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Front 242: Front By Front (1988)

May 4, 2012

Roll: 2-4-2
Album: Dead Meadow, Old Growth Front 242, Front by Front

The roll, 2-4-2, actually came up with Dead Meadow‘s 2008 album, Old Growth. But it just seemed a crime that with this roll I shouldn’t review a Front 242 album. And what better album to take on than the Belgian Juggernaut’s career pinnacle, and genre high-water mark, Front By Front (1988)?

To be honest, I also discovered that I have nothing to say about Old Growth. It’s a good, heady, fuzzy, psychedelic-rock album by a good, heady, fuzzy, psychedelic-rockband. If Spacemen 3 had possessed the chops (or even more unlikely, the inclination) to consciously emulate Zeppelin, FloydHendrix, and Sabbath, they might have made a record something like this.

Or perhaps not. It’s a moot point since Dead Meadow actually did make the exact record I’ve just described. It’s called Old Growth and it’s pretty good. Let’s say 8-out-of-10 good. But a rating becomes irrelevant since unless you hate Jason Simon‘s voice—or good, heady, fuzzy, psychedelic-rock in general—you have no real, legitimate excuse for not liking this album. Still, it’s not really essential either. A little extra oomf, a few arena-sized hooks and trimming a little fat might have put it in 9 or 10 territory. But 8 ain’t bad. Assuming good, heady, fuzzy, psychedelic-rock is something that appeals to you.

Front By Front, on the other hand, is a bona fide master stroke and one of the most artistically successful albums in any genre and it’s one you have no legitimate excuse for not liking. Well, that’s assuming clinical, Teutonic, mechanized, nihilistic techno is something that remotely appeals to you. And if if that’s something that doesn’t remotely appeal to you (perhaps quite likely), it’s still worth a listen.

I wrote about my introduction to Front 242 in my review of Nitzer Ebb‘s Showtime. Specifically, it was seeing the iconic video for “Headhunter“on European MTV.  Widely regarded as the best Electronic Body Music single ever recorded, you can’t understate its importance in the history of EBM and industrial rock. It’s both the alpha and omega of industrial dance music. It simultaneously launched a thousand copycat singles and marked the end of an era. You can almost understand why a millennial double-disc remix album of the one track actually seemed like a good idea to someone. 17 versions of one song is a dubious idea at best, but you can’t deny the song contains one of the chilliest, most emotionally bankrupt hooks to ever worm its way into your ear.

But beyond its influence on electronic rock, without “Headhunter” we might actually live in a very different world today. Not only was it significant that such a nihilistic song crept into the public consciousness—helping pave the way for the likes of Nirvana and NIN a few years later—Front 242 were significantly responsible for shaping the cyberpunk subculture.

If they hadn’t used snippets of computer language and software naming conventions in their track titles, or rudimentary (then cutting edge) computer graphics on their album covers, and combined those elements with paramilitary clothing, there’s a good chance we wouldn’t have everything from Anonymous to The Matrix.

A few years earlier—around the time these Belgian electro-punks started making a name for themselves—William Gibson may have laid the egg of cyberpunk with his novel, Neuromancer (1984), but it was Front 242 who hatched it into the real world via the most potent means of disseminating a meme human beings ever created: pop music.

At least, in the pre-Internet world. Though it seems kind of absurd Front 242 could have existed in a time before the world wide web, that’s exactly why they captured people’s attention. If not directly responsible for creating it, Front 242 baited a line and spread a net to capture the zeitgeist of a pop-culture movement that would turn mild-mannered computer nerds into militant hackers and bedroom anarchists—or just made software and technology design seem a sexy career choice, thus shaping everything about our world in the last two decades.

So next time a skinny, acne-pocked dweeb in a leather trench coat and boots three sizes too large for him obliviously bumps into you on the sidewalk, you know who to blame. And when you pull out your phone and tweet about that odious kid, you know who to thank.

But regardless of how you feel about hackers and cyberpunks in 2012, Front By Front is one of those pieces of seminal magic that transcends its era. Though “Headhunter” is naturally the centerpiece, if that song had been omitted from Front by Front, the album would still remain a classic.

There’s no denying this is very much electronic music of 1988, but the sterile, repetitive, gated machine beats somehow don’t sound as embarrassingly quaint as, say, a Madonna club remix of the same year (or a Thrill Kill Kult record from five years later). The production is only “dated” in the same way The Velvet Underground & Nico‘s or the first Joy Division album’s is. It’s such a perfectly executed artistic statement that it simply doesn’t matter how many earmarks of yesteryear it bears. It’s timeless—and that’s no small feat for a techno record.

The record also isn’t the same just a little too old and cheesy techno of genre progenitors such as Kraftwerk. An argument could be made Front By Front is the apex of electronic rock’n’roll and that no one would ever achieve such a perfect marriage of medium and message. Technology had caught up with the vision, but was still restrictive enough that electronic music artists couldn’t jump the shark. Yet.

From here on out producers’  reach would either exceed their grasp (resulting in pretentious navel-gazing), or they’d revert too far back into techno-primitivism (to the point of contrived retro-cheesiness). Almost 25 years later, Front By Front is remains situated perfectly in the sweet spot between these two pitfalls.

As a bonus, this 1992 CD reissue of Front by Front contains the original 12″ mix of “Headhunter” and the companion Never Stop EP making this a complete capsule of pretty much every essential track by the band. Plus you get the same truly unfortunate artwork re-visioning found on all their 1992 reissues (bonus!).

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