The list of Belgium’s gifts to the world is long: the compact cassette, half-decent chocolate and Plastic Bertrand; as well as roller skates, pommes frites and Els Pyloo.
The low country’s musical talents have been prodigious, and a key to its reputation is the success of Front 242. Dressed in hockey equipment and sunglasses, the unit dominated dancefloors in the 1980s with tributes to Mohammar Qaddafi and strange Arctic sunrises. Their name might sound like a Baader-Meinhof side project, but the original headhunters made their impact through beats, not bombs.
The Front’s front man is Jean-Luc de Meyer. He has had several side projects alongside his main band’s releases, including C-Tec and 32CRASH. The latest, Lederman de Meyer, finds him joining forces with another Belgian prodigy, Jean-Marc Lederman of The Weathermen, Kid Montana and Ghost & Writer.
Lederman is an electronic original. He started making music in 1977, joining Digital Dance and becoming part of Fad Gadget’s original band at a time when synthesizers were still a novelty. As well as making danceable and chillable music in a range of styles, he has worked in new media and gaming. An app he made with Karl Bartos, Kraftwerk’s secret weapon, is still good fun years after it was released to raise money for victims of the tsumani in Japan.
The result of their pairing is an album. Eleven Grinding Songs matches de Meyer’s iconic growling vocals with Lederman’s synthetic instrumentation in a timely collection. It avoids the potholes of Brussels’ roads and industrial cliches; nodding to the dancefloor while providing a soundtrack for nights spent contemplating the end of the world.
Certainly, the first of the songs they worked on together – a cover of Fad Gadget’s “Back to Nature” – has an apocalyptic air. Frank Tovey’s eco-friendly love song is set in a dystopian future that seems more present every day. Lederman de Meyer’s take crunches beats and coats the iconic bass line with a heavy layer of grunge.
Lederman was recruited for the first Fad Gadget band by Daniel Miller, who had his eye out for some synthesizer players to back Tovey. Having finished with Digital Dance in Belgium, Lederman rang the Mute man in London,
I had met Daniel a few months earlier. I called him and said, ”Do you know somebody looking for a musician?” I wanted to go to the UK, which in 1980 was the place to be because the music scene was so exciting. And he said yes, so I played with Frank for a few months and played on two tracks on the first album [Fireside Favourites].
Lederman recalls Tovey as shy off-stage and a different person behind the microphone:
Meeting him and playing with him was very fun, because he had lots of humour and was a great guy. His ideas about music were very original, and I still have very strong feelings and memories about it.
I remember him being very, very funny but also incredibly tense. He was very intense about his music – very sure of what he wanted to do.
He was one of the most amazing showmen ever. When I was playing with him, I was on stage thinking, he is like Iggy Pop with synthesizers!
Despite being an icon of synth music, Tovey shifted away from electronics in his later career; however, he never gave up on his radical, humanist message.
He was very socially conscious, and he didn’t want people to be focussing on one side of things – and with synth music, the crowd tended to focus on that. I think that taking the acoustic guitar and being acoustic moved the people into what he was saying more than when he was shaving [his body on stage]. That is why he changed direction, but his later music was very special.
Making the track was also a reconnection with de Meyer, with whom Lederman had close contact as Front 242’s office manager:
I learned a lot about business and a lot about Front – what success can bring you and what it can’t. Also on the commercial side, because Front was very successful and had just been signed in the USA, so money was floating around. At that time, nobody would say anything against us – no remixer, except William Orbit, would refuse to do something. It was very interesting for me as a person to see those kinds of things.
The album opener, “Atoms in Fury,” is a growling track that prowls like a great cat. De Meyer’s in strong form, and the song is as noir as a pool of blood in an empty room lit by the headlights of unseeing traffic.
In “Flowers and Birds,” the duo come closer to a style that Covenant fans will appreciate – de Meyer’s vocals are evocative of Eskil Simonsson’s, while brass sounds and crisp drum effects underpin what is a minor-key delight.
The pace picks up with “I Wish We Could I Hope We Will.” This is the most obvious candidate for a single release: Lederman’s rhythms driving forwards with energy beneath de Meyer’s crushed gravel vocals.
That song came from Jean-Luc saying, why don’t we try something krautrock – with this kind of drumming. We settled on that motorik kind of beat and just went for it.
The duo have included an excellent, minimal version of Wire’s “Heartbeat,” in which de Meyer intones Bruce Gilbert’s words with clinical precision. His vocals hover over textures spun by Lederman’s machinery before crashing drums drive the song through the middle section.
This isn’t more EBM-by-numbers. The album is more complex and sophisticated than most current efforts, and it wears its influences well. As Lederman explains:
It is exactly the counter-ethic from New Beat. When I realised that I hated making music for making money, I began doing music only for me and the people around me. What I want is to have a record release that I can listen to years later, because I never listen to them once I have finished creating them, and be able to think – that was good, yeah, and I hope that some people realise that.