Breathe with me: the Prodigy, collected

Wrote this glowing review of the Prodigy’s hits+ comp for Stylus in 2006. And fortunately, they rebounded after this. Check out last year’s No Tourists, which may be their strongest since Fat of the Land.

The Prodigy easily had more visceral impact on a large scale than any other batch of electronica would-be-world-beaters—especially in the U.S. As beloved as the Chemical Brothers and Daft Punk may be/have been in certain circles, they never got the cover of Rolling Stone; the Prodigy’s primary mouthpiece, Keith Flint, did, in the summer of 1997 (the summer of Biggie’s death and the Spice Girls’ global domination, in case you’re in need of perspective). Fatboy Slim may have had some MTV VMA-winning videos, but he never had one banished to the midnight hour, the way “Smack My Bitch Up” was (riding the crest of a kinda-zeitgeist moment + chain-jerking violence and full-frontal nudity + Oh, did I mention a #1 album? = getting loads of publicity for a video shown only between midnight and 4am). And, well, I already mentioned the #1 album (The Fat of the Land, of course), which no other electronic artist came or has come anywhere close to accomplishing. This ain’t Europe, you know.

There’s plenty more to the Prodigy than the moment they got Fat, however. Their career as singles artists extends back to the start of the ‘90s. In 1991-92 they were releasing some of the most exciting singles on the planet with an amazing quartet that made the top 11 in the U.K. singles chart: “Charly,” “Everybody in the Place” (an oh-so-close #2 behind the last week of Queen’s chart-topping rule with “Bohemian Rhapsody” / ”These Are the Days of Our Lives”), the double-sided “Fire”/”Jericho” and “Out of Space.” Back in the day, the Prodigy were on the frontlines of “rave” culture, creating a pop version of the ‘ardcore (you know the score!) records setting clubland ablaze; no less an authority than Simon Reynolds calls “Charly” and “Everybody” “all teenage rampage and sublimely vacant insurgency,” and you know he’s not wrong. This stuff was to its time as Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock” was to its—nothing less than a clarion call to arms that galvanized, first and foremost, young people.

Those early singles still pack a punch some 15 years later; I honestly wonder sometimes if the Prodigy were rave/techno’s Sex Pistols in terms of the kick-in-the-ass they gave the pop charts (and pop music in general). The abovementioned quartet of singles—all eventually part of the Prodigy’s debut album, Experience—are included on their new singles collection, Their Law: The Singles 1990-2005, along with a further five from sophomore album Music for the Jilted Generation (which gatecrashed the U.K. album chart at #1), the trio of utterly iconic singles from Fat, and three more from 2004’s expectation-deadening Always Outnumbered, Never Outgunned. And therein lies the problem most people having in evaluating the Prodigy as artists.

The singles from Jilted were the equal of, if not better than, those from their debut, and Jilted itself was rightly considered a monstrous classic upon release. (Still is today.) Fat shot Liam Howlett and co. through the pop roof like Willie Wonka’s glass elevator, making them globe-conquering, stadium-filling stars. Then: nothing. Apart from putting together the genius 1999 mix album The Dirtchamber Sessions, Howlett seemed to crawl up his own ass for the next half-decade, only popping up to drop the ’97-redux of “Baby’s Got A Temper” (wisely omitted from Their Law) in 2002, and to occasionally assure NME readers that “the new album is coming soon.” 2004 finally saw the release of album-teaser “Girls,” which certainly raised expectations—this was some different shit, squelch-bass and some keyb squiggles atop what basically amounts to a hotter-‘n-hot 1986 hip-hop track. But Outgunned didn’t measure up, whether it could or not (as evidenced by the singles “Spitfire” and “Hotride,” pale xeroxes of stuff done better years earlier). For the most part, it sounded like the previous seven years had passed Howlett by without his noticing.

Know what, though? Who gives a good damn, I say. Their Law is a testament to the Prodigy’s place in history, even if it doesn’t exactly hold promise for their future. Their run through most of the 90s is searing, which means that some of that decade’s greatest singles are compiled here in one tidily messy package. (A deluxe edition is also available, with a second disc showcasing b-sides, remixes [including a great Audio Bullys re-rub of “Out of Space,” and a “Thriller”-sampling live remix of “The Way It Is”] and five incendiary live tracks. [Their show-closing stint headlining Lollapalooza 1997 is still one of the greatest concerts I’ve ever witnessed.]) If you give any sort of damn about techno of the last 15 years, you need this collection of the Prodigy’s biggest (and largely best) moments like you need bottled water and a glowstick. [Originally published 5/8/06]

Grade: A

About thomasinskeep

I write about music.
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