Despite having a lifelong courisoty about new music, there were and are still genres that I found elusive or novel. Industrial music was one. The term loosely described everything from Kraftwerk to Skinny Puppy. Much of what I had heard was like a roller coaster that always going down. Angst personified in wild rhythm with no melody or apparent structure. It wasn’t until I was exposed to Front 242 that I would find merit in the distinctly European style of dance music.
Much of what I heard on Official Version Front 242’s third album could only be described as harsh melodic noise (in the most flattering sense of the term). The band refined its style with Official Version while simultaneously defining what industrial electro pop could sound like. This album marked a period where industrial music began its rise in popularity, thanks in no small part to Front 242.
Front 242 easily stood out in the early murk of emerging industrial dance music. They were on the leading edge in the charge to mainstream exposure (if not acceptance) of industrial music. While Sisters of Mercy might have brought the genre to the masses, Front 242 was the real deal in its hardcore approach in clubs that were industrial friendly (so I was told)..
Their sound was made up of a number of contributors, some with names like 23 or deMeyer who sang in a flat emotionless tones that recalled the gloom of early new romantic music. Others played or manipulated computers and various instruments with machine sounds thrown in.
The thick Belgian accents of 23 or deMeyer were vaguely German or Russian sounding and were part of a design vocabulary that was influenced by Russian Futurism and the German Bauhus. With art installations and elaborate videos, Front 242 was as much a movement for the pages of Artfourm as it was a kind of electronic body music (EBM).
The body music part came with the sometimes harsh, heavy but always rhythmic beats that touched the club, techno and even hip hop genres. The dancing shown in videos was awkward and rhythm-less by some standards, but the beats Front 242 generated had some appeal in the grey areas where hip hop crossed over into Euro club culture.
Official Version contained street like elements like samples, often of screams and other human dialogue like TV preachers (“Televangelist”) that added to the busy wall of layered sound. At its best, it reminds one of a scaled down version of the wall of sound pioneered by Public Enemy.
Often when these sounds came together aggressively, a strong beat and rhythm was the result as in the hit “Quite Unusual”. That song along with it’s video was the visual introduction to Front 242’s visual and musical as-ethic for many new fans in America.
Front 242’s sound was distinctive, but it was not impossible to hear traces of Depeche Mode or other influences in their music, some of them surprising. A cover of Stevie Wonder’s “Masterblaster” brings a new dimension to a R&B classic and proves that the band’s influences were not all about cold abrasive Euro angst.
The diverse approach and sophistication to Front 242’s arrangements could be easily lost due to vocals that are delivered with the zeal of a screaming drill sergeant, but Official Version easily ranks as one of the best dance albums of the ’80s. Industrial dance music became a bit less elusive to mainstream audiences thanks to Front 242, but as a genre it still remains a novel oddity to me.