beat of the nation

front 242 are a band in a strange position: neither fully active nor completely finished. in the 80s, they were part of the wax trax! label axis (by way of play it again sam) of "second-wave industrial" bands. basically hard electronic dance music, they (along with skinny puppy, front line assembly, and nitzer ebb) are responsible for the basis of what is (somewhat mistakenly) called industrial music today. throbbing gristle started it, and nine inch nails and ministry popularized it (by adding lots of guitars), but these belgians and their peers solidified the subgenre dubbed ebm, being among the masters of the burbling sequenced synthesizer bassline. kraftwerk may have invented the man-machine, but front 242 made the hybrid ultra-cool and more masculine. their vision has always been more terminator than metropolis.

after their brief brush with the big time (signed to epic records and playing lollapalooza), they dissolved into largely ignored splinter groups and guest spots on other people's records. they reformed 5 years later for touring purposes, but without original member daniel bressanutti. a slew of remix and live albums and one lukewarm new offering in 2003 have kept the name alive long enough to elevate them to the position of elder statesmen of their corner of the music world.

like last year's skinny puppy reunion tour, the nyc date was at irving plaza, where i also saw them in 1998. this time, they had the benefit of a huge video screen behind them, pushing name-brand self-worship (the only band of its kind who does this more, albeit vocally, is KMFDM), and cold, security cam-like imagery and intentionally glitchy animation. two supporting players (a drummer and a laptop keyboardist) took the stage first. then the band's most recognizable member, patrick codenys (whose swim-goggled face is the only one to appear on any of their CD's, 1991's tyranny for you) took his place stoically behind a virus keyboard. an ominous drone began, which quickly built up into pummeling beats. richard 23's processed vocals echoed through the sound system, until he bounded onto the stage, singing the first song by himself. when the next song began, jean-luc de meyer appeared to greater applause. many consider his sinister accented baritone to be the heart of the band's identity.

after a fairly strong opener, they continued with a string of songs unfamiliar to me and only somewhat more interesting to most of the crowd. one of the things i noted right away was the live drummer, seemingly a concession to rock show standards. front 242's music is clearly programmed, almost metronomic; at first the drumkit stood out as being nowhere near as powerful as the synthetic beats and pulses making up the bulk of the music. suddenly, out of nowhere, i realized they were playing "welcome to paradise," with its sampled evangelical exclamations, including everyone's ironically authoritarian-mocking favorite, "no sex until marriage!" this song finally woke the crowd up enough to really get them moving.

everything improved from that point onward. sounds began to separate, the synths became sharper and more defined. even the live drums seemed to make more sense, especially for songs like "religion," which contains sampled distorted guitar squiggles and was originally mixed by the same man who has mixed slayer. a few slower songs actually somehow approached being funky in a clunky electronic kind of way. i noticed a lot of reprogramming and updating of sounds and song structures of old material, much like depeche mode did for their 101 live album.

in a strangely solemn moment, richard 23 told the crowd that a huge fan of theirs named chris had passed away a few days before the show and dedicated "quite unusual" to him. after several more excellent selections from their back catalogue (including one acutally from backcatalogue), they announced the last song of the night. this was of course "headhunter," arguably the biggest dance club song of the genre. this is where the crowd expectedly went wild, aggressively dancing up a storm in a chaotic ballet of punches and kicks into the air. even the more jaded people (and i count myself among them) couldn't help singing along with the simplistic but classic chorus. then, when the song should have been over, they took it up several notches by adding a vicious new keyboard riff in counterpoint to the original. this made a good part of the audience go ballistic.

this was obviously the highlight of the night, and several people left before the encore. the songs were as good as the second half of the set, but mostly anticlimactic. however, to those of us who had been energized by moving furiously for half the night, "punish your machine" was very appropriate for its line "i feel so fucking alive." which is what a good concert should make you feel.

the title of this post comes from the band's song rhythm of time, which sadly, was not played. the picture above comes from release magazine.