Le Corbusier’s Atom
Front 242 might find a place in the history of alternative music as one of several simultaneous co-founders of a European industrial music scene that was later watered down and made palatable to angst-ridden teens everywhere via acts like Trent Reznor’s Nine Inch Nails. Arising out of the same leftist stew and love of sampling that produced acts like Germany’s KMFDM and Italy’s Pankow, the Belgium-based Front 242 achieved fame with several singles that reached American club audiences during the mid-1980s; they received a major-label break in 1990 when they signed with Epic. Yet after releasing three records, Front 242 seem to have vanished after participating in the badly conceived and best forgotten 1993 Lollapalooza tour. Nevertheless, Front 242’s music primed listeners for the assault of the more accessible—and out to shock—artistry of Ministry and Marilyn Manson.
Front 242 coalesced around 1981 in the Belgian capital of Brussels after erstwhile design students Daniel Bressanutti and Patrick Codenys, joined by Jean-Luc De Meyer, formed “Massif Central” (also the name of a plateau in southern France) out of their shared passion for synthesizers and anti-establishment sentiments. Bressanutti would later drop his last name and become known as simply Daniel B; he and Codenys programmed and played the complex instruments while De Meyer served as vocalist. Ayear later, in 1983, they were joined by drummer Richard Jonckheere, who would similarly drop his last name to use the moniker Richard 23; he served as an extra vocalist and drummer. The group would eventually rename themselves as well; “Front 242” came from a variety of sources—the famous Resolution 242, for instance, was the legislative act that created the state of Israel; “242” was also the name of a certain kind of motor in Fiat automobiles. The “front” part reflected the band’s political orientation, being atrans-European term understood in several languages as a type of organized, popular uprising.
At this point in time, various European acts were taking advantage of affordable synthesizer technology that had recently appeared on the market, and Front 242 was part of this wave. Like other young musicians, they were politically-minded, well-versed in history, artistic movements, and the classical pantheon, and worried about the rampant consumerism and media addiction that seemed to be exerting pressure upon Western civilization. “242 ar. political. But rather than present a concept through lyrics alone, the whole band i. a concept, a microcosm of the multinational corporationsand surviv-alist factions their songs suggest,” wrote Melody Maker’. Simon Price. Yet while Front 242 often mocked the police state by posing ominously in sunglasses and even brandishing pistols in still publicity photos at times, such imagery was easily misunderstood and they were soon labeled a “fascist” band. “Well, Europe has a background of Fascism, it’s still in their minds, and they think we are too close to it,” Bressanutti theorized to Melody Maker’. David Stubbs.
Early Front 242 songs were recorded with basic four-track technology. The band released their first single, “Principles,” in 1981, followed the nextyear by “U-Men”; both were on the New Dance label, which would also release the band’s first full-length LP, Geograph. in 1982. Bressanutti drew heavily from sampling various sounds taken from everyday life as well as the artifice of media. “We are always busy recording samples,” he told Steven Newburry in Melody Maker. “We have so many TV channels here on the continent that it is quite easy to get interesting samples.” He even carried a portable cassette recorder out in public with him. In time, a full cassette of samples would be passed around to Codenys and De Meyer, who would add their own synthesizer-generated sounds to it. The end result was either spoken-word bits or lyrics combined with abrasive, fast-paced rhythms; in the case of vocals, De Meyer or
For the Record…
Original members include Daniel B , (born Daniel Bressanutti, August 27, 1954, in Genk, Belgium), keyboards, programming; Patrick Codcnys (born November 16, 1958, in Brussels, Belgium), keyboards; Jean-Luc De Meyer (born November 18, 1958, in Brussels; worked in the insurance field during the 1980s), vocals; Richard 23 (also uses the name Richard JK; born Richard Jonckheere, January 20, 1963, in Brussels; joined group, 1983), drums; for 1993’s 05:22:09:12 OFF, band was joined by vocalists 99 Kowalski and Eran Westwood from the New York City band Spill.
Band formed c. 1981 as Massif Central; changed name to Front 242; released several albums on various independent labels, 1981-90; signed with Epic Records, c. 1990, released major label American debut, Tyranny for You, in 1991.
Addresses: Home —Brussels, Belgium. Record company —Epic Records, 550 Madison Ave., New York, NY 10022.
Richard 23 virtually barked or growled over the sonic assault. The mood emitted was described at various times as cold, robotic, hollow, machine-like, and impersonal. Their songs were also less than listener-friendly. De Meyer once told a Melody Maker writer that “just because our songs have no intro, no middle break, no chorus doesn’t mean that they are unstructured.”
Front 242 gained ground in Europe as industrial music caught on, eventually morphing into what would be tagged “electronic body music,” or danceable metal. They toured with Ministry in 1984, in the Chicago-based ensemble’s pre-industrial, alternapop days. They eventually became affiliated with the Chicago label that would make Ministry famous, Wax Trax, and released several singles and records over the rest of the decade. These included the 1985 EP No Comment, Official Version, and Back Catalogue, both released in 1987. Official Versio. even roseto Number 2 in the Belgian charts, right behind U2’s The Joshua Tree, but it had taken time for Front 242 to win the support of the Belgian music scene. It also took time to catch on elsewhere, but it helped that the band loved animosity from audiences. “In Italy it was completely exciting because they were totally against us, throwing coins at us, and we had to convince them,” De Meyer told Stubbs. Bressanutti rarely appeared onstage with the band, instead running the sampler tracks and complex machinery from behind the scenes. Smoke, screens, and video imagery completed a visual assault designed to complement the sonic one.
Le Corbusier’s Atom
Writing for Melody Maker in 1988, Stubbs tried to encapsulate Front 242’s artistry. Their music, he explained, is engaged in “the politics of effects, capturing the dangerous and alluring crackle of the media environment either directly…or indirectly, by the nature of their massive, electrocuted, grid-iron sound.” One single from this era, “Welcome to Paradise,” was a massive hit in American clubs, mocking the rise and scandalous fall of televangelism by sampling a bit from a minister summoning his electronic flock with the words, “Hey poor! You don’t have to be poor any more… Jesus is here!” Other singles, such as “Headhunter,” also became huge dance-floor hits. Stubbs tried to describe another creation, the song “Masterhit”—“its presence is arbitrary, devastating, solemn, and perilously distracting,” he asserted, much in the same way as Le Corbusier’s giant vision of an atom, a large public sculpture in Brussels.
“Masterhit” was included on Front by Front, the group’s final release on the Wax Trax label. “Funk Gadaffi,” inspired by media images of feared Libyan leader Moammar Gadaffi during the 1980s, was another of the 1988 release’s tracks. During this era, the band was also fond of posing in very dark glasses and sometimes weapons for publicity stills. Codenys tried to explain this to Stubbs: “It seems that images of militarism, commando outfits are simply the strongest of images, the most shocking,” adding that television is the most potent of all images. In another interview for Melody Maker, with the paper’s Simon Reynolds, Bressanutti explained that “terrorism is very close to publicity in its techniques, it’s just a little less subtle. In publicity, you don’t shock people. You don’t cut a throat in TV and then say, ’Buy a Band Aid.’”
Front 242’s major-label debut came with 1991 ’s Tyranny for You. The “tyranny” replaced the “terrorism” of their earlier creative efforts, Bressanutti told Reynolds, referring to the tyranny of media images that exerts control over people’s opinions and spending habits. By this time both De Meyer and Richard 23 were singing onstage, though the latter kept less to the actual lyrics and instead repeated or elaborated on the former’s words, or provoked responses out of the audience. In between two releases on Epic in 1993—06:21:03:11 UP EVIL, released in the early summer, and that autumn’s 05:22:09:12 OFF—. Front 242 went on the road as part of the 1993 Lollapalooza tour. They were the only industrial act of the national tour that year.
Despite these somewhat ominous opinions, Front 242 attracted the attention of Epic Records and signed with them. Prior to their first release, the band toured all nine Epic offices and briefed the design and marketing staff regarding how best to sell their music. “I think America is just ready for electronic music,” Codenys told Reynolds. “And Epic might have guessed that through watching the rise of Depeche Mode.” Reynolds surmised that Front 242 might catch on with young American Euro-philes. Bressanutti concurred, noting “in a sense, Front 242 are the real thing for these people, in that we have a cultural heritage, and that makes us more authentically grounded than some band from Utah trying to mimic the Eurobeat sound.”
As the Nineties waned, Bressanutti and Codenys had become ensconced in their Flemish countryside headquarters, a state-of-the-art recording studio with motion-detector shutters to thwart curiosity-seekers. The two had also formed the Brussels-based company Art & Strategy, a record label and design firm. Simon Price of Melody Maker visited the country retreat prior to the Lollapalooza dates, and asked the band about its new image. De Meyer explained the about-face as a new way to go incognito: “When we take our glasses off, no one recognises us! I always hated all that rock ’n’ roll star system. We have abandoned those ideas of commando-terrorism, dark glasses, and so on. We have a more open attitude and a more open image because… this is the Nineties!”
Geography, New Dance, 1982.
No Commen. (EP), Wax Trax, 1985.
Official Version, Wax Trax, 1987.
Back Catalogue, Wax Trax, 1987.
Front by Front, Wax Trax, 1988.
Tyranny for You, Epic, 1991.
06:21:03:11 UP EVIL, Epic, 1993.
05:22:09:12 OFF, Epic, 1993.
The New Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll, edited by Patricia Romanowski and Holly George-Warren, Fireside/Rolling Stone Press, 1995.
Billboard, June 5, 1993, p. 71.
Melody Maker, September 3, 1988, p. 25; December 9, 1989, p. 45; January 19, 1991; May 29, 1993, p. 12; September 4, 1993, p. 49.
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