Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Flashback: Prodigy The Fat of the Land (1997)

A short 11 years ago this week Prodigy's The Fat of the Land was unleashed on the world where it unexpectedly debuted as the number one album on the US charts. Dropped by Elektra after Experience failed to live up to major label standards the band had been written off as "kiddie rave" in America before the two pre-release singles "Firestarter" and "Breathe", both of which topped the charts in the UK, started getting attention from alt rock radio and began a bidding war that ended with Prodigy signed to Maverick in the States. I got on board early on picking up "Firestarter" the week it came out as a Mute released 12" single (the song would later be re-released by Maverick on CD single) so it was exciting to see group pick up momentum and acceptance from the alternative scene that had been hijacked by grunge which had effectively silenced the synthesiser in the States.

The controversial opening track weighs heavily in the legacy of Prodigy and the album. The titular sample of a thrown off Kool Keith line taken from Ultramagnetic MC's "Give The Drummer Some" is a major sticking point and while Liam Howlett suggests it is not literal but rather means "doing anything intensely, like being on stage - going for extreme manic energy" using the offending phrase simply makes the song ugly. Following one of the most extreme build ups ever recorded with the suggestion of domestic violence as the payoff is truly foolish and irresponsible. In the years that have passed there have been several attempts to reclaim the song including the oddly controversial video (spoiler: it's not a dude behind all that misogyny) and the Charlie's Angels movies but both take on the basic violent premise of the song's sample rather than deal with "extreme manic energy". The song does have legs and despite limited exposure at the time of it's release it continues to get played on Live 105 and ended up as their top ranking electronica song on a recent listener voted countdown.

"Breathe" is the band's masterstroke as Keith Flint and Maxim Reality spark over an understated Howlett track that does amazing things with an all 16th note bass line. The second pre-release single for the album effectively raised the stakes from the genre bursting "Firestarter" suggesting that Prodigy were more than simple adrenaline junkies and in fact a thinking man's band as well. Time may have proven otherwise.

A decade on "Diesel Power" remains the best electronica/hip hop track ever. Is it the rap? Probably not although Kool Keith would enjoy a renaissance in the late 90s where he would record boasts about the amazing amount of money he was given to work on "Diesel Power". It is the beats that have me reaching to turn up the volume when this comes on time after time.

Howlett sampled the Beastie Boys on this "Funky" track that takes the album down the rave route. Not a favorite by any means but one that sold my former boss on the album after hearing it in a record store.

We reach the low point of the album with "Serial Thrilla" which is a stupid, stupid, stupid song with Keith "my first single went to #1" Flint on screaming vocals. This is what happens when musicians give in to the influence of too much testosterone.

"Mindfields" is the mysterious fourth single from the album that was only released as a "white label" that was one of the most professional and least disguised "unlabeled" pieces of vinyl I've ever encountered. It's a Maxim song in the mode of "Breathe" and while a review mocked the "this is dangerous" line for trying too hard to be scary this was just a decent edit away from being a hit. Also it helped introduce the action movie world to bullet time on the soundtrack to The Matrix.

The Indian influenced "Narayan" brought Kula Shaker's Crispian Mills in for vocals to create mystic synthpop that had run through the big beat blender. There are some great bits but the track's nine minute running time, which in part are a set up for the big hit that follows, helped make it one of the most complained about tracks on the album. Kula Shaker reprised the song as "Song of Love/Narayana" on last year's Strangefolk which doesn't do much to improve the song's reputation.

There was a time when I suggested that "Firestarter" was the new "Smells Like Teen Spirit" as it rocked alternative radio out of it's grunge haze. Perhaps I overstated my case but the song did truly breakdown barriers as it took samples from The Breeders' "S.O.S." and Art Of Noise's "Close (To The Edit)" as it introduced the world to the punk version of Keith Flint. Twisted indeed.

"Climbatize" delayed The Fat Of The Land's release by several months while it was being developed because Liam said it was amazing and told NME that it would be a single for sure. It never was but the instrumental is a highlight that steps back from the hyper masculinity that permeates much of the album.

The album comes to a close with the hard electro rock cover of L7's "Fuel My Fire". Keith handles the vocals on this one with Saffron from Republica adding a nice bit of color as the backup vocalist which make it sound like an angry love song. Interestingly the choice to end with a cover hint at Howlett's limitations as a songwriter which would go to be far more obvious years down the road when Prodigy finally released a new album.

Fat Of The Land was the commercial pinnacle of the Electronica Revolution of 1997 and while the album has it has faults it stands nearly alone in it's mainstream acceptance. One of the reasons "Firestarter" failed to make Prodigy the next Nirvana is that no one could duplicate their sound that combined songwriting with aggressive techno trash. Actually Junkie XL came close and CJ Bolland did a direct riff on the band's sound on a song that is probably better know for it's remix, but no one else could match what Prodigy had at that moment.

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