January 26, 2011

Hear Again: Tyranny (For You).

Twenty years ago the Iron Curtain had been pulled back in Europe, the Berlin Wall had come down, maps were being actively redrawn, the entire world appeared to be shifting, and history itself — it was brazenly declared — was coming to an end. Some even dared argue it had simply reached its natural conclusion; Western liberal democracy had finally vanquished all possible alternatives. How fitting then that a sombre note of sober skepticism should sound from Front 242, one of the bands that perhaps best captured the pervasive paranoid mindset of the last Cold War decade. Not only were they perfectly equipped for the task, having honed their skills in manipulating multimedia in a manner akin to much larger propaganda outfits, but being Belgian also perfectly placed — in a small European state cobbled together like a collage of historical necessity — at the major intersection of European affairs.

"What's the horse on the shore waiting for?", inquires lyricist and main vocalist Jean-Luc De Meyer in the languid album opener Sacrifice, seemingly drawing a parallel between the new order, the (as it turned out) brief period of rejoicing that followed the collapse of the old, with the infamous wooden stratagem the cunning Achaeans unleashed on the Trojans. De Meyer, assuming the guise of a blinded sybil, then laments the loss of the future's predictability. Two decades on, his opening lines on Front 242's fifth album, Tyranny (For You), appear almost prophetic, as our world has indeed changed from half a century of clearly defined lines, locking the world's largest powers in a seemingly static battle, to a place so unpredictable few of us even dare to entertain visions of the future.

Doctor Fukuyama may well have been right about the end of history: he merely faltered on whose specific history was ending and when. Front 242 seem to pitch their tent in the "cyclical" camp, as indicated by the album's centerpiece Gripped By Fear; bringing closure to the so called Atomic Age with the assertion that every tyranny, every regime, every reign sooner or later falls. More often than not defeated by its subjects simply outliving it. But even as Front 242 sounded an "Achtung!" — "beware!" — quite different from the boomer nostalgia peddled by contemporaries U2 later that same year, history appeared to not only have caught up with the unbridled celebrations of free-market liberalism's "victory", but stood ready to repeat itself. Mere days before the release of Tyranny… , the Gulf War — which saw Belgian participation in coalition with 31 other nations — began in earnest.

The brief conclusion of this, the first war to be practically broadcast live to a global television audience, soon had other thinking-persons' pop groups (the Pet Shop Boys among them) reflecting on the stage at which humanity had now arrived, but despite De Meyer's opening lament that his "gift is of no use", Front 242 had (perhaps unwittingly) preempted the coming doomsayers of the 1990s with their last album of the 1980s. Yet Tyranny… is not completely a work of pessimism, as Rhythm of Time, the album's second track and the third and final single to be lifted from it (and in a sense its true opener, if Sacrifice is interpreted as merely an overture), unabashedly declares an unyielding belief in the human spirit.

"We believe in the future of the human race!", sing De Meyer and second vocalist and drummer Richard Jonckheere, making the track simultaneously a response to Boomer apologism as well one of the most positive songs in the Front 242 catalogue. Rather than pointing a finger, seeking to apportion blame, Rhythm of Time provides its own answers ("What's above? New planets to conquer!"), alluding again to the cyclical nature of time, and hinting at environmental issues as potentially being one of the "Achaean surprises" waiting in that suspicious looking wooden horse. The album's second half opens with the first single taken from it, Tragedy (For You), a track that uses a souring romantic relationship as a metaphor for environmentalism.

Such sudden frankness on an issue, reinforced by the unconventional video for Tragedy… directed by Dutch shutterbug and videographer Anton Corbijn, certainly wasn't expected of a band that had previously carefully avoided being explicitly political. But environmentalism could never have been far from the consciousness of musicians who, as legend has it, had once rehearsed in the garage of future environment minister of the Brussels-Capital Region Évelyne Huytebroeck — who also encouraged her friend and band member Richard Jonckheere's foray into local politics for the francophone green party Ecolo in the mid-1990s, as well as his candidacy in the Belgian general elections in 2007. Fittingly, it's future green-politician Jonkcheere that plays the lead in the Tragedy… video, alongside actress Maja van den Broecke.

Before the album proper is over, De Meyer's lyrics also identify spiritual, personal matters as another area of concern, with various systems of belief pouring in to fill the void left by "discredited" ideologies. (Though they may also be personal reflections on De Meyer's own exhaustion with and within the band.) Spiritualism as well as the murkier side of human mentality are identified as further "Achaeans" haunting the future's shores in the album's closer Soul Manager — perhaps more so in The Untold, one of the most distressing and menacing tracks recorded by Front 242 despite (or, perhaps, precisely because of) its unhurried pace and sparse arrangement. Both tracks reveal a band increasingly confident with the process of producing and mixing complex arrangements, the use of samples more subtle in their sourcing yet more deliberate in application.

Across the whole album the band's music moves away from being mainly driven by synthesisers to being dominated by samplers and digital effects processors in particular, attaining a vast, almost cavernous soundscape with percussive elements often far from their "traditional" positions in the mix. Indicating the direction the band would pursue in the future, Front 242 achieve an immersive listening experience on Tyranny… , highly conducive to being enjoyed via headphones but unfortunately not one that plays well on low-end systems with poor stereo separation. Tyranny… is also a culmination, a bookend of sorts, incorporating nearly all the themes, tropes, and methods Front 242 developed and utilised over the preceding decade.

Among these the most obvious are the image of a distorted, twisted visage on the sleeve (in this instance that of keyboardist Patrick Codenys immersed in in a plexiglass tank), echoing practically every original sleeve previously conceived by the band, and the collusion of sports with politics — tracing the Ur-Fascist urge to celebrate physical activity as more "noble" and "pure" than the "abstract", suspect sphere of intellectual endeavours — as well as the correlation between athleticism and dance. But Front 242 merely toy with loaded imagery and themes on Tyranny…, devising a series of pictograms (representing "Man", "Globe", "Struggle", "Time", "Target", and "Speed") to rival their well-established logo, even engaging in every tyrant's favourite tool of confusion by naming a track Moldavia for no other reason than to lend it a title wholly unconnected with its contents — and thereby draw attention to the very process of nomenclature.

Although the band had forsaken their "urban warrior" wardrobe for smart sports gear in the accompanying promotional material (having band members active in handball, road cycling, and squash, undoubtedly helpful) — created with long-time collaborator photographer Alain Verbaert — they maintained their "in-house" approach, manipulating the sleeve artwork on Commodore AMIGA computers (no doubt to the delight of the then flourishing AMIGA demo community). Creating every aspect of their art themselves, from music to visuals, with only the odd collaborator brought in from "outside" not only allowed the band complete control of their vision but also strengthened the impression of Front 242 as multimedia "terrorist cell", engaging in public consciousness manipulation similar to some of the era's much more powerful political, mass-media, and promotional entities.

The continuous emphasis on energy and movement, the athleticism inherent in dance and club music also hinted at where the band were heading next — at least musically. As with most of their previous albums, on Tyranny… Front 242 once again included different interpretations of the same piece of music, with Moldavia and Neurobashing essentially being two versions of the same track. Though this time the possibilities digital music production offered to deconstruct and reconstruct a track in perpetuity, echoing the constant reworking, "remixing", and turntablism which had began to permeate every dance club at the time of the album's release, seemed to preoccupy the band far more than before.

Not satisfied with the two variations included on the album, Front 242 also released a "suite" of four further permutations of Moldavia on the accompanying Mixed by Fear EP, under the title Dance Soundtrack Music: This World Must Be Destroyed (with a further two "work in progress", Beta-versions appearing on the North American Gripped By Fear promo CD). Similarly, Tragedy… was remixed into Neurodancer (a title, as most correctly assumed, inspired by William Gibson's Neuromancer) and Punish Your Machine — the latter version, assuming a life of its own, becoming an audience favourite in performance. A further experiment in seemingly endless dilution is the album track Trigger 2 (Anatomy of a Shot), which appeared ahead of the album on the Tragedy… single in an alternative version dubbed Trigger 3, and as one of two "hidden" bonus tracks on the CD editions of Tyranny… (a version generally assumed to be Trigger 1).

While European editions of the album were released through Play It Again Sam subsidiary Red Rhino Europe (and their various intermediaries: Globus in Czechoslovakia, Nuevos Medios in Spain, Polydor in France, SPV in the rest of Europe), the Japanese editions on Alfa, the North and South American editions were released by Sony subsidiary Epic. The American major's gamble, signing the Belgians in the wake of their 1988 "breakthrough" hit Headhunter, paid off for label and band alike: within a month of its release Tyranny… sold in excess of 135,000 copies in the USA alone. It became Front 242's highest charting album in North America, despite it and its accompanying singles receiving very little airplay, charting at #95 and remaining on the billboard for 13 weeks. Both Tragedy… and Rhythm of Time reached #11 on the dance singles chart (higher than Headhunter, which only reached #13), with the latter even being included in the film Single White Female the following year. The moderate commercial success combined with the backing of a major label more importantly allowed the band the stage their most elaborate and extensive tour to date, with 76 concerts performed over seven months in Europe and North America.

Though formally known as the Tyranny Tour, it was quickly dubbed "la tournée de la pyramid à hélice" — "the tour of the propeller pyramid" — for the most prominent feature of the stage set designed by Jean-Luc De Meyer's younger brother Marc. An established artist in his own right, De Meyer the younger had devised a flexible set of 52 wood panels mounted on an aluminum framework, whose various podiums and structures could be adapted to the suit numerous stages differently. Decorated by Marc in oil, polyurethane, and latex to resemble surfaces of antique bronze and oxidized copper, the set was dominated by the infamous "exhaust-fan" structure that wouldn't have been out of place in the finale of Blade Runner. It was the largest investment Front 242 had made in lighting and scenography until then, and perhaps the clearest evidence of the band's ability to finally approach promotors of their own accord rather simply being "invited over" or to "open up" for other acts.

Having established their tyranny not only over their machines (as suggested by the aforementioned Punish Your Machine), but also over their domain, their particular method of producing music, Front 242 consolidated their strengths on Tyranny (For You). With four of the six main songs on the album being constructed around similar long accent leitmotifs embellished by various ostinait and numerous percussive elements, it's easy to suggest that the band really wasn't breaking much new ground and that in some ways the album was Front 242's swan song. As purveyors of multimedia collages, picking through the massmedia detritus collecting at the crossroads they inhabited, Front 242 were at one point a quintessential Cold War pop group. Capturing the zeitgeist with some of the same tools and methods employed by the era's prevalent powers, skillfully manipulating sounds and images, exploiting the fears and anxieties of their audience.

With the old divisions gone, the besieged mentality seemingly outdated, and the whole continent (if not the entire world) suddenly turning into one massive love-parade techno-party, the "imperial phase" of Front 242 appeared to be over. Even the band themselves admitted at the time that Tyranny…, collating and compounding a decade's worth of Front 242 endeavours, was a tad "nombrilique" — "navel-gazing" — at times. Yet it presents the techniques honed by Front 242 during the 1980s at their peak. As the "annual reports" of Throbbing Gristle, the progenitors of industrial music and an influence on Front 242 (and whose Peter Christopherson (1955 - 2010) directed the Rhythm of Time video), Tyranny… is a conclusive report on a decade that saw the end of certain types of hegemonies, and hints of others waiting to rise — just as the sneaky Achaeans patiently did inside their wooden horse.


  1. Anonymous18/4/14

    One of the best review EVER for my favourite LP of my Favourite band EVER.

    You rocks !

  2. Anonymous17/2/16

    Hi there, I just found your post while looking for information about these lyrics. I like your interpretation, it seems the most plausible. However, today a friend told me about this art installation in Arhus that has me wondering (Http://www.smk.dk/en/visit-the-museum/exhibitions/past-exhibitions/2010/bjoern-noergaard/about-the-work-the-horse-sacrifice/). In the song, I sense that the narrator, the seer, is herself/ himself, the intended sacrifice (maybe for lying, not being accurate enough, for wielding too much power, or maybe for simply not telling the asker what he/she wants to hear...) In this light, the living horse is truly a decoy. Either way, Sacrifice is one of my favorites. I don't normally pay attention to lyrics, but in this track there is so much, story and myth. It's perfect.



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