Murray Roman once made an album entitled A Blind Man's Movie, which was shipped in an all-black sleeve long before Spinal Tap twigged to the idea. I laughed, but like all jokes the gag had a serious undertone: isn't the radio play that comes out of the speakers more vivid for the fact that it takes place inside our minds, and not up there on a screen somewhere?
There has always been something, for lack of a better word, cinematic about the albums I came to treasure. They aren't just collections of songs but stories, or at least the soundtracks for stories. The story may not be something spelled out in the lyrics or even in the liner notes, and it may not even have been placed there consciously by the creators — but it announces itself all the same. Peter Gabriel's Melt album was like that; Skinny Puppy's Last Rights was like that.
06:21:03:11 UP EVIL is, no surprise, very much like that, and one of the signs of its staying power is how it has been telling me different stories in the twenty-odd years since its release. It didn't feel like an album of its moment when it came out, and in the intervening time it has proceeded straight into a kind of timelessness. The story UP EVIL has told me has waxed and waned in the specificity of its details over these past two decades, its emotions have not. They were there before the beginning and they'll be there after the end.
"Emotion" doesn't immediately seem like the proper word to associate with Front 242, with their robo-militaristic imagery and computer-generated album covers. One side of their brain was a riot of international-news headlines, paramilitarism, and the general technocratization of modern life: "Politics of Pressure", "Commando Mix", "Special Forces". Music with titles like that didn't deserve to come out of anything but a bank of synthesizers. Unzip that body bag, however, and, surprise surprise, inside was a warm and beating heart, one that seemed to coexist as the necessary defiance to all of the realpolitik that fascinated them: "Felines", "Lovely Day", "Crushed", even their nominally cold-hearted hit "Headhunter". Cold as they could sound, they were never soulless — they just wore their hearts somewhere other than their sleeves.
06:21:03:11 UP EVIL was the first of two 242 albums that would cap off everything the band had ever been aiming for. The good stuff before this was very good indeed: Official Version and Front By Front are two fine records, both with some degree of narrative sweep that made them feel like more than just collections of moments. But UP EVIL (and the successor, 05:22:09:12 OFF, worthy of a separate review) felt not just cinematic but novelistic in its approach. The band has described the first album as "male" and the second as "female", and not just because of the vocalists that appear on each. They are about attitudes or states of mind — not absolutes, but poles that one oscillates between, since it's the movement that's always more interesting than the polarization itself.
"Always ready for another go / Always going for another round," are the first lines of the album opener, "Crapage", a song of such pulsating intensity that it makes even the highest-energy tracks from previous 242 albums seem lethargic. The words are that of someone seeking (political?) power and attention, someone longing to enter the public eye and emerge unscathed, and to do that they need to embody qualities that are hyperhuman (in the same sense as "hypermasculine"): "kinder than the kind", "milder than the mild", "clean in every way". No one can actually live like that, but we've constructed a whole great swath of our society around the delusion that it's not only possible but a darn good idea to boot.
The other tracks that follow have the same fierce longing for the impossible, one made to seem halfway feasible if you burn hard enough for it. "Waste" is a lament for "a wild dream" that becomes "just a flame in the fire", a world sacrificed for some ideal but unremembered. "Skin" is a litany of unfulfilled desires for escape — "Here comes that need to fly" — but here, flight is merely one of many frustrated forms of escape that never come to fruition. The same goes for "Motion", whose opening refrain — one of the most hummable moments on the record, no less — tells the whole story: "The feel of the action / Is far behind / The fruit of the action / Has nailed you down / Dragged you down".
"Religion" was released as the single for the album, possibly because it has the same jittery stompa-stomp flavor as their previous single "Tragedy (For You)", but to my ears it's not even one of the better songs on the record. What it does have is the troubled dualities, the tension between opposites, the same sense of the unresolved and unresolvable: "'Right' branded on my brow / 'Wrong' graven on my mind / You see, the sin is in me." Likewise in "Hymn" (more religious iconography there for you), "One part of us keeps giving away, giving away, giving away" — implying that there's another part which keeps and keeps, or perhaps takes and takes.
In "Melt" the voice of the album lives in a paranoid world where "every smile is a trap" and "every eye is a mirror", and where attempts to find a path out end in a stab in the back: "Pretending to guide me, you led me astray / I don't want to fall into your kind of ways." With the gloomy "Mutilate" comes something like wisdom: all life is a matter of ongoing compromise between extremes, and "there can be no / obvious answers / as we move on".
Shame on me. I've spent this whole time talking about what the album means, and too little of what it sounds like. When 242 came out with Tyranny >>For You<< a couple of years earlier, the band's sound had already moved a good deal away from the lockstep, everything-in-a-grid sound so common to most bands that used electronic instruments. With UP EVIL, the breakaway was even more pronounced: the dancefloor beats became a framework for an ever-more abstract palette of sounds. Even when we recognize the source of the sound, it's always been filtered through the album's driving sensibilities. I mentioned the use of guitars, and at one point near the end of the album a harmonica trill intrudes for a moment — not the sort of instrument you'd expect on an "industrial" or "IDM" album, but by that point I had left the labels long behind.
After this (and OFF), most everything else From 242 has done since has either been a retread (the endless remix albums and live discs) or a tacit admission of defeat (the unbearably disappointing Pulse). But for at least these seventy or so minutes, and the additional seventy or so of OFF, the band not only hit a peak but provided the kind of narrative soundtrack that many other bands aren't able to provide even when they strive to create just such a thing.