Influenced: Groove Armada, Basement Jaxx, Death In Vegas, Gorillaz, Audio Bullys, Pendulum, Simian Mobile Disco, Chase & Status, Skrillex, Sleaford Mods
Influenced by: Kraftwerk, Sex Pistols, Ultramagnetic MC’s, Public Enemy, Beastie Boys, Nine Inch Nails, Pop Will Eat Itself, The Chemical Brothers
The so-called ‘big-beat’ sub-genre of electronic dance music, which originated from London towards the end of the ‘80s and which took the subsequent decade by storm, was supposedly first concocted by Iain Williams and Laurence Malice of underground electronic duo band Big Bang. The base of operations was set up in a gay club, founded by Malice, called Trade in the English capital. This style took sampling and put it through an inspiring galvanization process that would haunt the ‘90s and outlast even the undeniably influential grunge era. Take the Chemical Brothers, for example, and their 1997 album Dig Your Own Hole which is littered with crunchy basslines and vivid, metallic sound effects. Other artists like Fatboy Slim, Basement Jaxx, The Crystal Method, and, the subject of this review, The Prodigy further spearheaded the genre to such an extent that there is still a market, within even today’s music industry, where this music can still thrive.
Liam Howlett is the motherboard, if you will, behind The Prodigy. Essentially, he represents the foundations, structural elements and fundamental utilities of the group. The keyboards, synthesizers, programming, turntables etc. all fall under Howlett’s blanket of responsibility. With Keith Palmer (aka ‘Maxim’) and Keith Flint to implement vocals and give the music a visual cladding and the important finishing touches, The Prodigy took the weight from heavy rock and mixed it in with their rave agenda to give rave a whole new definition and relevance. Because of this, the band’s music is endorsed widely by rockers and metalheads. In 2012, they headlined Download Festival on the first day and the crowd praised them as one of their own. Go on YouTube and watch them perform ‘Omen’ live at Download – simply astounding!
The Prodigy’s pre-‘97 phase is one of substantial merit and acclaim. Their 1992 debut Experience charted well in the UK at #12 but made little impact worldwide, mainly defined by its singles. Despite this, the critics went bezerk over this record. Moby, an artist whose early sound was indebted, once said that “dance albums had always failed because they didn’t work over the full length of the record”. Experience managed to change his whole perception. The debut consisted of cleverly-integrated and finely-tuned sampling as well as quasi-synthpop arrangements. Flint had not joined the band yet and Maxim only provided vocals for a live cut bolted on the end called ‘Death Of The Prodigy Dancers’. In retrospect, The Prodigy was initially conceived of as a studio project by Liam Howlett – and it would be again on 2004’s hard-going Always Outnumbered, Never Outgunned, reportedly made solely on his laptop.
This was also the case for The Prodigy’s follow-up album Music For The Jilted Generation (1994) with Howlett working his magic once again. Maxim did more to contribute this time round and Flint was still not to be seen just yet. Instrumentation-wise, the album exceeded expectations like on the track ‘3 Kilos’ which encases a flute, of all instruments, and on ‘Voodoo People’ with foreshadowing guitar straits that come into play increasingly as The Prodigy’s career moves onwards. Where Experience is upbeat, Music For The Jilted Generation was to be taken more seriously with an impending sense of sophistication. The album made it to #1 in the UK and Finland whilst enlightening Experience’s stats across all European charts.
Out of the many electronic dance albums that went mainstream in the ‘90s, a Top 3 contender, or maybe even the crème de la crème, is The Prodigy’s third cataclysmic LP The Fat Of The Land which flabbergasted critics upon its release. Revolving samples around repeatedly was not enough anymore. In other words, a shapeshifting process needed to be enforced. With The Fat Of The Land, the world of not just electronica, but music as a whole, was hit with a meteoric bombardment.
The ‘90s threw up some of the most infamous music videos of all time: Nirvana’s ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’, Metallica’s ‘Enter Sandman’ and Foo Fighters’ ‘Everlong’ are but a few in a lengthy list. Out of the quality videos that accompanied The Fat Of The Land, ‘Firestarter’ is arguably The Prodigy’s most ubiquitous. Filmed in a closed-down London Underground station in Aldwych, Flint proceeds to entice the viewer with his inexplicable but artistic reverse Mohawk and dancing as Maxim and Howlett do a lot more running, if anything. On a more controversial note, feminists were up in arms over the explicit ‘Smack My Bitch Up’ video (and the song in general). Viewed from a first-person perspective on a night out in London’s strip clubs, we see stereotypical drug use, drinking habits and male promiscuity towards women. After the end sex scene, the viewer finds that the person is in fact a woman from a reflection in a mirror – isn’t irony just bliss?
The pinnacle quality conveyed by The Fat Of The Land is that it is art – no ‘ifs’ or ‘buts’ are necessary. The audio that comes through on each track is nothing short of dominant and awe-inspiring – from ‘Smack My Bitch Up’ to ‘Fuel My Fire,’ the latter being an L7 cover, and the whole shebang in between. ‘Smack My Bitch Up’ lies on the zenith of opening tracks that starts off with a tantalizing bassline. As the drums kick in and a Kool Keith sample, co-founding member of Ultramagnetic MC’s, resonating with ‘Change my pitch up / smack my bitch up’ off the track ‘Give The Drummer Some’, the rave party has reached hyperdrive overload.
Then to go even further, Howlett’s mojo aptitudes spark revelations with fragments of atomic, synthesised wah-wah beatdowns which will get more and more intoxicating with every listen. Fun fact: during the middle of the song, that ‘wow-wow’ commotion comes from ‘Bulls On Parade’ by Rage Against The Machine but it’s so stretched and deformed, one could not notice it. Howlett’s genius really is infallible. Best song on the album? Perhaps – but ‘Breathe’ and ‘Firestarter’ will confront this opinion.
‘Firestarter’ was the first single to be released for The Fat Of The Land, a huge 15 months before the album itself. Keith Flint was therefore able to make his first vocal appearance, and what an appearance it was. The illustrious wah-wah guitar riff is sampled from the track ‘S.O.S.’ by The Breeders but Howlett, being Howlett, makes it almost sound like his own. The song is one of the group’s most lyrically prominent and was criticised back in the day for Flint’s allegedly violent lyricism and the fact that the song frightened children, apparently. Flint has said that the lyrics were about him, more than anything, and this fits in nicely with his headstrong personality on stage. Lines like “I’m the trouble starter / punking instigator” and “I’m the bitch you hated / Filth infatuated” work wonders with the punk rock-filled angst in Flint’s voice and characteristics.
‘Breathe’, the second platinum-selling #1 single from the album, is where Maxim and Flint both share the lyrical platform. Here, Flint sings “Beat the pressure / Come play my game / I’ll test ya” followed up by Maxim with the omnipotent line “Psycho-semantic / Addict-insane” – a beautiful harmony within a nightmarish milieu. The video for ‘Breathe’ is beleaguered with artistic expression. Maxim’s black panther-esque make-up is bold and evocative whilst Flint opts for a green and pink reverse mohawk – sure, why not? The video went on to win MTV’s Video Music Award 1997 for ‘Viewer’s Choice’ and deservedly so. It was also nominated ‘Best Dance Video’ but was beaten by The Spice Girls’ ‘Wannabe’ – please, there was barely any dancing in that video. Anyways, the sword swinging effects featured in this track are sampled from ‘Da Mystery Of Chessboxin’’ by Wu-Tang Clan but nothing beats the catchy intro riff and the minimalist lyricism The Prodigy tend to stick by. As I hinted at previously about guitar inclusion, ‘Breathe’ is rife with it. However, there’s another track which promises even more.
The song ‘Serial Thrilla’, now halfway into the album, is startling to say the least. The guitar riff on this track is satiable and as addictive as nicotine. The play on words with the song title and the lyrics “Damage destructor / crowd disruptor” embodies The Prodigy’s intense song writing. This is then proceeded by ‘Mindfields’ with its delightful Chinese dojo-esque melody, used brilliantly in ‘The Matrix’ a few years later. On paper, this song should be out of sync with the rest of the album. It’s not hard-hitting and the vocals are not exclaiming anxiety yet it feels like part of the clan. Inputting antitheses and going against the simulacrum normative, like Metallica with ‘Nothing Else Matters’ from The Black Album, can pay-off and Howlett has done just the same with ‘Minefields’.
Looking for a bit of hip-hop? Howlett will provide on ‘Diesel Power’ with three whole verses that seems to depict one’s life whilst rolling with The Prodigy as recited by the one and only Kool Keith. Life involves “E’s and pepped up / You get swept up / Smacked up / Backed up / Your crew’s all cracked up” and it “Blows your mind drastically / Fantastically” in the chorus. ‘Funky Shit’ is where Howlett inherits the listener with retro ambience and its sci-fi accustomed beats and electronic headways. The line “Oh my god that’s the funky shit” comes from the track ‘Root Down’ by the legendary Beastie Boys.
In terms of ambition, ‘Narayan’ is the top-drawer; featuring Kula Shaker’s Crispian Mills on vocals, it’s a whopping nine minutes dedicated to dancing paradise. The clichéd, but still cracking, drumbeats envision the ecstatic rave party that’s going on in one’s mind. “If you believe the western Sun / is falling down on everyone” portrays the most insightful lyrics on the whole album and the chorus “I feel another energy / I feel a power brewing” feels quaintly anti-establishment, much like The Prodigy’s cathartic persona.
“Our outlook is: Here we are, love us or hate us. If that’s punk then we’re punks” is what Howlett said back in 1997. Judging by the fact that this album reached #1 in both the UK Charts and the US Billboard simultaneously, plus topping the majority of European charts, the love for The Fat Of The Land outweighed the hate. Not many British artists claim such an accolade – let alone during the ‘90s.
What has this album done for music? To be honest, one should ask the reciprocal: What hasn’t it done? Not only did The Fat Of The Land appeal to crazy young adult ravers, it also imbibed the hearts of adhered rock and metal fans. Sure, it flirted with provocative imagery (it’s title is lifted from a Hermann Goering speech) and admittedly skirted alarmingly close to misogyny with the lyrics to ‘Smack My Bitch Up’ (the band, a bit unconvincingly, claimed the phrase referred to “doing anything intensely”). But who were the critics to tell other people what they can and can’t listen to? It isn’t breaking news to anyone that music has always pushed boundaries and confronted or subverted expectations.
It would then take seven years for the group to release Always Outnumbered, Never Outgunned, a tepid release that never even got close to resemble the eminence of The Fat Of The Land, like having a curry with no spice. Fortunately, The Prodigy recovered to make two extremely well-received albums in recent times. 2009’s Invaders Must Die was a rip-snorting commercial success that saw them get back to basics and reacquaint themselves with joyous noise that plugged back into their rave beginnings, and 2015’s The Day Is My Enemy hinted at the rock/dance fusion they laid down in 1997.
In wider terms, The Fat Of The Land needed to happen for the sake of electronic music – make the repetitive loops as unimaginable as possible. Dubstep and rave artists like Skrillex owe this album, The Prodigy, and the big-beat movement in general, their careers. Hell, even Madonna’s Ray Of Light album was taking cues and inspiration from this album. For 20 years, The Fat Of The Land has progressively emblazoned itself upon society and we should all wish it a very happy birthday.
Listen to The Fat Of The Land here via Spotify, and tell us what you think below!
Tags: 20 years old, 20th anniversary, classic 90s, Harry Beynon, Keith Flint, Liam Howlett, Maxim, The Fat Of The Land, The Prodigy, XL
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