Formed in 1981, Belgian industrial group Front 242 helped pioneer aggressive electronic “body” music throughout ’80s with Skinny Puppy and Ministry. Front 242 produced two of the genre’s most important albums (Front By Front, Tyranny For You) and arguably, the genre’s most important single, “Headhunter.”
The machine-only Front 242 sound emerged out of necessity from a popular music vacuum in Belgium, according to founding member and co-producer Patrick Codenys. “Since there is no strong rock tradition in Belgium, there isn’t a pool of musicians like in England or America. Since you don’t have a drummer or bass player, many people in Belgium (and also Germany) began to work with machines. Everyone in the band was an entity working on his own. We met in the early-’80s when we were living in Brussels and buying our stuff at the same shop.”
Driven together, the intrepid little band jumped with both feet into a brave new world. Reveals Codenys, “We were determined to create music with machines and create a new kind of aesthetic from those machines. It was very exciting. We had art backgrounds and were very curious. There was a lot of ‘sounds’ research, things we weren’t used to hearing. We had to fine tune our machines [synthesizers] to try to find the right sound within the machine. It was difficult because the music was very stiff. In the ’80s the technology was much less flexible. We had to fine tune the sounds in preproduction by going very far into the process inside the machine before we entered the studio.”
In developing an aesthetic, the band established some strictures. “There were no rules, so we created our own: Never, ever use the built-in factory sounds. Create sounds that no one has ever heard before, and then try to integrate them into the music. We developed the kind of abilities musicians develop on their instruments: a dexterity for going in there and pulling out the most incredible sounds. Eventually you become as good with knobs and cursors as with keys.”
The band’s self-discipline didn’t preclude a relationship with their chosen “axes.” “Any musician wants to ‘possess’ his instrument – to know it fully. It’s not different for people working with machines, except that with normal instruments, there are rules and chords and notes. When I got my first synth, it took me a half-hour to get any sound out of the thing. It took me two years to know what a tuning was, because I was just doing noises, or sounds, or even notes without knowing there was a tuning,” he confides.
Like Depeche Mode in techno-pop, Front 242 faced stiff opposition. They used that opposition to toughen their music and their resolve, according to Codenys.
“The first three-to-five years we were doing music, we had no recognition. We were hated by a big chunk of the press and music business. It was very, very hard. Ours is not a kind of music that you can easily impose upon people. Most people would rather hear melodic music. The situation turned us into fighters because you have to stand behind something. The people inside the band are normal though, thank God. We have a lot of humor. But when you present an art, or a concept, it’s important to stand behind it, and have a strong image.”
The band’s image and sonic vocabulary became dark, foreboding and punishing by ’87’s Official Version, with titles like “Slaughter” and “Aggressive Angst.”
Codenys feels that “happiness is something that can blind you. For some strange reason, it is when people are unhappy that they are the most creative. It’s more complicated than that when you go to make lyrics. The tension between East and West was a good theme for us. Pictures on TV news gave us themes. When it comes to sound, we had a very strong anger inside ourselves.”
The hard work and perseverance paid off in late-’88 with the release of the throbbing, pounding, menacing, yet somehow inviting single, “Headhunter,” and the album Front By Front. The song struck a chord on the dance floor, where its seething groove melded perfectly with its story of a killer systematically stalking his victim: in the process baring the psychology of dehumanization.
“Headhunter” opened many a dance floor to the bracing thrill of industrial music. “By then a lot of people had become used to hearing weird, noisy synthesizer sounds. There has been a double curve going both ways reflecting the popularity of our type of music: one curve goes up from the artists toward the audience as we have gotten better, and the other goes down from the audience toward the artists as their ears have adapted. It seemed to come together on ‘Headhunter,'” he avers.
Though not possessed of a standout track as galvanizing as “Headhunter,” the band’s next album, Tyranny For You, is its most consistent and carried their formula to its logical conclusion. Highlights are “Rhythm of Time” and “Tragedy For You.”
In the ’90s the band experimented with screeching metallic guitar (06:21:03:11 Up Evil) and techno/trance (05:22:09:12 Off). After a hiatus to pursue solo projects, the band reunited in 1997 to tour and record new music – artistic spelunkers delving ever deeper into the machine.
Codenys worries that with the rise of technology, that exploration has become too easy. “The technology is so powerful, and there is such an abundance of factory-made sounds available, that it is easy to make ‘music’ within an hour. But behind the technology is an artist, and behind the artist is a man. I still believe that the start of everything is the quality of the man, who will develop the artist, who will make choices within the technology. I regret that the power of the technology can annihilate a person’s ability to develop his human sensitivity and his ‘man-power.'”