Sharps and Flats: The Prodigy

By Gavin McNett

Published July 12, 1997 5:20PM (EDT)

Yes, techno. How many of us, when the tent pegs are finally pulled up on this whole media circus, are going to have to admit that we were busy gawking at the sideshows while the grand clown parade went whooping past behind our backs. The real spectacle here isn't the Prodigy itself, with all their haircuts and huckstery, etc., etc. They're a rock band, and if they're making scary faces at us and trying to come off like some sort of millennial weather-prophets, then that's what we pay rock bands for, after all -- and please send more. The spectacle isn't the purported techno juggernaut, either. Rather, it's our zany critical establishment again -- horn-honking and shoe-flapping like they think it'll save them when the revolution comes.

The story runs as follows: Rock is presumed dying and techno is spotted flapping darkly overhead. We music critics, frightened, dance our briefs into granny knots trying to make it seem like we've been on techno's side all along -- when really, almost none of us liked it. Techno CDs, as everybody learned real fast, are also very difficult to write about, unless you know a lot of adjectives that mean "wiggy" or you've ingested enough literary theory to be able to fling off paragraphs of unassailable, sky-hooting nonsense whenever somebody drops a hat. Techno's appropriative qualities, for example, situate the transgressive within a contested site of culture production -- and vice versa. Oh yes, we were that scared. We snuck back and re-read Barthes and Bakhtin just to keep erect on our rickety bully-posts, and whoever says otherwise is a fat, smelly liar.

But then, the Prodigy's breakthrough single, "Firestarter," hit No. 30 with an anchor, and the breakthrough Chemical Brothers CD got beaten up by the new Bee Gees disc, leaving only the long-delayed, super-breakthrough "Fat of the Land" to sink or float the techno takeover. There's been some interest expressed over its prospects in that regard.

There's little to fear. Did I already mention that the Prodigy are a rock band now? They're still a techno-flavored one, with enough hip-hop accents and wiggy wibble noises to make them format-busters, breaking the no-mix rule that segregates dance and rock throughout commercial radio in the States. That's to their credit, although suchlike as Savage Garden and OMC have already begun to broach those barriers. It's a bit discouraging, though, to see the simple rules that "Fat of the Land" refuses to break. Head Prod Liam Howlett keeps rigidly to short, one-way phrases and four-repeat measures, and throws in "surprise" vamps and samples only in the transitions, where everyone always expects surprises to be. That's to say: Whenever you hear a little one-second riff, you've pretty much heard the whole song, except for the stuff he spreads in the cracks to wacky the mix up.

Howlett's a better vertical composer than most, though; and his sense of tension and release is acute enough -- as on the punkoid "Breathe" -- that his transitions and breaks alone can carry a song a good distance. His tracks are often clever (e.g. "Smack My Bitch Up"), if not usually very deep (e.g. "Smack My Bitch Up"). But the make-or-break factor in a Prodigy song is almost always the vocals -- or the vocalist. Here, spokesdroid Keith Flint lights up "Firestarter" and L7's "Fuel My Fire"; Kula Shaker's Crispian Mills carries "Narayan"; and the heralded Kool Keith (aka Dr. Octagon) fills out "Diesel Power." Worth a listen? Sure. Worth re-reading Barthes and Bakhtin for? The world should hold such terrors.

Gavin McNett

Gavin McNett is a frequent contributor to Salon.

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