Burned Out, Fading Away
When Liam Howlett’s Prodigy project first hit the scene, it quickly blew up into an underground phenomenon, renowned at least as much for its live show (which featured a couple of dancers and an MC on stage with Howlett) as its solid recorded output. Albums like Experience and Music for the Jilted Generation were both well regarded as dance classics, the latter of which managed to hit #1 in the UK and break Billboard‘s top 200 in the dance-deprived US. Songs like “Out of Space” and “Charly” turned into massive club hits, while “Poison” and “Their Law” saw Prodigy in a state of transition, incorporating elements of hip-hop and rock into the requisite big beat sound.
And then, in 1997, everything changed.
The so-called “electronica revolution” was in full swing and the American music press and public were looking for the band to cement the staying power of an entire genre. The Fat of the Land arrived, 22 countries (including the US) sent it straight to #1, and The Prodigy turned into a band of superstars, mostly on the flamboyant, belligerent stylings of Keith Flint (he of the sculpted rainbow of hairdos) and Maxim Reality (he of the scary contact lenses).
The album won about 17,362 awards, The Prodigy played a lot of shows, made a lot of money, and watched as “electronica” immediately died via public overexposure. The band returned in 2002 with the ode to Rohypnol that is “Baby’s Got a Temper”, an aggressive slab of nothing that was dominated by Flint and crushed by critics worldwide, and 2004’s Always Outnumbered, Never Outgunned, which had no Keith Flint or Maxim Reality but was still crushed by critics worldwide, not to mention the public.
Their Law: The Singles 1990-2005 appears to exist as proof that, yes, The Prodigy was once great. Experience and Music for the Jilted Generation get four and five tracks on the album respectively, while The Fat of the Land and Always Outnumbered, Never Outgunned get stuck with three each. Now, in an awful lot of cases, electronic music can be a cold medium, where it’s difficult to make things like emotion and straight-up hunger shine through. But with The Fat of the Land, this was never a problem for Howlett, who once knew how to develop an electronic track in a way that would ensure the avoidance of boredom. Experience tracks like “Jericho” and the much-beloved “Charly” show the origins of such a style, though Howlett evidently didn’t believe in his own programming skills enough to refrain from smothering them in samples like the annoying public service announcement-spouting cat in “Charly”.
His confidence would appear, again, in the singles from Music From the Jilted Generation, and Howlett used his regained confidence to brilliant ends. The band’s harsh response to the section of Britain’s 1994 Criminal Justice Bill came in the form of “Their Law”, which incorporated rock guitars and the distinctive vocals of Pop Will Eat Itself’s Clint Mansell, and the toe dip into the world of hip-hop also featured Maxim’s first vocal performance, on the slower-paced (but no less aggressive) “Poison”. Other tracks like “No Good (Start the Dance)” and “One Love” saw Howlett retaining some of the raver roots that the group was founded on in the first place, but it was clear that The Prodigy was headed in the direction of bigger and better things.
The “bigger and better things” would translate to bigger sales, but alas, less staying power. Keith Flint first appeared on “Firestarter”, the song that undoubtedly broke the group to the mainstream, but sounds dated and simplistic a mere eight years later. One can’t help but ask the question: This is what people were all up in arms over? This was supposed to revolutionize music? No wonder “electronica” died such a quick death. “Breathe” and “Smack My Bitch Up” were huge singles as well, with wildly popular (and, in the latter’s case, controversial) videos, and both are here to remind us that there were better things than “Firestarter” in the Prodigy oeuvre of 1997.
The same can’t be said for The Prodigy circa 2004 (though 2002’s “Baby’s Got a Temper” is unceremoniously and mercifully omitted), for whom two of the three singles enlist the “talent” of Juliette Lewis, who screams all over Fat of the Land-reject backing tracks with no regard for musical ability. Remarkably, her inclusion is enough to make one long for the relative subtlety of Keith Flint. A little bit of musical development on Howlett’s part might have been nice after seven years, too. I’ll concede that “Girls”, as the best track on Always Outnumbered, Never Outgunned, isn’t bad, though even it suffers from a tepid bridge that goes nowhere.
Lucky purchasers of the limited edition of Their Law will get a bonus disc of B-sides, unreleased tracks, remixes, and live stuff. The live stuff is crap; studio versions of songs with more yelling. Apparently, the Prodigy live experience is best experienced with a visual attached. The unreleased tunes are decent if unspectacular (as castoffs should be), with the disc’s opening track “Razor” being the best of a solid bunch, featuring a brand new vocal performance from Flint. The remixes are pretty solid as well, with the “Pendulum Remix” of “Voodoo People” giving it a more rock ‘n roll feel, and a solid instrumental take on the Spawn Soundtrack‘s “No Man Army” that places the emphasis on the seamless merging of Howlett’s distorted electronics and Morello’s guitar heroics. The Audio Bullys’ remix of “Out of Space” could have been left on the cutting room floor, however sapping the track of its energy and adding new, reggae-style vocals (with a bonus curse!) was not the way to go.
Supposedly, the next Prodigy album will mark the triumphant return of Maxim Reality and Keith Flint to the A-side of the group’s recorded output. Even so, given the amount of time it’s been since the release of anything worthwhile from the group, maybe it should be time to pack it in, accept a grand legacy of greatness, conveniently forget about the most recent album, and call it a career. Their Law is a solid retrospective featuring some of the best Prodigy material to date, and its second disc will be a treasure for the many fans who have followed the band for 15 years running. Still, it’s enough to invoke a feeling of sadness, especially given the forced co-existence of Prodigy’s recent tracks on the same CD as some of the classic ones. Oh, what might have been if not for the damning lure of mainstream success.
// Notes from the Road
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