Returning to London after almost exactly a year away, Front 242 brought their Re:Boot tour back to English shores in their only UK date. For those fans who have not caught 242 on their Re:Boot tour a little introduction is required. For 'Re:Boot' read 'Remix'. The tour is the Belgian industrialists version of Kraftwerk's highly successful The Mix tour which the German band first introduced in 1991. The Re:Boot tour gives 242 the chance not only to tweak some old favourites but, in some (indeed most) cases, to completely transform them. If Kraftwerk's intention was to update their work in the light of house and techno, then 242's revisiting of their back catalogue seems designed for the post-Prodigy generation. But it is only right that one of the forefathers of heavy dance music should have the opportunity to cash-in on what they laid the path for so long ago.
Re:Boot is effectively a greatest hits tour. Only the hits have been through some insane mixing process that has upped the BPMs right across the board. The coverage is all-encompassing. From their first single, Body To Body, to tracks from their last (new material) album, Angels verses Animals, Patrick Codenys, JL DeMeyer, Richard 23 (and guest live drummer) re-live their career for an hour and a half at a breakneck 140BPM. Having seen the band on last year's leg of this tour, I knew what to expect this time around and the radical reworkings weren't so much of a shock. It was good to hear three of my faves still in there: "Im Rhythmus Bleiben", "Welcome to Paradise" and "Punish Your Machine".
My problem with the approach taken by 242 to remix their work is that in doing so the character of the originals has largely been lost in a wall of contemporary dance sounds. The subtlety that made some of the originals classics of the movement has been abandoned in favour of a relentless attack of BPMs and Prodigy-inspired keyboards and samples. Whilst this appears to be a natural extension of the last few studio albums, I couldn't help returning to the original versions in my head just to give me that emotional punch - something sadly lacking in the new live 242. As a band that prided itself as having a philosophy, a 'concept' as Patrick Codenys has labelled it, the new 242 is no longer music for the head as well as the feet - now (live at least) it is purely for the feet. How does the song go, "Cold in the head, but warm in the heart"? Front 242 are the only band I have ever seen live when I've found it impossible not to dance. Sadly, and somewhat ironically given their current approach, that is no longer true.
But I don't want to paint a picture just of disappointment and gloom because it was still a great gig - especially for those relatively new to the band or less steeped in 242's more thoughtful and distant past. Over 1,100 tickets had been sold in advance and the queue on the night was respectably long. By the time the band came on, the Astoria was packed solid. Gone were the days of stage props and projections, now it's all live drums and rave lighting (which, I have to confess, was impressive).
Despite my personal views above, the audience clearly came to dance, and dance they did - a mass of bodies jumping in unison. Girlfriends on shoulders, stage diving, bouncers getting involved with the audience a few times - it was a non-stop techno industrial dance assault from beginning to end. But I can't help believing that even the band themselves know they're doing little more than treading water with the Re:Boot approach. It seemed particularly significant that their ultimate classic, the anthemic "Headhunter", was the one song that underwent the least amount of change. It's almost as if the band knows that, in this case, the audience simply wouldn't accept a radically re-worked version. By far the best re-interpretation came during the encore with "Funkahdafi". Beginning as Kraftwerk's "Tour de France", it went on to double the speed of the original version and become a pulsating, bleeping soundtrack; only an infrequent Arabic wail and the sampled 'Funkahdafi' being repeated reminded me of what I was listening to.
Front 242 fans are easily categorised into two distinct groups. There are those who listen only to the early years - the heydays of '82 to '87, and those who love them just as much today as they did then. I find myself standing somewhere between the two extremes. A Front 242 gig is still worth going to provided you are open-minded. But, for my money, nothing will live up to the time I first saw them in the 1980s. Those days and those songs are sadly missed.
Read an interview with Patrick Codenys of Front 242 conducted on the night of the Astoria gig.