The main reason for the shift in style seems to have been the recent change in the group's lineup. Richard JK (aka Richard 23) has been pretty much sidelined, and is credited only with some of the vocals on the album, while new members Jean-Marc and Pierre Pauly have taken over lyric-writing and added their names to the compositional team. It's also likely that after the almost-hit status of Tyranny >For You< they've tried to make their sound more easily palatable to the masses in the hope of achieving a long-awaited breakthrough.
The most noticeable change in the sound is that for the very first time Front 242 sound positively lush in places. Leaving aside the individual songs for the moment, the album flows beautifully with many of the tracks being separated by atmospheric noises, bleeps and whooshes. The songs themselves are often smoother in sound and more melodic, although those who like their Front 242 with more of an edge shouldn't be disappointed either, as there's plenty of that too.
The album opens with "Crapage", an interesting piece that moves from an ambient intro (containing various electronic weirdnesses reminiscent of Jean-Michel Jarre's Zoolook) evolving into something that sounds vaguely like "Rhythm Of Time" from their last album before finally turning into a track that oscillates between sounding slightly like An Unexpected Groovy Treat-era Finitribe and a more melodic than usual Front 242. The sound is very busy yet at the same time very clear and this track is one of the highpoints of the album.
"Crapage" flows smoothly into "Waste" (I'd rather not dwell on the imagery of that) via an atmospheric bridge. "Waste" sounds more 242-ish, but the synth sounds used are smoother and they're supplemented by occasional bursts of noise. Again, it's more conventionally melodic than the group's older material.
"Skin" is more subdued and less rhythm based, with the stress being on the vocals and some wonderful synth sounds. Think "Felines" or Geography era material for a reference point. The distinct feeling of deja vu continues with "Motion", the intro for which is slightly reminiscent of "Kampfbereit" although the track itself is much more up-tempo. Guitars make an appearance, but it's still very much a synth track. A lengthier burst of noise leads into "Religion" , the lead-off single and probably the most aggressive track on the album. Loaded with guitar samples and with heavily distorted vocals, it's pretty atypical of the group's prior output but a great track nonetheless.
After a minute or so of ambience "Stratoscape" begins. This is fairly lightweight stuff, combining harshly whispered vocals with almost tinkly synths. It reminds me a lot of something else, but I'm damned if I can remember what. Chris & Cosey? Maybe. The refrain of "over and over" is more than a little reminiscent of Cabaret Voltaire too. "Hymn" (no relation whatsoever to the Ultravox song :-)) is similar in some ways to "Crapage" - again there's the feeling that sometimes you're listening to Front 242, sometimes you're listening to Finitribe.
"Fuel" is very interesting indeed, combining a driving verse and guitar samples with an odd, slightly silly sounding chorus. "Melt" is surprisingly conventional. The basic song structure and sound are typically 242, but the chorus is very "rocky" and there's a lot of guitar work. Were it not for the distinctive beat, this would (in places) be impossible to identify as Front 242.
The intro to "Flag" reminds me rather a lot of one of the Eno remixes of Depeche Mode's "I Feel You" single. The resemblance ends there though as the rest of the track features both a typical Front 242 beat and another sound entirely that features light, sparkly synths and female backing vocals. "Mutilate" is another standout, a quiet almost-ballad that's utterly unlike anything they've ever done before.
The disc is closed by two remixes. "(S)Crapage" is an extended instrumental of "Crapage" - nothing drastic has been done to the track but the absence of vocals increases the impact of the music considerably. Finally (and rather redundantly, IMHO) we have the "Religion (Pussy Whipped Mix)" which sees J.G. Thirlwell beefing up that track in his own inimitable manner (ie big chunky drums, lotsa guitar, sudden quirky changes of style). Of the remixes that appeared on the "Religion" CD singles it's the best of a bad bunch, but I'd rather have had something new here.
All in all, I'm very impressed indeed. Front 242 purists might be rather disheartened by the more obviously commercial approach, but I personally think that the group have gained more than they've lost in their search for mainstream success. This album still has plenty evidence of their old sound but, due perhaps to the greater attention to melody rather than rhythm, it's much more interesting musically with a far wider sonic vocabulary. After six albums (and 11 years) of producing uncompromising electronic body music it's no real surprise that they've mellowed a little and perhaps got bored with the limitations of the genre, so it's a good sign to see them spreading their net a little further. Oddly enough for the first Front 242 album to feature guitars, in many ways this is their synthiest album yet with more creative use of that instrument.
It's surprisingly difficult to pick out standout tracks from this album. Partly this is due to the overall standard being so high, partly it's also due to the songs sometimes being difficult to distinguish. Often this would be a bad thing, but this is very much an album rather than merely a collection of singles. In fact one of the reasons "Religion" does stand out is that it sticks out like a sore thumb since the rest of the album fits together so nicely. The best thing they've done? Hmm, it's too soon to say, but once I'm used to the album I'm certainly going to have to put it head-to-head against Front By Front to see how the two measure up.
Of course, this isn't all we're getting from Front 242 this year - the more ambient album 05:22:09:12 Off is due for release (in Europe at least) on 23rd August. Definitely one to look forward to.
One final aside - the packaging. The particular copy I'm reviewing here is the limited edition poster pack of the album (hence the CDX catalogue number rather than the regular CD). While the disc itself isn't any different, the limited edition comes in a decidedly odd cardboard and plastic package called a "Compac Plus" which, as cardboard packs go, leaves the Digi-pak standing (although it's still not as good as a jewel box). The package is far sturdier than a Digi-pak and seems to go some way to rectifying that format's faults (ie it closes solidly and the edges of the cardboard can't get scuffed) while at the same time being slightly annoying (it's the same thickness as 1 1/2 jewel boxes and so will wreak havoc on people whose CDs are kept in racks with jewel-box sized slots). The poster itself, while depicting the rather stylish cover art, is next to useless, since the album details are printed on it. I don't particularly fancy having to take down a poster every time I want to check which track comes up next. Cute idea though.
Oh, almost forgot...
Erland Rating: +3
Al Crawford (firstname.lastname@example.org)
I should disclaim myself now, before I really get into this, that I've never been much of a Front 242 fan. While it's true that they do what they do better than most bands of their ilk, I still find much of their material dangerously anonymous, with few tracks really standing out as individuals. Only did the 1989 release _Front_by_Front_ did they have songs that really stood well, each on their own merits.
Most of the songs feature distorted vocals of some sort, distorted to the point of being unintelligible. This isn't bad in itself, but when every song sounds like that, it just adds to the negative homogeneity of the album. Only the two singles, "Crapage" and "Religion", stand out, and then only because they're marginally noisier than the rest. The album contains 2 alternate mixes, both remixes of the singles. The remix of "Crapage" is so-so. The remix of "Religion", done by Jim Thirlwell, is probably the best track on the album.
This album reminds me of a line I heard from a comedian on cable TV once: "If that's the sort of thing you like, then you might like that sort of thing." I think that sums things up quite nicely. I was hoping to be surprised and grabbed by the throat by this album, but that didn't happen. It's really just more of the same stuff. On the other hand, if you really like Front 242's style, then more of the same stuff is a good thing. Let your conscience, and your musical taste, be your guide.
davE rating: 0
David Vessell (email@example.com)