05:22:09:12 Off is the second album by Front 242 this year, following hot on the heels of the excellent 06:21:03:11 Up Evil which appeared in the spring. Despite some new elements appearing in the group's sound, that album was still easily recognisable as a Front 242 album. The same is not necessarily true for this new one though - while several tracks have that familiar F242 sound, the rest show the group experimenting a lot more than in their recent releases and many tracks have only a little in common with 06:21:03:11 Up Evil and almost nothing in common with their earlier works. I suspect that many fans of the group may find that this new disc takes some getting used to since it's so different from anything they have done before.
The disc kicks off with three versions of "Animal" - well, that's what the insert claims anyway. The second and third tracks are definitely what they claim to be, but "Animal (Cage)" is an ambient piece of low-pitched chords, electronic effects, the occasional split-second snippet of melody, distant screams and a wide variety of difficult to identify noises. It's all quite hypnotic and gets the album off to a good start although it bears no resemblance whatsoever to any of the other mixes of the track. The next version ( "Animal (Gate)" is, superficially at least, back on a more familiar track. The rhythm is more than a little reminiscent of "Headhunter" but the rest of the song is considerably different - it is somewhat minimalist, consisting of little more than the rhythm track and vocals, and the vocals themselves are something entirely new for Front 242 - they're heavily distorted (gated?) and sound distinctly female! There's also a soulful female backing vocal that appears from time to time. The third mix of "Animal" adds more meat to the bones of the rhythm track introduced in the previous mix. The sound is richer and denser, with the usual Jean-Luc De Meyer vocals, and other than being slightly more techno-oriented than most of the material on Up Evil there's nothing here to frighten off fans of 242's earlier work.
"Modern Angel" also appears in several versions on the CD, although these are spread out across the disc rather than clumped together. The techno influence is again strongly in evidence, along with aggressive yet androgynous screamed/distorted vocals and more of those soft female backing vocals. It's all rather appealing - especially the haunting melodic interludes - although the extended tinkly outro does go on a little too long. "Junkdrome" is the first of the three remixes from 06:21:03:11 Up Evil on the disc, and is a lengthy and drastic instrumental remix of "Crapage" that moves from an ambient intro that's almost three minutes long into something that sounds like Jean-Michel Jarre on steroids. "Serial Killers Don't Kill Their Girlfriend" is also worth a listen - an odd, bouncy beat combined with Jean-Luc singing interesting lyrics and a really melodic chorus that's pure Front 242.
The second of the 06:21:03:11 Up Evil remixes is "Skin (Fur Coat)", which takes the original track and beefs it up into something more substantial with plenty of rich synthesizer sounds and a chunkier beat. True, it also has some slightly cliched bleepy sequences, but it still preserves the essence of the original track. "GenEcide" starts as a tinkly Orb-like piece, with pretty female vocals but the beat that eventually emerges and the addition of distorted, shrieking vocals mark it as something a little different. The contrast between the distorted screams and the untreated female vocals is interesting but the track on the whole has a distinctly un-Front 242 feel to it - it is impossible to make any comparisons to earlier releases since they've never done anything that sounded like this before.
Compare this with "Crushed", where the first notes show clearly that we're back in safer territory. While the contemporary beat and the presence of yet more of those female vocals jars slightly, the synth sound is unmistakable. The distorted yet melodic vocals work very well indeed, making this track one of the more enjoyable ones on the album.
"offEND" is presumably meant to be the tailpiece of the LP version of the album - a short ambient track that takes the album out in a similar manner to the way "Animal(Cage)" brought it in. However, both the CD and (to a lesser degree) cassette versions of the album offer additional tracks - another six in the case of the CD.
The first of these is yet another version of "Animal" - this time it's the "Animal (Zoo)" mix that sounds even more like "Headhunter" than either of the earlier versions did. In many ways it is a mix of those versions, combining the more substantial sound of the "Animal (Guide)" mix with the vocals of "Animal (Gate)" and thickening the sound still further in the process. "Serial Killers Don't Kill Their Boyfriend" is a noisier (and considerably shorter) version of "Serial Killers Don't Kill Their Girlfriend" that is to all intents an instrumental - there are a few vocals here and there but they are so heavily distorted that they are almost completely unintelligible.
"Happiness (More Angels)" is a somewhat repetitive remix of "Modern Angel" that strongly stresses the techno aspects while dispensing with the vocals. As such it's quite good but there are hundreds of artists putting out anonymous identikit techno like this and I personally think Front 242 (or what is left of Front 242 - Richard 23 seems to have gone, and Jean-Luc De Meyer isn't much in evidence on this album either) would be better off pursuing their own distinctive sound instead of just following the trend. "Crushed (Obscene)" gives that track a similar treatment and in the process throws out most of those lovely lush synths but the combination of the distorted yet haunting female vocals and the subtle rhythm track still works reasonably well and is reminiscent of a hard-edged Single Gun Theory.
"Melt (Again)" is the third and final track from 06:21:03:11 Up Evil to be remixed here. The differences are minor - the track has been stripped down, the percussion has been pumped up and a bucketful of extra effects have been thrown into the mix for good measure. Oh, and doesn't that new intro sound just the teeniest bit reminiscent of an old Skinny Puppy track? "Smothered Hope" or "Far Too Frail", I can never remember which. The CD is rounded off by "Speed Angels", the third remix of "Modern Angel". This, as the name suggests, is fast and marries the atmospheric synths and some of the vocals of the original with a high BPM breakbeat techno rhythm track. Short but sweet.
My general impressions of this album are mixed. There is no doubt in my mind that this is the most innovative album Front 242 have released in a long time - all their past albums have developed their sound steadily but 05:22:09:12 Off seems to leap in several different directions at once. I think it is the precise directions they've taken that concern me - while it's interesting to hear Front 242 trying their hand at commercial techno that's the one time when the album seems to lose any distinctive flavour. Their attempts at ambience work well, although the pictures they conjure up would only fit in with the trendily peaceful ambient techno imagery of tropical rain forests and dolphins etc if you were willing to throw Agent Orange and perhaps a couple of dolphin-unfriendly tuna fishing operations into the equation. The tracks that seem to work best are those where they've thrown all the ingredients - the usual Front 242 EBM sound, techno influences from hardcore to ambient, heavily distorted vocals - in together, mixed them around a bit and stuck them together.
Like 06:21:03:11 Up Evil the album is nicely put together, with tracks flowing together via subtle bridges. However, unlike the previous album where the overall effect was of a seamless whole (with the possible exceptions of the add-on remixes on the CD and "Religion") this new album just doesn't seem to hold together as well. This might be due to the jarring contrast between some of the tracks, it might be because of the way that where 06:21:03:11 Up Evil flowed from beginning to end, 05:22:09:12 Off has loops in its flow with tracks seeming to pop up again and again. Either way the result is discontinuity and disorientation, although that might (given the schizoid nature of the album) be intentional.
As with the previous album, the initial release of 05:22:09:12 Off in Europe at least comes in a special poster pack in the "Compac Plus" card/plastic box that has the dubious privilege of being about the only cardboard CD box I've seen that can give a jewel box a run for its money. Those who object to cardboard packing in general rather than just to Digi-paks should (in Europe at least) probably hold off a few weeks before buying this, as by that time the regularly jewel boxed version should be appearing.
Speaking of who should buy this - fans of older Front 242 who found 06:21:03:11 Up Evil a little too adventurous or those who liked it for its moves towards the guitar-oriented end of the dance-industrial genre should probably steer clear. However, the ambient and techno influences that abound here mean this album might appeal to some people who didn't particularly warm to 06:21:03:11 Up Evil . So I'll give it exactly the same rating I gave that album, since what this album lacks in memorable songs it more than makes up for in its variety and experimentation.
Erland Rating: +3
Al Crawford (firstname.lastname@example.org)