From bad boys to goodfellas (AONO review)2004
How was The Prodigy reclaimed from the MTV masses, media misconceptions style wars, star systems, haircut hullabaloo, celebrity trivia, global success, International pressure, forced expectations, erupting egos, punk rock formula, claustrophobic studios and the watchful guidance of ‘those in the know’.
The Prodigy is about the beats. From the day that Liam Howlett had put together his first demo with the subsequent What Evil Lurks EP, it had been about the beats. His debut album Experience was driven by beats, as was the follow up Music for the Jilted Generation.
The Prodigy is also about punk. Electronic punk that is. A sound that The Prodigy defined with Poison in 1995, refined with Firestarter a year later and conquered the planet with their record breaking The Fat of the Land album.
By the time The Prodigy released the Baby’s Got A Temper single in July 2002 however, the electronic punk genre that they had invented looked set to turn them into a parody of themselves. Electronic punk had become a creative straightjacket intent on stifling all forms of progression. Clearly something had to give.
Baby Got A Temper may yet come to be regarded as the most important single of The Prodigy’s career though. It was a wake up call for Liam to rediscover the heartbeat that had always pulsed at the core of The Prodigy, the lifeblood that was always far more important than the rest of the bullshit; those beats.
If Poison delivered the electronic punk genre and Firestarter defined it as a global presence, then Baby’s Got A Temper killed it once and for all. And with what had become The Prodigy formula destroyed, Liam was once again able to explore.
I wanted to make the most honest of an album that totally represented what I was about. He says, I’m still drawing on the same inspirations as when I was a kid, Public Enemy and The Sex Pistols. It had to be about the music. And I knew I had to get back to doing stuff for myself.
So Liam scrapped a year’s worth of new tracks, locked the doors on the stale atmosphere of his studio and started writing on his laptop. I’d find a place I’d be happy in, usually in my bedroom, usually at about midnight, usually with a couple of glasses of wine, James Bond on the DVD... you know what I mean. I was writing for the fun of writing again.
And it shows.The freedom from punky preconceptions, and the mobile approach to writing has injected a new spontaneity into The Prodigy sound. ‘Always outnumbered never outgunned...’ has a freshness that hits you at the first instance. Liam has rediscovered his beats and in return delivered a set that’s dirty, sleazy, funky and ironically, far more punky than anything he’d previously recorded.
This is an album of raw energy where the beats are the stars and the voices just samples of Liam’s sonic armoury. Gone are the upfront vocal performances. Instead Liam has recorded various voices and treated them like samples and utilised them as a part of the overall sound.
The guests whose vocals have undergone Howlett’s subverted cut up techniques include Liam Gallagher, Juliet Lewis, Kool Keith, Princess Superstar, Ping Pong Bitches, Twista, Shahin Bada and unknown lo fi singer songwriter Paul Jackson from Dirt Candy. That artistes were either known or unknown was irrelevant to Liam’s master plan - the sound of the voices was far more important.
Contrary to the rumourmill, all the three original band members are still together and will be taking this album live. Keith and Maxim will be back in the frame for the live shows - as they were in the beginning.
With the opening cut Spitfire Liam lays down his manifesto. From the swaggering, low slung break, contorted guitars and pulsing Bomb Squad style b-line to the lysergic Arabic refrains and petulant cut-up vocals Spitfire screams Prodigy is back!.
Take first single Girls whic spins on the ground where tech-funk meets old skool electro and a slab of The Clash’s take-no-prisoners, know-no-boundaries attitude. Or Memphis Bells which offers a twisted, dirty take on Timbaland’s future sci-funk. The energy is still there, so is the tuffness, but the room to breathe adds a newer level of tension.
Elsewhere Liam rips through Prodigy-style hip hop on Gel up get off and punk rock meets phycobilly mayhem with Hotride (featuring vocals by Juliet Lewis). Action Radar finds stretched out 80s trash synth lines beaten into submission by a Paul Dirt Candy Jackson vocal. Under My Wheels is a stripped down bass and beats instrumental featuring backward guitars and a vibrant classical hook. It also finally brings the Prodigy live favourite Rock’n Roll by Kool Keith bang up to date.
Cinematic edginess is exploring on Medusa’s Path (a fusion of Iranian artist Gholam Hossein and Soul Sonic Force style synth) and subverted bootleg strangeness throttled on Phoenix (aka Shocking Blue’s Lovebuzz in a stabs, bleeps and thunder showdown).
It was a pure case of jack the tune and rock a beat over it. A Bootleg - simple as that. That tune scares me when I listen to it. It’s got a really weird vibe about it.
Other key tracks include Wake Up where Kool Keith can be heard sparring with Liam’s beats. It’s a personal message to Liam from himself, via the onetime Ultramagnetic MCs don, to wake up and smell the napalm. The Way It Is, the album’s funk fuelled piece de resistance, delivers girl vocals dripping over chicken grease guitars and a bass line chopped from Michael Jackson’s Thriller.
The whole vibe was to take the Thriller loop and see how far I could go with it. It’s a club track, but not in the house sense. This is more about 80s club stuff like The Gap Band before house.
Always out numbered never outgunned comes to a close with sound of Liam Gallagher as rewired through the Howlett sonic weaponry. ShootDown rocks as the album’s most garage guitar driven tune and is Always outnumbered never outgunned’s final assault.
Written on a laptop in a bedroom in Essex, mixed in London and mastered in New York, Always outnumbered never outgunned is the sound of Liam Howlett reclaiming the Prodigy and putting the beats back in their rightful position - centre stage. And the end result is an album that deserves to be The Prodigy’s 4th album, back and fresh.