDs (USA 91) and double LPs (Live in EU) respectively.
The recording quality of these shows is reasonable for the time, though as they mainly feature material from albums which were at the time quite recent, the tracks don’t deviate as far from the albums as some of those listed above. Definitely of interest to the die-hard fans who are impatiently waiting the Frontmen’s return to stage, but the casual fan won’t hear much hear they can’t find on the studio recordings.
There are a few more obscure live releases that you’ll find harder to track down – Transmission SE91 was an limited LP-only release of a 1991 concert recording which curiously came out in 2013. I’m assuming it was part of the whole ‘vinyl revival’ fad. There was also a download-only release of their LIVE Cold Waves III show from 2014 – essentially similar in style to their ‘Live Moments’ recordings. Not the most accessible recordings, but a gauntlet thrown down for those collectors that have to have it all.
And whilst it’s not strictly a “live” collection, people who still have VHS players may wish to seek out a tape called Integration Eight X Ten. If you’re into late 80s and early 90s video art, it’s a real treat. Some clips are just live cuts from the era, but the surreal Anton Corbijn videos of “Headhunter” (or should that be “Egghunter”?) and “Tragedy >For You<” have to be seen to be believed. Such a pity they never got a DVD release, but hey, it’s called YouTube, right?