Thursday, November 5, 2009

November 5: Front 242, "Front By Front"

Artist: Front 242
Album: Front By Front
Year: 1988
Label: Red Rhino Europe/Sony

Regardless of the genre in question, there is always a decent amount of musical latitude as there are performers in every genre who attempt to push the preset boundaries of the style. From the countless directions in which jazz split, to the various offshoots of the punk explosion, perhaps the most amazing thing about music is the endless ways in which a style can be re-interpreted. Though many may not realize it, or even give it much thought, even the more aggressive styles have this same diversity, shown by the various forms for heavy metal and hardcore music. Similarly, the oft-ignored genre of "industrial" shows the same wide range in interpretations of the form, and in many ways standing on the opposite end of the genres' spectrum from Nine Inch Nails are the equally brilliant Belgian rockers, Front 242. Having formed nearly a decade before Nine Inch Nails, it is Front 242 that can be seen as one of the true innovators of the genre, and their albums are all nothing short of fantastic. Also standing as one of the longest running, consistent lineups in music, the group has remained virtually unchanged since forming in 1981. Bringing a slightly lighter, more electronica based sound than a majority of the acts that followed, Front 242 in many ways represents the transition from groups like Kraftwerk to the more modern, dark style that dominates the industrial genre. With an extensive catalog of phenomenal music, Front 242 set the mark for industrial brilliance with their landmark 1988 recording, the truly unparalleled Front By Front.

Though Front 242 had already released a handful of albums and gained a respectable fanbase in their home country, it was Front By Front that catapulted them into the international spotlight and in many ways triggered the entire "industrial revolution" in music. Much of the success of the album was due to the surprise hit single, "Headhunter" and the accompanying music video directed by the great Anton Corbijn. One note on the video, which is well known for its strange "egg" concept, is that the reason for the subject matter is that Corbijn thought the name of the song was "Egg Hunter." Regardless, the song became a massive international hit, and the group was quickly signed by Sony Records, who would re-release Front By Front with additional tracks in 1992. Also with this re-release, Sony switched the cover to a far more elaborate, "better looking" cover, which in many ways takes away from the original cover (pictured above) which was much more in line with the music. One of the key factors in the success of Front By Front as opposed to the bands' previous efforts is likely due to the fact that on this record, they had clearly found and perfected their mixture of spooky, live vocals, programmed drums, and strange sound clips. This "edge" that becomes evident stands as one of the key turning points in the genre, though later groups would make the sound much harder and more aggressive than is found on Front By Front. This change in style is due to the progressive thinking and innovative playing of the bands' four musical giants.

Front 242 began as an electronic duo, founded in 1981 by programmers Patrick Codenys and Dick Bergen. After releasing a single together, they added a third programmer, Daniel Bressanutti as well as vocalist Jean-Luc de Meyer, and the group took on the name front 242. After making one last adjustment and replacing Bressanutti with Richard Jonckheere, the band found the lineup that would stick to the present day. As a true group effort, the various sounds and samples that are created on each song are more dynamic and varied than nearly any other industrial album ever created. Whether it is a straight programmed drum track with synthesizer loops or a song filled with wild musical and vocal samples, such as "Work 01," the amount of sonic diversity found on Front By Front is truly amazing. The backbone of the group's sound is the almost military rhythmic cadences, which give the songs the trademark "edge" that would define the genre. This base for the songs would influence countless later bands from Panacea to Rammstein. It is also this strong, steady backbeat that made the songs of Front 242 club hits throughout Europe, and the fact that the songs were not as dark as many later artists is one of the key elements that enabled Front 242 to have crossover success.

While the music is phenomenal and clearly the focus of every song, the tracks on Front By Front simply would not reach this level of excellence without the vocals of Jean-Luc de Meyer. Possessing one of the most distinctive voices in music history, one can easily cite Meyer as the primary influence on the vocal style of both Trent Reznor as well as Marylin Manson. With his gruff, often menacing vocal style, Meyer's vocals are truly a perfect fit for the music over which he sings. Occasionally passing his voice through modulators or other altering effects, the strict, almost robotic tenor of Meyer's voice is truly something that must be experienced to be properly appreciated. Along with the absolutely brilliant music, the lyrics found throughout Front By Front remain some of the most poetic and deep ever written, and this more intellectual focus on the lyrics would become a standard among the best bands of the genre. Furthering the military feel of the music, the band makes many references to war and battle, such as can be found on songs like "Circling Overhead." Yet even when the band opts for slightly more veiled lyrics, they are equally brilliant, as on "Felines" when Meyer rants, "...deeply caught int heir conceit, they gather to check their luck...the vultures sweeping down upon the street, to eat their fill of despair..." The combination of absolutely top-notch lyrics and the unmistakable voice of Jean-Luc de Meyer finishes off the perfect sound that is the music of Front 242.

Though in modern music, one of the key elements for success within the industrial genre is the dark, gloomy mood, when the genre was initially founded, such was not the case. While they were by no means "happy" or upbeat, seminal bands like Kraftwerk, DEVO, and Front 242 concentrated far more on the complex musical arrangements than they did no creating a "doom and gloom" tone. However, in the case of the latter, the darker, often sinister feel came across naturally, and one can hear the different between this sound and the more engineered, purposeful creation of the same mood. Combining together a complex cavalcade of programmed beats and sounds, along with the uniquely brilliant vocal work of Jean-Luc de Meyer, it is almost impossible to measure the number of bands that have taken influence from the work of Front 242. Similarly standing as one of the longest running bands of the genre, their more recent work is just as stellar and innovative as their early contributions to the genre. Often far more musical than those bands that followed, Front 242 found the perfect balance between the heavy, aggressive sound of Nine Inch Nails and the more musical base of Kraftwerk and DEVO. Truth be told, virtually no other band has presented this balance so perfectly, and it is perhaps the key reason why Front 242 remains such a highly respected band to this day. Though every Front 242 record is well worth owning, it was their 1988 masterpiece, Front By Front that blew open the floodgates for the genre and the impact the album had across the musical spectrum is truly immeasurable.

Standout tracks: "Until Death (Us Do Part)," "Headhunter," and "Work 01."

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