published as Disturbing Sounds to Unruffle the New Age
New York Times, February 24, 1991
by Simon Reynolds
"Tyranny For You", the new album by Front 242, sounds like business as usual for the Belgian electro outfit. It features their usual trademark features: juddering, girder-like beats, seismic sequencer pulses, bombastic synthesiser flourishes, and domineering, chanted vocals. These days Front 242 aren't so fond of the samples that used to punctuate their techno-mantras (snatches of political oratory, televangelist preaching, or trash movie dialogue). But their aura is still overbearing and ominous.
There's one crucial difference about "Tyranny For You", though: it's Front 242's first release for a major label. After nearly a decade of 'covert operations' in the independent sector, Front 242 have signed to Epic Records and are making a bid for a mass audience. Where once they likened themselves to a terrorist unit, now they talk of how "terrorism aspires to tyranny".
Nobody can agree on what to call the kind of music that Front 242 play: "industrial disco", "dancecore", "Electronic body music", are just some of the names that practioners disown more frequently than pledge affiliation. But after ten years as the soundtrack for a burgeoning cult scene, this sound may be on the verge of going overground. The recent grim turn in world events could even help it on its way, as clubgoers react against the New Age "positivity" of current dance music and turn to something more in tune with the chaos of the age. For industrial disco is danceable but it isn't funky, and it doesn't correspond to most people's idea of "fun". If disco is escapist, industrial disco is "no escape"-ist. Drawing on media images of conflict and calamity, it doesn't so much document as amplify the tension and chaos of the outside world.
The international network of producers and consumers of this music stretches from Yugoslavia to Belgium to Britain to Canada and the USA. But the market is dominated by a triumvirate of record companies. First and foremost is Chicago's Wax Trax label, whose output includes records by Revolting Cocks, My Life With The Thrill Kill Kult, KMFDM and Front Line Assembly, to name but a few. Wax Trax's public image has come to be defined by the notorious figure of Al Jourgensen, who at 31 has been dubbed "the world's best-paid juvenile delinquent". Jourgensen is the debauched mainstay of both Revolting Cocks and the more overground Ministry, whose commercially sucessful releases via Sire Records help fund Wax Trax's more left-field projects. Then there's Belgium's Play It Again, Sam label, who have pioneered 'Euro Body Music' with groups like Front 242, a;Grumh, Borghesia, and The Young Gods. Finally there's the Vancouver-based Nettwerk, whose roster includes Skinny Puppy, Severed Heads, Consolidated, and SPK. The three labels are loosely allied, often licensing each others records in their own territory, while members of their groups frequently collaborate on sideline or "supergroup" projects.
Industrial disco's musical "roots" (the term seems inappropriate for music so inorganic and assembled) lie in the Eurodisco sound invented in the late Seventies by producer Giorgio Moroder and popularised with tracks like Donna Summer's "I Feel Love". Moroder's aim was to create a pulse-based dance music that would be easier for white people to shake their stuff to than funk's tricksy syncopation. Another critical influence is the early Eighties German group D.A.F., who replaced the flash and dazzle of symphonic disco with a precise and rigorous grid of synth pulses. D.A.F.'s version of dance was less about flamboyant self-expression and more about "absolute body control" (as one of their songs put it).
The "industrial" side to the genre originates in a term adopted by one of the factions that emerged in the aftermath of punk. Industrial groups like Cabaret Voltaire and Throbbing Gristle beleived that punk was about disturbing the individual listener, rather than rallying youth in raucous solidarity behind political slogans. Challenging the listener involved tampering with traditional musical structures, experimenting with new technology, and exploring subject matter that undermined comforting truths rather than shored up a consensus. These groups combined traditional avant-garde techniques (tape loops, found sounds, electronics) with the new spatial possibilites opened up by disco and dub reggae (using the studio as an instrument). The industrial aesthetic also drew on influences outside music, in particular the apocalyptic visions of cult writers like William Burroughs and J.G. Ballard. From Burroughs, they derived an obsession with "control" (a paranoid belief in the existence of networks of surveillance and mind-manipulation) and the technique of "cut-up" (the use of quotes and soundbites from the media). From J.G. Ballard, they drew an interest in aberrant sexuality and a fascination with horror.
Industrial disco groups still work in this interface between pornography and pathology. For some, it's purely a question of voyeuristic kicks (Revolting Cocks). Others have more honourable motivations: Skinny Puppy rub our noses in the horror of vivisection in order to enlighten us and arouse our compassion. But most groups on the scene tend to have a morbid fascination with extremist thought and behaviour: the arcane rituals and "discredited knowledges" of occult groups, the warped notions of conspiracy theorists, vigilantes, and psychopaths.
Industrial disco is generally fascinated with the extremes of human experience, and in particular with the extremes of male psychology: the outlaw, the survivalist, the terrorist, the serial killer, the dictatator, the technocrat. Industrial disco's aura is supremely masculine. The key adjective is "hard", as in hard beats, hard living, hardcore. London's major club for this kind of music is simply called Hard Club. Dance is less a funtime release, more like an endurance test. Standard disco phrases like "work that body" are taken literally. The pumping-iron rhythms and unflagging repetition evoke a mood of aerobic triumphalism: like working out or marathon running, this is an aim-less strength that exists only to flex itself. Promo videos for industrial tracks often incorporate images of glistening, tensed musculature inspired by the heroic realism of totalitarian art.
A key influence here is the rhetoric of the Italian Futurists and Soviet Constructivists, with their faith in technology, their formal brutalism, and their suspicion of the "feminising" aspects of civilisation. Industrial disco particularly resembles Futurism in its worship of speed: not the illicit drug but the tempo of the 20th Century as it hurtles towards the apocalypse. (Wax Trax group Lead Into Gold wittily summed up the aesthetic with the title of their recent LP "Chicks, Speed and Futurism"). And like the original Futurists, the industrial disco groups have an ambiguous relationship with totalitarianism. For some, the flirtation is artistic rather than ideological (the sub-Wagnerian monumentalism of In The Nursery). Others make more explicit allusions. The German group KMFDM talk of their dream of a 'positive fascism' - an army of youth marching in one direction for peace and love, and working to build a society in which images of violence are banned. Or there's Front 242, who propound a survivalist philosophy that has been called 'micro-fascism' (organising your own mind and body like a police state).
Even if you can't endure the music, industrial disco is fascinating because it displays the full gamut of male psychology - from the sociopathic 'rebel without a cause' to the fanatic's will-to-power and paranoid worldview. Like rap, industrial disco can function as a glimpse into the hellish void at the centre of the male ego. It provides a hyperbolic expression of two opposed masculine impulses. On the one hand, there's the outlaw who revolts against God and whose rampages range from rampant egoism to feats of self-destruction. Al Jourgensen is the best exemplar of this breed of barbarian.
The other tendency involves the will-to-order in the face of chaos. The best representative of this approach is a San Fransisco group called Consolidated, who have been described as a "white Public Enemy". Their brilliant album "The Myth Of Rock" savages the notion of rock rebellion, which they diagnose as a symptom of arrested development. Consolidated dismiss rock as a regressive cul-de-sac whose main effect is to keep people from changing the world. The group are painfully aware of the reactionary aspects of the scene from which they've emerged (they talk disparagingly of "white aerobic supremacism"). Although their music shares much of the brutal exhiliration and galvanising rigour of the industrial genre, Consolidated claim they're inspired by a different, matriarchal model of strength. In that sense, they've done everyone a big favour: excising the unsavoury aspects of industrial while preserving the form, they've brought the genre over to the side of the angels.
AN INDUSTRIAL DANCE MUSIC SAMPLER
REVOLTING COCKS: 'Beers, Steers & Queers' (Wax Trax, 12 inch single)
Title track of their recent, coruscatingly offensive album.
CONSOLIDATED: 'Dysfunctional Relationship' (Nettwerk, 12 inch single)
A poppier track from "The Myth Of Rock" LP, which fuses industrial and hip hop to formidable effect.
SKINNY PUPPY: 'Too Dark Park' (Nettwerk LP)
Skinny Puppy's palatte of glutinous synth-tones and armoury of gruelling beats at their claustrophobic best.
1000 HOMO DJ'S: 'Supernaut' (Wax Trax 12 inch single)
Another Jourgensen off-shoot: this forthcoming, revved-up cover of the Black Sabbath classic is a guitar-driven blitzkrieg suggestive of a 21st Century Stooges.
by Simon Reynolds
published as 'The Grating Dictators'
Melody Maker, January 19th 1991
by Simon Reynolds
"Determination, persistence, assimilation, infiltration" has long been Front 242's slogan. Its logic has taken them, after almost a decade of covert operations in the indie sector, to a new combat zone: the mainstram, via a deal with Epic in the USA. Framed, fittingly, by the sleek, futurist interior of New York's remarkable Royalton Hotel, the "boys" from Front talk with typical impassivity about their promotion to the big league.
"We told Epic we're gonna use them, infiltrate them like a terrorist unit," says Daniel, Front's sampling technician. "They're awore of it, they want us to use them in that way. It's not a relationship based on mutual hypocrisy. And we know how they will use us, because they told us."
What does it mead to talk of "terrorism" in this contex? This is pop music, after all.
"It's both a metaphor and a technique. 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 on TV and then say, 'Buy a Band Aid'."
"But terrorism is no longer at the forefront of our music right now," adds Patrique (another sampling boffin). "Our music is now closer to human values. There's a new maturity. The new keyword for us now is tyranny, not terrorism. The original meaning of tyranny was not evil: a tyrant was someone who was elevated and approved by the people. And tyranny is how we approach things now; we still work to spread out music and impose it everywhere, but we have the support of a big audience. It's a benign dictatorship."
Daniel: "There's a direct link, terrorism flows into tyranny, tyranny is what terrorism aspires to."
Vocalist Richard picks up the thematic baton: "We feel that the mood of the people is changing. We don't have to change, in order to expand. Just be more subtle, conceal a few things. It's still what we call a 'no concession' album. What we're doing now is visiting the nine US branches of Epic in order to teach the people at every level - design, press offices, publicity - the strategy for selling Front over here."
If Front 242 are using Epic, how are Epic going to be using Front? I'd heard that they saw you guys as the next Depeche Mode...
"We've had Americans come up to us, saying, 'We love Depeche Mode, but we love you too, because you are the strong edge of electronic music that Depeche Mode draw on'."
Patrique: "I think America is just ready for electronic music. And Epic might have guessed that through watching the rise of Depeche Mode. But apart from that there's no point of comparison between Front and Depeche."
There does seem to be a huge, potential catchment area in the US for you, that was catalysed by Depeche: suburbanites and small town "new romantics" who are fascinated by the idea of Europe.
Daniel: "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. When I say heritage, I don't just mean electro-pop innovators like Kraftwerk or DAF, I mean something that encompasses philosophy, classical music art, architecture, history. Front 242 draws on Wagner, Shostakovich, the Italian futurists, Rossolo, Graphism, so many European artistic initiatives. Before, it used to be Constructivism that was the big influence. Now we're a little less strict."
Certainly, the new album, "Tyranny For You", reveals a romanticism that few would have expected from Front 242.
Richard: "Previously, we were more media orientated. Our material was taken from the TV and radio. Now we're more influenced by our environment, and the feelings that arouses."
Daniel: "If you look at recent history - and ignore the recent Iraq episode - you can see that the world has calmed down, there's been a return to real values. There's been a lot of recycling - both of materials and values. We felt that technology had to brak somewhere, and look at itself in the mirror. So we've tried to inject a few more human feelings in the music, which means going back to ancient feelings - like tragedy or tyranny. Our way of working is the same, it's just that the electricity is different. It's 'nombrilique' record. Navel-contemplating."
Front 242 music is also very white: although it's dance music, there's scarcely an ounce of funk in it.
"We feel that there's such a strong barrage of black rhythm in pop music, and, yes, it's great, but it's not what we're about," says Patrique. "We can enjoy black records, but we cannot feel black rhythm. We could copy it, but it would be inauthentic. We're probably stiffer in our way of doing dance, but we're more probably more authentic. When I look at myself in the mirror and listen to Front 242, I feel something closer to myself that if I watch a rap group on MTV."
To get back to the concept of tyranny: I always thought that the Front 242 idea of masterhit was about the exhilaration of self-mastery (Nietzche's idea of self-overcoming). Is your tyranny more about ruling your own body and soul like a police state, than dominating other people?
Richard: "In our case, tyranny is not political, it's artistic. It's not the dark side of tyranny, where we're compelling them to do things. We just want the audience's undivided awe."
The sound, the image, the aesthetic of Front 242 is very male...
Patrique: "We are male, yes. We are not afraid of that fact. That masculinity is strong, because we are talking about art here. If we were talking about love, then you'd see more of our female side. It's art, and art calls forth your instincts. We are male, but not macho. Take Wagner, it's a very masculine form of expression. But it doesn't have any bad connotations for me."
On the whole, Front 242 is about the grand passion and extreme intensities that are dislocated from the hum-drum plateaux of medium-level existence - upon which most of humanity dwells most of the time. Do you despise the everyday, the domestic?
Daniel: "We prefer the eternal emotions, and avoid the topical. With the new album, there are no samples of contemporary political figures like Gadaffi or the televangelists on 'Welcome To Paradise'."
Front 242 view human existence as a kind of perpetual war: globally (peace as war pursued by other means), socially (capitalism's war of all againt all), even within the microcosm of the individual soul (the war between dries and aspirations). A war in which there is no right or wrong, just "strong" and "weak" forces.
"In each human there is the fundamental fight," they say. "Every day of your life, you are at war with yourself. It's a constant struggle."
Melody Maker, July 13th 1991
by simon Reynolds,
Consolidated are the new militants of American rock. Their debut album, The Myth Of Rock, agitated against rock’s regressive impotence, its spurious rebellion and disengagement from the world, over an incendiary samplescape that combined industrial beats with a Hank Shocklee-style ‘wall of noise’. Their new album, Friendly Fascism, brings them even closer to their dream of being a "white, Marxist Public Enemy". I asked Adam Sherbourne, Philip Steir and Mark Pistel of Consolidated whey they’ve chosen to be agit-pop militants in an age where white rock never been more apolitical?
"In a sense, we’re a huge anachronism, and a comedy troupe. Being that serious is an enormous folly when you’re involved in such a degraded and diminished arena as rock ‘n’ roll. Just being in a band today requires a sense of humour and a sense of tragedy. We’re stuck in a medium that is trammeled by huge restrictions and limitations. We’ve tried political activism before, but for better or worse, our collective statement is through music. Among other things, our collective statement is that rock’s gestures at transgression or transcendence inevitably end up commodified."
But the same applies to agit-pop, which is arguably even more defunct and contradiction-riddled than all the other sub-genres of rock.
"Well, we’re the last people diving off the dock and missing the last boat. People say it’s been proved that pop and politics don’t mix, that political effectiveness just gets lost in the entertainment context. But politics gets lost and destroyed within ‘politics’ too. What people call politics has nothing to do with political change, it’s all about insider trading, chicanery, wheeler-dealing."
The field they’ve chosen to operate in ("dancecore" or "industrial disco") does not seem the most appropriate arena for a consciousness-raising initiative. Its two extremes seem to be crypto-fascist discipline (Front 242) and outlaw delinquency (Rev Co).
"With Friendly Fascism, we’ve distanced ourselves from that context. We’re fully aware, after a year of touring on that scene, of the crypto-fascist nature of that music. It’s just white aerobic supremacism preying on the twisted fears of male youth. We’ve redefined ourselves as ‘bureaucratic entertainment specialists’. We’ve already made the transition of being lesbian nuns playing coffee shop protest songs on wooden guitars!"
On The Myth Of Rock, you diss everything that you despise with the put-down, "Man, that shit is WEAK".
"Our idea of strength has no connection with constructivism or the heroic imagery of totalitarian art. In our value system, what’s weak is penis-oriented ego tantrums, the arrested development syndrome that is rock rebellion. Our idea of strength is modeled on matriarchal values — pride, resilience, determination, compassion."
You say capitalism has failed, which is true in the sense that it’s failed to deliver on its promises. Yet it’s a long-running failure!
"Of course, capitalism remains a huge success. What we really wanted to do with that song was make a counter-blow against all the propaganda that the Eastern Block revolutions are a proof of capitalism’s righteousness and inevitability. We wanted to make the point that the Eastern Block peoples were rejecting state tyranny, not voting for capitalism. Capitalism is definitely the biggest revolution ever, but we don’t see why people should have to tolerate that revolution, put up with homelessness, racial conflict, dehumanised labour, eco-cide and blood for oil."
Does ‘beauty’ fit into the Consolidated world view, or do you see music’s value as purely instrumental (a vehicle for agit-pop)?
"On the contrary, we aim to show that rock is not instrumental in promoting social change. Our argument is that we need to change the social conditions in which music is produced and consumed, before music can change anything. Our project is to abandon the failing tradition of agit-pop and invent our own failing tradition. Our message is simply that people should spend less time listening to music and more time changing the world."