It seems like an eternity since UK knob-twiddler Liam Howlett and his phenomenal techno act Prodigy transformed the music scene with their groundbreaking CD Fat of the Land – when singles like “Firestarter” and “Smack My Bitch Up” daringly asserted that stacks of synthesizers, drum machines and sampled breakbeats were not cold, inorganic constructs but could rock your ass off with that primal energy a lot of punk and metal acts seemed to have forgotten in the wake of navel-gazing Grunge. Like many of their contemporaries, the band helped push the rave scene out of the underground and into pop culture – which eventually spoiled the party, sending folks in search of something new. Liam’s 2004 follow-up Always Outnumbered, Never Outgunned didn’t make as strong a showing, indicating that maybe that signature sound wasn’t as relevant as it used to be. As the band resurfaces this month with Invaders Must Die, we ask ourselves: does that rebel-robot vibe still thrive?
Reunited with the band’s core trio, which includes vocalists Keith Flint and Maxim Reality, Liam tries with Invaders to find that tricky balance between the elements that made Prodigy great back in the day and the techniques of contemporary electro dance artists. But it’s hard to keep up with the ebb and flow of a constantly morphing genre, so this balancing act doesn’t always work… but when it does, it kills.
The album opens strong with the throbbing bass line of the opening/title track, which leads into a warm overdriven guitar phrase that blows up into a crazed video-game-gone-amok groove; the energy continues into first single “Omen,” which slithers in with a low-fi spookhouse lead, and features a simple but roof-raising anthem sung by Flint before breaking into a gut-busting bass line and eerie xylophone sample. (The tune is reprised later in buzzy, more abstract form, complete with shimmering Tangerine Dream synth washes).
“Thunder” and “Take Me to the Hospital” are creative callbacks to Prodigy's early '90s rave classic Experience – the former with its gritty low synth lines, big-beat kicks and Maxim's dancehall ragga, and the latter's snarky rave stabs, chipmunk vocal dubs and skull-crushing bass, over which Flint delivers sly phrases with relish (“Welcome to the scene of the crash”). Nothing groundbreaking, but a nice touch of deja vu for anyone who felt an electric thrill when hearing these guys in a club for the first time.
But far and away the coolest, most innovative track on the album is the slam-tastic “Run With the Wolves,” a concentrated jolt of dead-on electro-rock, featuring the signature drumming style of Foo Fighters' Dave Grohl and an ultra-heavy guitar riff synched to a powerful bass line. Great dirty synth leads and angry vocals from Flint make this one a strong repeater and one of the band's coolest cuts ever.
Less savagely inventive but no less energetic are “World's On Fire,” with its dangerous vocal & guitar loops and intricate Superfly groove, and another sweet electro-rock track in the form of “Piranha,” which blends distorted brass synths, garage-y guitar riffs and punky vocals with a groovy sci-fi theremin as the retro cherry on top. In a pleasant surprise, the album closes on a celebratory note with the proud brass ensemble and trashy drums of “Stand Up” – as close to a feel-good, party-in-the-streets number as anything Howlett's concocted to date.
At heart, Prodigy’s always been an electro-dance act with rock ‘n’ roll attitude, and by embracing that feeling again, Liam and company have tapped back into the elements that set this band apart from formulaic four-on-the-floor mediocrity. It was smart to keep this material from slipping completely into late-‘90s nostalgia – if it had, the album would have been fun for a listen or two before being deleted from your playlists altogether – but at the same time it wasn’t necessary to reinvent the wheel here. Thankfully, they manage to avoid the tired “back-to-old-school” grasping at bygone glory, and just set out to rock some solid beats with a wink and an evil grin. At the end of a rough day, that’s all you need.