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Culture Reviews
Front 242 (Version 2007)
Darwin Wars
By Ivor Crotty
Before reading this I suggest you watch this.

Front 242, photo - videomusic.ruThere is a certain inevitability to most things in life – things tend to happen with a delightful, comforting, mind boggling or infuriating, consistency, depending on your point of view. One man's Lebowski is another man's Dude. For example, a stockbroker might argue that Darwin's theory of evolution emphasizes competition over co-operation, the whole survival of the fittest thing. While a biologist or botanist might stress natural selection as less about survival and more an expression of the interdependence of beings and their environment. One way or the other all would probably agree that as environments change, animals change. Anthropologically there's consensus that as things change, people change and whichever came first is not important. Fair enough, good and bad stuff happens, things change, we get by as best we can, adapt, innovate, move on.

Then there's the cockroach theory – you know, the one that says the most cunningly and perfectly devised military machines on the planet haven't changed for over a million years and are in fact the ultimate expression of a primordial militarism deemed somehow terribly impressive by people who believe human history is all about war, rather than em… not. Accordingly, life as we know it is a battle against your "enemies", real or imagined, who ultimately become one's reason to live.

"Fascists? No Lonnie, worse… they're Nihilists."

This permanent state of readiness for war not only explains the philosophy of neo-conservatism (hardly in itself liberating) but it also tells us why cockroaches are so cool: because their survival demonstrates how we can best encapsulate the history of humanity. It's the philosophy that finishes with the ultimate in self-justification, saying "…for I'm the meanest mother f#cker in the valley". Fightin' talk thus.

Front 242 (that's zwei vier zwei to you), it seems, are the cockroaches of electronic music. There were four of them in Apelsin on Saturday – to whom respect should be given as the sound was great, the staff helpful and it never took longer than two minutes to get a drink. Comprising two frontmen, a keyboard-player/programmer and a drummer who worked off the powerful programmed beats yet really didn't add any extra depth to the sound coming through the circuits, Front 242 are quite old. They started life nestled into the (mainly German) techno scene in the early 1980's and while they are experienced performers, for sure, perhaps they've just got the wrong ideas about themselves.

Richard 23 (Richard Jonckheere) opened the show bopping around in sleeveless military fatigue with fingerless gloves, ubiquitous wraparounds, slightly be-muscled though fleshy nonetheless. In his day clothes he seems a very approachable chap, and there was no faulting his energy. In fact there was no faulting anyone's energy… loads of effort, lots of pumping fists, finger pointing and that funny industrious bopping you'd see the lads from the gym do when they're off their heads on E. Remember that kind of non-stop ergonomically efficient hammer-bopping with the odd move from Madonna's vogue video thrown in to add some sense of mystique? This was it, here in 2007, in Moscow. I hadn't seen it for years.. not since MC Hammer..

Vocals were divided into two categories: American football coach delivery from our abovementioned friend, or a Rammstein-esque graveltone delivered utterly without irony by another shaded booted and gloved techno-muppet (Singer jean Luc De Meyer – here he is singing Baudelaire's poems with his group Modern Cubism. Seriously, I'm not joking). Having heard of them as "pioneers" of electronic music, I expected at least an iota of intelligence strewn amongst the zwei vier zwei fingerless glove and sleeveless we-mean-business-brigade, but alas in 2007 there was none. They may have been clever, they cited Wagner, Shostakovich, the Italian futurists, Rossolo and Graphsim to beard-scratchers favorite journalist Simon Reynolds in Melody Maker in 1991, but it seems they've managed to avoid any other influences since about 1983, when they released their first album Geography.

Even my mate sleepy Dennis the boxer who'd seen them before was nonplussed by the sheer, well, stupidity of it all. Dennis is off the sauce though, so may not be as compos mentis as we gave him credit for. He could've seen someone else entirely a couple of years back.

Still, the sound never distorted (this is where Apelsin have one up on B1) despite the mountains of whumping bass on offer. The show opened with impressive graphics running on the video walls either side of the stage, with most of us eventually preferring to watch the screens rather than the gym/stage.

Programmer Daniel B. kicked us off with a thumping intro to Welcome to Paradise, the dramatic effect of which was somewhat undermined by Richard23's appearance in military garb bopping like Michael Flatley on speed. But as the drummer and second vocalist were added to the line-up things got a little mushy. Football coach and uber-soldier swapped lead-singer roles throughout but never looked like anything was choreographed – that they'd put some work into the stage show. This is rather surprising considering they're supposed to have been playing music together since before most of you were born. Instead we got cheesy arms round shoulders, and my favorite: kneeling and pointing through the roof towards some distant greater purpose or good which they allude to in their music, in the depth of their lyrics, the profundity of their philosophy. Bollocks.

At this stage I would like to briefly, and not altogether tangentially mention the wearing of sunglasses on stage in dark rooms. There are a few performers who could and can wear sunglasses on stage (and here I'm speaking about Stevie Wonder, Ray Charles or The Blind Boys of Alabama). I've got a feeling that on Saturday our posers with delusions of grandeur wore sunglasses not to fool us into thinking they're cooler than they really are, but to fool themselves into thinking it. They could have taken off their shades, said hello to the 300 odd devoted fans, but they didn't. They could have looked 300 people in the eye and said to them "yes, as our music asks you to believe in ideas, we show you the whites of our eyes and yes, we believe it!". But they didn't. Anyone who wears shades throughout a gig has something to hide and is either Prince or shouldn't be onstage. This was cabaret.

To be honest, the best bits were when they played pieces from their early albums, and that was an encore. Here the key changes, song structures, and beats were more sophisticated, subtle and yes, intelligent. One song reminded me of Depeche Mode's "New Life", for example. But the unhappy evidence on the basis of Saturday's set-list is that while Underworld, Orbital, Aphex Twin, Prodigy, and even Scooter explored technology's potential as a medium for music during the 90's and up to now, Front 242 explored music's possibilities as a medium for technology. Their adherence to the ideas of the twentieth century started out as a form of modernism (constructivism was a guiding principle in their latter years), but is now frankly embarrassing to the point that their cringe-inducing fear-mongering would not be out of place at a Nashi convention.

Jack-hammer bass drums and de-ne-ne-ne keyboards were cool in 1982 (remember the start of Kim Wilde's "Kids in America?"), but that was 25 years ago. Grunge reminded us that in order to be heavy, in order to rock, you had have to have guitars. Like, even the Prodigy had a guitarist when were at their most pompous, but the Fronters just had their keyboards… and when you're trying to be heavy, to be hard, to rock, but dance and do justice to your fingerless gloves, then keyboards are about as out of place as an expat in Petrovich when the school disco's on. Things are out of whack, the centre cannot hold. Guitars go well with muscles such as Richard23's but muscles and keyboards just look wrong, morally wrong. No matter how bulgy your biceps, if you stand behind a keyboard you look like a puff – it's the legacy of the 1980's, just ask any heavy metal band.

Anyhow – turning music into technology was clever in the 70s, all the Germans did it (Einsteunde Neubaten, Can, Kraftwerk, Nina Hagen even). In der shule von industrielle uber music Front 242 may have been innovators in 1983, who sadly now they represent the no-necks, the jocks. In my part of the world they'd be strapping 11-toed fuckers lured down from the mountains with raw meat who can kick and catch a ball while in Russia they'd be Duma deputies. Not the brightest, but a force to be reckoned with.

They are nihilist soldiers at the gates of oblivion striving for something to strive against, and as such, Saturday's performance was an honest no-frills expression of a mentality which defiantly stands up to its enemies and shouts "no surrender!". This is fine if you believed Star Wars, of you see the world as a battle between good and evil, black and white, Christian and Muslim, Democrat and Republican, anarchist and fascist.

Front 242, it seems, will just keep doing what they're doing, regardless of their (ir)relevance (Apelsin was less than half full), regardless of how things have changed, ignorant of the damage they do to minds and to music: they are soldiers, they are Donald Rumsfeld, they are OMON: a stripped down, empty, single purpose unintelligent military machine – the cockroach - leaving the geneticist or botanist, the true holders of Darwin's heritage, wondering where have all the flowers gone.

I'll leave the last word to Dennis "It wasn't supposed to be like this".

14.11.07
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