Wednesday, September 26, 2007

THE PRODIGY, The Fat of the Land
Village Voice, July 8th 1997

Some say the Prodigy have betrayed the bright promise of the "electronica revolution", resulting in a techno-rock hybrid that's not so much kick-ass as half-assed. But the Prodigy have always been a rave 'n' roll band rather than "proper" techno. The crucial distinction to grasp here is that techno and rave are not synonymous, and that in some respects rave has more in common with rock than with club culture.

In the USA, rave is regarded as the epitome of fashion-plate Europhile trendiness, but in Britain dance music is the mainstream of pop culture, and rave specifically has a decidedly lumpen, un-cool aura. "Raves were mass, teenage, one didn't go to them," is how a veteran of London's 1988 acid house club Shoom explained it to me recently. Purists, who believe the music is properly experienced in clubs, where DJs play long, varied, "educational" sets to an allegedly discriminating audience, see raves as alarming close to arena rock concerts. Ravers's rowdy rituals of abandon and joyous uniformity of attire suggest the very herd mentality that clubbers define themselves against.

By 1990, huge-scale one-off raves were transforming house and techno into bombastic spectacles full of lights and lasers, fun-fair attractions, and stellar DJ lineups. Where a club might have one or two DJs, raves featured ten DJs playing a bare hour each, sometimes less. To avoid being blown away by the other jocks, the DJs played crowd-pleasing anthems with their turntables cranked up to plus-8. Then DJ-producers started making music to fit this full-on tempest. Detroit techno was "debased", or so the official history goes, into the hyperkinetic drug-noise called 'ardkore (which was when my ears pricked up).

And by 1991, the UK had a massive circuit of commercial, fully licensed raves, with promoters booking rave bands as well as DJs. Alongside N-Joi, Bizarre Inc, and Shades of Rhythm, the Prodigy were the most popular hardcore rave act. Musically, the Prodigy fit techno's standard syndrome--the boffin (Liam Howlett) knob twiddling alone in his studio lab. But live and on video, the Prodigy were always a band, with three other members--MC Maxim Reality, and dancers Keith Flint and Leeroy--taking up the visual slack.

At the height of this golden age of rave, the Prodigy encapsulated the contradictions of 'ardkore: this music was simultaneously an underground phenomenon and solidly pop. Apart from their first, "Android", every Prodigy single released to date has made the top 15; their second, "Charley", got to Number Three in the summer of '91, while the follow-up, "Everybody in the Place", was kept off the Number One spot only by Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody". All the more remarkable since these brilliant early singles offer an only slightly more polished version of breakbeat hardcore, the music that evolved into jungle. Techno purists sniffed, but I always saw it as the new garage punk: riffs, noise, amphetamine-frenzy freakbeats, a sort of aggressive euphoria – the spirit of 1966 and 1977 channeled through the body of hip hop. When the Prodigy stepped onstage at Irving Plaza a month ago, they were introduced as something "for all you punk rockers, hip hoppers, and pill poppers." No mention of techno headz or house bods; indeed, Liam Howlett has been proclaiming in interviews that he never liked Kraftwerk, the sacred source for Detroit techno.

Starting with 1994's sophomore album Music for the Jilted Generation, the Prodigy repositioned themselves as rock, partly by using electric guitar on a couple of tracks, and partly by the vague conceptual/protest angle to the album. The jilted generation, explained Howlett, was kids who'd grown up under Thatcher, had little to live for but drugs and dance music, and now found even their weekend utopia threatened as authorities targeted raves. The UK equivalent, in other words, of the American grunge audience: Generation E.

All that remained was to bring the noise to America. Step One: turning dancer Keith Flint into the video-genic vocalist on "Firestarter". OK, the promo is corny: Flint's Mohican and psycho-youth grimaces. But sonically, "Firestarter" is sampler-wielding cyber-Stooges, a Dionysian hymn to destruction. Appearing at the MTV Europe Awards to pick up a trophy for Best Dance Video, the Prodigy greeted EC youth with "Hold it down!" a vintage '92 rave rallying cry--as if to confirm 'ardkore's historical victory and vindication. No matter that out of the early rave bands only the Prodigy had survived the collapse of the 1990-92 circuit; the music had become what it had always secretly been – the new rock.

"Firestarter" looked like a dead cert as electronica's ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’, but inexplicably stumbled at the threshold of the Billboard top 30. Maybe "Breathe"--a jungle-punk duet between Flint and Maxim--will bust down the door, what with its abjection-chic video à la Tool and Marilyn Manson. Enjoyably reminiscent of Oi! bands like Angelic Upstarts, the song was a highlight of the Prodigy's otherwise patchy performance at Irving Plaza. There's rock, and then there's rawk; too often the Prodge crossed the line. When they dragged onstage a "real" guitarist, nor only did he look like a ye olde punke relic from the King's Road, but the overall effect was a tad Rage Against the Machine. Sans politics, of course: the Prodigy's brand of vacant menace and quasi-insurrectionary mayhem slots into the illustrious plastic punk lineage that runs Alice Cooper/Sweet/Billy Idol/Adam and the Ants. (The Prodge even feature an insect in their logo.)

Talking of insects, Keith Flint has described the Prodigy as "buzz music." The song titles are mostly self-reflexive, referring only to the music's own sensations: "Hyperspeed", "Pandemonium", "G-Force", "Full Throttle", "The Heat (The Energy)". 'Ardkore always did belong to a burgeoning "rush culture" that includes video games, roller-blading, extreme sports like snow-boarding (a hobby of the band's), and bungee jumping (a popular sideshow at raves), as well as the obvious illegal stimulants.

The Fat of the Land is no departure: it's all teenage rampage, cheap thrills, and adrenalin OD. Fat kicks off well with the boom-bastic ‘Smack My Bitch Up’. Shame about the obnoxious title/chorus--teenage boys hardly need any more excuses to strike pimp poses. In mitigation, it must be said that the Prodigy are not a group that repays close lyrical analysis; their forte isn't deep and meaningful, but the profoundly superficial (not a dis by any means). Howlett is a supreme organizer of dynamics, bridges, and breakdowns, tension and release. "Diesel Power", a pumping midtempo collaboration with rapper Kool Keith, nods to Howlett's pre-rave past as a British B-boy. "Funky Shit"--old-school 'ardkore, more or less--is one of the few non-vocal tracks.

Fat's use of "real" singers is an indication of the band's eagerness to meet post-grunge America halfway. But it means the Prodigy have to get around the fact that they have nothing much to say-– "this is dangerous/open up your head/feel the shellshock" is typical--which didn't matter when the music was just breakbeats, riffs, and samples.

Ironically, given their desire to be taken as a futuristic rock band, the Prodigy's taste in yer actual contemporary guitar bands is poor. "Serial Thrilla" samples Skunk Anansie; "Narayan", a nine-minute collaboration with Crispian Mills of the god-awful Kula Shaker, is a poor man's "Setting Sun" (the Chemical Brothers' Britpop/breakbeat merger). The L7 cover "Fuel My Fire" would normally count as more bad taste by my lights, but I must admit it's an exciting finale, with a heavily distorted Flint tirade and Republica's Saffron providing baleful backing sneers. The song fits perfectly into the Prodigy's shtick: depoliticized punk offering youth a sort of aerobic workout for their frustration and aggression.

Fat packs enough big beats, bass-quake, and flechette-insidious hooks to do the required job (conquering America), but as an album-length experience it sags somewhat in the middle. In true punk tradition, the Prodigy are really a singles band, which is why the 1992 debut Experience (in effect a collection of greatest hits up to that point) remains their most consistently exciting album. But as opposed to "proper" techno, where there's no brand loyalty and artists are only as good as their latest 12-inch, I'll keep faith with the Prodigy. They're a rave 'n' roll band, and I'm a fan.


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