Two years ago, before electronica was a marketing concept, the English group Prodigy was dropped by Elektra Records when no one stateside seemed particularly interested in its critically acclaimed album “Music for the Jilted Generation.”
Then three things happened: The bottom fell out on alternative rock, MTV cast about for a new genre to manipulate, and a long-thriving underground dance scene that embraced styles as disparate as hard-core techno and ethereal trip-hop suddenly shouldered the burden of commercial expectation. Hoping for a “grunge”-like cultural signpost, somebody dubbed this next wave “electronica.”
And Prodigy, label-less in America, suddenly found itself in the middle of a ferocious bidding war, ultimately won by Madonna’s boutique label, Maverick. Along with fellow Brits the Chemical Brothers, Prodigy has reluctantly become the meter that will measure electronica’s prospects here.
Released three months ago, the Chemical Brothers’ “Dig Your Own Hole” album and “Block Rockin’ Beats” single made a dent (the album opened at No. 14 but never went higher). Now Prodigy’s “The Fat of the Land” has arrived, preceded by two strong singles, “Firestarter” and “Breathe,” and high expectations. In fact, it opens at No. 1 on the Billboard album charts this week.
Like “Block Rockin’ Beats,” the two Prodigy singles best represent what the band’s Liam Howlett calls “punk rock for the ‘90s.” It’s aggressive in-your-ear dance music that will attract alternative rock and hip-hop fans even as it melds with the booming bass, raw beats and hook-laden rock grooves that might do the same for dance club aficionados. It’s a wild fusion that includes much more than it excludes - guitars, turntables and loops get equal billing - and the only real drawback is that such music always suffers when taken out of its normal context of live performance, light shows and dancing masses.
Deejay/”eclectician” Liam Howlett is Prodigy’s chef, the other members little more than waiters delivering his sonic conceptions, but that reality may be lost on those who see devil-horned Keith Flint dominating the “Firestarter” and “Breathe” videos. Previously a dancer with Prodigy, Flint has been thrust into a vocal slot, though what he’s really bringing to the front - and what’s much needed in electronica - is personality. Here and on “Serial Thrilla,” Flint works maniacally hard, though he’s more Adam Ant than Satanic Majesty; though he’s not blessed with vocal prowess, it doesn’t much matter, since Prodigy tracks, like most dance music, mostly substitute simplistic sloganeering for lyrics.
That’s fine for both “Firestarter” and “Breathe,” which mix frenetic bass, guitar loops and samples from the Breeders and Art of Noise to create powerful, propulsive tracks.
The same might be said for the album’s lead-off track, “Smack My (Expletive) Up,” whose title and repetitive slogan is a sampled vocal taken from Ultramagnetic M.C.’s 1988 track “Give the Drummer Some.” Clearly, some folks are going to have trouble with this (Wal-Mart will be getting cleaned-up copies).
Though it smacks of commercial calculation (at worst) or insensitivity (at best), the phrase actually exists in a vacuum, without apparent purpose. And while the track starts off strong, with concurrent drone and pulse, it eventually resolves in cliche with an exotic Asian singer (Shahin Bada) mellowing the beat and slipping the mood into more ethereal waters.
In the end, “The Fat of the Land” may deliver a new audience, but one can’t help feeling it’s still only half the package. In the future, holograms may deliver phantom raves right into your living room, but for now Prodigy and its progeny are probably still best experienced live and in the flash.
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