Late in 1990 the Belgian group Front 242, which epitomised the late 1980s ‘EBM’ (electronic body music) genre, released a new single, ‘Tragedy for You’. One of the remixes was entitled ‘Punish Your Machine’, and this title and the new sound it sought to represent can now be seen as the onset of a hidden, warped trajectory in the development of 1990s electronica that disappeared only to resurface around 1994 as a new subgenre, discussed here as an example of genre mutation within electronic music. The single marked a change of direction in the development of 242, a group who throughout the 1980s came to embody a sleek, aggressive and streamlined electronic music that in its paramilitarised stridency mirrored the tone of some of the more bellicose Italian futurists.2 By the standards of contemporary electronica there is nothing particularly punishing about the remix, which is still based on melodic hooks and a 1980s techno-pop sensibility. However, it also contains something other: while the sound remains linear and precise it is unexpectedly muddy, bass lines especially become dense slabs of sound with blunt edges that crumple into distortion even at low volume. Similarly the will-to-power mantras of previous 242 lyrics typical of tracks such as ‘Headhunter’ and ‘Never Stop!’ were disrupted and qualified. The shocked victim of the song’s clichéd predatory female reporting, ‘I clearly remain, a blank, a void’ and speaking of disembowelling and disorientation; the 242 commando-archetype had met his match and been humbled. The rage was as fierce as ever but was now that of the abused victim and not the frenzied übermensch suggested by the earlier work. The album that followed at the start of 1991, ‘Tyranny For You’ developed this sufficiently to surprise and disillusion many of the band’s fans. Tracks were slower, less dramatic and far more cluttered with ‘grungey’ sound debris than previously and subtle signs of the ‘contamination’ of their sound by guitar were creeping in; their quasi-fascistic ‘jackboot beats’ were rarely allowed to emerge from
the mix for long and the feeling was now more paranoiac than euphoric even on the fastest, most heavily sequenced tracks. Fear had crept in, replacing the previous Nietzschean volition with a more leaden gloom.3 However, 242 had not become more primitive but moved from a martial-clinical futurist sensibility to a less clear-cut, more cacophonous, futurism in line with their Canadian contemporaries Skinny Puppy, acknowledging the sound experiments of Russolo and Pratella rather than their previously unqualified Marinettist faith in ‘speed, electricity, violence and war’.4 The ‘punish your machine’ motif and the subsequent metamorphosis of this and other groups into purveyors of ‘industrial rock’ at the start of the 1990s is significant not just as an example of how musicians often feel compelled to abandon the generic archetypes they help establish but also because they prefigure a similar process of genre deformation and reformation (or in Deleuzeist terms, ‘deterritorialisation’) that has from the outset helped constitute 1990s electronica.5 Yet as both the Laibach quotation at the head of this chapter and Adorno’s discussion of form in classical music emphasise, deviation from a paradigm is always already preinscribed within its own constitution. In discussing the construction of the elaborate rules governing the fugue (and it should not be imagined that the formal stylistic conventions governing electronic subgenres are any more flexible) Adorno stresses that ‘The tendential loosening of the fugal schema, and even the eventual liberation from it, is therefore inscribed in advance within it.’6 Such an inherent deviationalism is perhaps truer of electronic music than any other form due to the sheer velocity of technologico-creative development, even when, as in the case of some subgenres, this appears as a regressional dynamic. However, economic and non-musical forces also frequently play decisive roles in the fate of genres and these must also be dealt with.