The Prodigy are back. No, it's not just that they've put out another album. They're actually back.
I’d like to offer my apologies to the Prodigy. In this line of work, it’s easy to lose your faith. Aging bands tend to adopt a downward trajectory after touching or glimpsing the limelight. The rest of their careers tend to be defined by that singular moment, either as a reaction against it or a desperate attempt to recapture it.
This seems particularly so with electronic(a) groups, who are forced to fluctuate between identity and zeitgeist politics, sacrificing either their integrity or continuity depending on which avenue they decide to traverse. Usually, what we the listeners wind up with at the end of this game is some kind of muddled compromise, one that attempts to please every one, but often awes no one. Concurrently, the tunesmiths and producers get older while working out their angle in a scene that rewards only eternal youth.
The Prodigy sounded like they were running out of steam on Always Outnumbered, Never Outgunned, their last proper album in 2004. Stripped to a solo project like the also-lackluster-and-waning Massive Attack, the Liam-Howlett-only Prodigy was slower than ever, though they did retain pummeling volumes of noise that situated them somewhere between more finely tuned versions of electroclash and the Electric Ladyland compilations (both scenes being far to inchoate for the Prodigy). The host of guests suggested a lack of ideas by the groups ideas man and a desperation for relevance on the part of the Prodigy brand.
By that point, the group had become relevancy addicts. From their influence on the short-lived Toytown techno/ candy-raver regressive epidemic through their central impact as an oppositional force to the criminalization of British parties to the controversies surrounding their breakthrough “Firestarter” and “Smack My Bitch Up” singles from their Göring-quoting Fat of the Land album, the Prodigy had built a solid audience not only by killer tunes, but also a barrage of publicity.
It is only now that the band have been freed from relevancy, to the point where no one really expected them to even put out another album, that they are free to put out the big dumb awesome rave album that we’ve all been waiting for since the 15-year-old Music For the Jilted Generation. Sure, Invaders Must Die contains a pack of interchangeable, vaguely rebellious lyrics aimed at no particular target (“Now the writing’s on the wall/ It won’t go away/ It’s an omen”, “This kind of thunder breaks walls and windowpanes”, “Are you ready for the war? …Bring your colours to the floor”), but the band sound more exciting than they have in a great while now that they are independent of scenes and movements.
At the same time, it’s the perfect merger of the band’s commercial sensibilities and their expert nostalgic a posteriori headfuckery. All the grinding square-waves distorted to resemble metal guitars (“Run With the Wolves”) and squealing high-pitched video game synths (“Colours”) dance together so harmoniously that you may just delude yourself into believing the band’s capricious back catalogue was a straight arrow in perfect keeping with the futurism of the hardcore continuum.
Making a welcome return is the manic energy of the Prodigy’s first two albums (masterpieces both) -- that unbridled e-rush of the heat and the energy that once inspired utopian visions that now seem almost tragic in their present remove. Prodigy’s rearview mirror romanticism is hardly starry-eyed though and this fact is probably what saves the album from sounding desperate (though the album’s best song is undeniably the nitrous-doused breakbeat barnburner “Warriors Dance”). They’re still far too concerned with fucking shit up in the now to yearn for better days. In the world of Invaders Must Die, there’s no recession, just some fantastic and concise escapes.
The album paces itself at breakneck speed for its 46 minutes, a duration which relays as both generous and brief. Lead-off track, first single, and album-titler “Invaders Must Die” (the name itself another ambiguous rebel yell) commences with some wobbly bass and a tumbleweed showdown riff before launching into the album’s ultimate declarative statement: “We are the prodigy." The key word here is “we”, as the band has once again expanded to include Keith Flint and Maxim Reality. Flint and Maxim share vocal duties on most tracks with Howlett at the helms, getting assistance on a few tracks by James Rushent, who is surprisingly competent here considering that his other band is the abysmal Does It Offend You, Yeah? Flint and Maxim mostly help to get fists back pumping in the air for the stadium set, which is not to diminish the extent to which they succeed. For all Flint’s contrived posturing during The Fat of the Land days, the band sounds more punk on tracks like “Piranha” and “Colours” than Flint’s old haircut ever could have suggested. As mentioned before, the words themselves are mostly superfluous, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not fun to mouth along to them.
And if that’s not your thing, the massive load of earthquaking bass, confrontational guitar stabs, requisite reggae samples, unstoppable drums, and, yes, pitch-perfect old skool synth lines should probably do the trick.
Dave Grohl also shows up to pound on a few tunes (“Run With the Wolves”, “Stand Up”), but the real thrilling beat science belongs to Howlett who is back in fine form. In a weird hall-of-mirrors case of art imitating art that was itself imitating art, the video for “Omen” included on the bonus DVD shows a little girl playing the song’s xylophone line overcome by facial dysmorphia and screaming at an older gentleman a la the video for Aphex Twin’s “Come to Daddy”, itself a supposed reaction to “Firestarter”. Howlett employs some Aphexy skills himself in the disjointed fills and acutely tweaked percussion on the album.
The rest of the DVD is mostly fills the gaps for a completist’s narrative. The video for “Invaders Must Die”, which graffitis the Prodigy’s bug emblem all over the landscape, is oddly out of pace with the song. The rest of the videos, all comprised of live footage, are better at keeping up, but are feature editing that’s busy enough to upset stomachs (there’s also a disclaimer about inducing epileptic fits).
The final track, “Stand Up”, is the album’s only real left turn and it’s probably the most disappointing. Filching the massive riff off of Manfred Mann Chapter Three’s “One Way Glass”, the song aims for that late 1990’s aesthetic of anthem-by-force, whereas the rest of the album is effortlessly anthemic by its uncontrollable need to be. It’s not a bad song, but amidst all the retro-isms it finds The Prodigy vying for Fatboy Slim’s seat, for which they were never really competitors.
Overall though, I think I owe my sincerest apologies to the Prodigal Sons. We laughed, we danced, we fucked shit up. It was almost like they never left.