THE PRODIGY Manchester Apollo, Glasgow Barrowlands:
no new album, but, hey, they've still got Leeroy and the best breakbeat-metal meltdown on the planet
Keith Flint, afflicted by flu but looking good in an op-art Kangol cap, sips at his whisky and coke and muses on the atrocious compilation tape - featuring Queen, Yes and Robert Palmer - that's playing in the bar of their Glasgow hotel. He peers at the barmaid. "Excuse me," he says. "I want to break free. "
Sounds plausible. After the vasto-success of "Firestarter", The Prodge appear to have imposed a cooling-off period before letting their pop-blitzkrieg loose once more. Over the last year, Liam seems to have spent more time snowboarding in Colorado than finishing off the LP that was supposed to be out in "early September" and is now without release date.
According to one source, nine tracks have been completed and sound just dandy. But with several having been a staple off the Prodge set for a year or more, have heightened expectations led to a crisis of confidence ? With fierce new single"Breathe" taking the place of the aborted-but-ace"Minefields", the state of affairs suggests uncertainty with a side-order of paranoia.
Liam's half-jovial greeting to Select says as much. "Oh no, not you bastards again," he says. "Why don't you just f*** off ?" It's fair to say that the atmosphere's markedly less congenial than the Phoenix festival, with the cool even extending to an embargo on all non-stage photos. They remain on guard.
On sober reflection, rising to such new levels of acclaim has clearly taken Braintree's mightiest metal-breakbeat combo by surprise. The festival season alone was a far cry from their beginnings as four characters in matching white jim-jams who started out being derided as kiddy ravers. Now of course, everyone's expecting them to artfully up the ante in '97.
Hence, one can only surmise, the album delay - coupled with an obvious reluctance to press the flesh of media people who might pop the"Where is it ?" question. Their massed public, of course, present no such problems - so rather than low-profiling it, the Prodge have returned to terrorise the nation with a tour of smaller indoor venues with reliable sound systems.
By 9pm, Glasgow Barrowlands quivers in anticipation. Evidence of The Prodigy's cross-genre acceptance is everywhere : people in Pantera T-shirts rub shoulders with gruff Oasis fans. It takes all sorts to appreciate the fine merchandise : L12 ski hats are beaten in the commercial inspiration stakes by the L3 Prodigy lighter. Mark, 25, has made a papier maché Keith head. "I am the voodoo person !" he cackles.
With only leopard skin-covered monitors in front of the curtain to suggest anything out of the ordinary, there's still the whiff of impending chaos in the air. At 10.15, when the curtain goes up and whistles, the stage set is revealed as a great big front room as viewed by someone out of the Smirnoff ad. Piranas adorn the red plush walls in duck formation, while a quartet of tellies flicker and the petrol-bomb wielding granny off the"Firestarter" sleeve leers at the crowd.
Blur might have done it before, but here the glee factor is multiplied tenfold. It's a very Prodigy thing to do; in contrast to the one-speed rave nuttiness of old, they're operating on mulitifarious other levels now. A big rock freak panto thing, their show is as "relevant" as anything Brett or Jarvis contort themselves over. And even better, you can't help but dance to it.
Liam enters first, dresed in the school garb of a Bash Street Kid, playing a disarming pseudo-classical prelude from his sound-rig. Then ruthless new grinder "Smack My Bitch Up" kicks in, a cue for indecent rage from ther Glasgow hardcore. Not for the heads who don't want to get their hands dirty, volume is the defining factor as Maxim and Keith whip the crowd into perpetual motion.
Bereft of the transparent Gladiator orb that's accompanied him in the past and sporting yellow urchin gear, Keith trades vocals with Maxim on "Minefields" (bolstered by what sounds like a balalaika break). New tracks like"Funky Shit" and "Rock And Roll" keep up the pressure, oozing dark derangement - and with twin oldies "Break And Enter" and "No Good (Start The Dance)" cranked up to form a shattering finale, the congregation show their appreciation by stamping enough to make the Barrowland's timbers quake. Grinning like fools, they troop out grateful and knackered.
Back at the hotel, new guitarrist Gizz Butt plays the role of the opinionated punk axeman (whose main gripe is you just can't seem to get any genuinely scary films these days). Liam, unfortunately, has adjourned early.
Cast, Soul II Soul's Jazzie B and even The Wedding Present are staying at the hotel tonight, enjoying a loopy time bar-wise, but the Prodge are displaying restraint. Observing that his flu at least makes his singing voice more ravaged, Keith follows Liam to bed, leaving Maxim and Leeroy to debate the benefits of giving playlists to MTV that outlaw crap Euro-rave.
"I'm serious, man," says Maxim, before including Belgian Yorkshireman CJ Bolland, guilty of plagiarising "Poison" for his own "Sugar Is Sweeter" on the list of doom, "That stuff's bad for your brain. "
The following night, the Apollo in Manchester heaves with pubescent vigour, abetted by Jon Carter on the decks. In the dining area, Leeroy takes on The Prodigy's toothless driver Ron at pool. "Smoother than Horlicks", he claims. "That's why they call me the Black Flash. "
Upstairs, Eboman, a Dutch acid hip hop combo, are performing in the front of videos featuring a man being machine-gunned. The crowd barely need tipping over the edge, but the hysteria continues to build. Eventually, the young Mancs are blowing their whistles piercingly enough to drown out Kris Need's stinging warm-up spot.
The stage, revealed to similar deafening cheers, sees two whopping lampshades, settees and a fridge - and the set, once again, is propulsive. A Take That lunacy-parallel is apparent when some girls in bras shriek "Shag me now, Keith !" when Our Man Flint does his rabid-dog head-shaking to "Break And Enter". Giving the raspberry to CJ Bolland once more, Maxim calls him a "comedian" to loud cheers.
Keith has recently signed a L300,000 publishing deal and Maxim is reportedly itching to put out some of his own stuff. So, this pair are no longer "the people from the crowd who've invaded the stage". Mind you, it's their part in The Prodigy's neo-absurdist theatre that's elevated them to an astounding live act as compelling as any pyro-crazed metallers.
During fierce new single"Breathe", Maxim uses Keith as an infernal pair of human bellows, and gets the security to stop roughing up moshpit revellers and cur a rug onstage.
The St John Ambulance crew agree that it's good clean fun. "I'm surprised actually," says ace medic Helen. "Just a few nose bleeds and people being sick. With gigs, the quiet ones are worst -the people are older, so you get heart attacks and all sorts. "
There's a speculation that The Prodigy's ascent to wealth and fame might blunt their edge, but these unsurpassed transports of delight are the highest synthesis of electronic noise, and shouting yet managed. You leave with any worries about The Prodge's progress light years from your mind, and the impression that this is what a mythical '89 rave must have been like.
Paul, 18, from Stockport, has the look of the evangelically persuaded i his eyes and a glowing green torque around his neck. "F***in' 'ell," he beams, "I've got steam coming off me hair... What do you think I thought of them ? I thought they were f***in' boss !"
Quite so. They shall sweep all before them.