Rarely has a pop trend so shamelessly been spoon-fed to America as the catch-all genre dubbed "electronica. " Rarely, indeed, has the music industry tried so hard to convince us that the Next Big Thing is in fact a done deal -- that another wave of English boys holds the future in its hands and we'd better get used to it.
Lately, dissenting voices have questioned the wisdom of the electronica hype. America, they argue, will never embrace the underground subculture of techno. Geeky boys with keyboards may find in-crowd success in the country's hipper conurbations, they argue, but will the Chemical Brothers ever rock Cleveland?
Enter the Prodigy, four manic street ravers from the British working-class county of Essex, and their bullishly titled third album, "The Fat of the Land. " To say that the Prodigy aren't self-effacing synth nerds would be a comical understatement. To suggest that they are the Sex Pistols of techno would not even be such an exaggeration. What the Prodigy have done, quite simply, is to drag techno out of the communal nirvana of the rave and turn it into outlandish punk theater -- and they've done it brilliantly.
The group's chief weapon is not its menacing cyber-yob frontman, Keith Flint (made famous in the U.S. by the "Firestarter" video), nor its leering rapper, Maxim, but its one-man engine room, Liam Howlett. A loopy genius of the u-Ziq or Aphex Twin variety he's not, but on "The Fat of the Land," Howlett has gone boldly where no techno maestro has gone before, easily surpassing the Prodigy's 1994 opus, "Music for the Jilted Generation," and fashioning some of the most ferociously exciting music of the year so far.
The point of "The Fat of the Land" is that it packs all the visceral punch of rock at its incendiary best - not least on the frantic, panic-inducing "Firestarter. " There is nothing genial or Kraftwerk-ish about Howlett's seismic bass grooves or skittering drum programs. Nor is Howlett exactly shy about his rock references. Crunching guitars abound on the album, and a moshworthy cover of L7's "Fuel My Fire" rounds it out. "Climbatize" all but steals the pulsing pre-climax keyboard riff of the Who's "Won't Get Fooled Again," and the savage "Serial Thrilla" (sampling Skunk Anansie's "Selling Jesus") is as rabid as any Rage Against the Machine track. The debt to the Pistols, meanwhile, is only too explicit in the chorus of "Breathe," a thrilling paean to drug psychosis that already has topped the charts in eight countries.
Howlett labored on "The Fat of the Land" for the better part of two years, and the results speak for themselves. His grasp of rhythm and texture -- and of basic song structure -- has matured immeasurably from the days when the Prodigy were churning out frenetic rave novelties such as "Charly. " Howlett may reject the cerebral world of ambient, but he also has left behind the simplistic, hyperventilated hard-core techno of old. Squelching synths bounce round each other on "Mindfields," creating a mesmerizing funk force field. On "Breathe," everything drops out for eight bars to make way for a mournful, Joy Division-ish guitar riff. Voices from India and North Africa, alternately seductive and sinister, seep into "Narayan" (a collaboration with Kula Shaker's Crispian Mills) and the furious opening track, "Smack My Bitch Up. " Only when Howlett opts for more-conventional formulas -- the old-school hyper-rave of "Funky Shit" (which includes a Beastie Boys sample) or the pounding hip-hop of "Diesel Power" (featuring formidable Kool Keith, a k a Dr. Octagon) -- does "The Fat of the Land" lose its roller-coaster momentum.
Nevertheless, the Prodigy are greeting the dystopian future with a crazed kind of glee -- there is no premillennial tension on this album. Nor do they appear to be very interested in the '60s. Whereas the Chemical Brothers are casting a fan's eye back to the psychedelic past of "Tomorrow Never Knows" and Lothar and the Hand People, the Prodigy are crafting futuristic soundtracks for disfranchised youth -- populist electro punk that serves as a perfect Brit counterpart to the industrial noir of Trent Reznor or the jittery soundscapes of Wu-Tang Clan's RZA.
"The Fat of the Land" is a thrilling, intoxicating nightmare of a record, an energy flash of supernova proportions. "This is dangerous," spits Maxim on "Mindfields. " "Open up your head; feel the shell shock!" If America can accept Keith Flint as a psycho-cyberpunk frontman -- and accept the rest of the group's in-your-face hooliganism while it's at it -- there's no telling how far the Prodigy's marriage of man and machine could take them. (RS 766)
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