In 1994, five years into their career, The Prodigy released their second album Music for the Jilted Generation. Against all odds it established itself as the go-to LP for a post-rave generation in the grip of history’s most colossal collective come-down, silencing the doubters who’d branded them a novelty remnant of rave music’s second Summer of Love. One year later, the band endorsed a biography chronicling their genesis from the backwaters of Braintree. Entitled “Electronic Punks”, it charted their meteoric rise from the band derided by critics for killing the rave scene, to their chrysalis-like transformation into one of the biggest electronic bands of all-time. As titles go, it was a fiercely apt term to denote the anti-establishment qualities they embodied on their path to superstardom: punk’s disdain for authority; innovativeness in the face of attempts to stifle creativity; and a callous contempt for convention – wrapped up in a roughspun digital package.
Two years later Jilted’s uniquely British frenzied, schizophrenic take on breakbeat gave way to their magnum opus The Fat of the Land, a fanciful fusion of electro and big beat that catapulted them into the stratosphere. Its success was as unexpected as the five year period of radio silence that followed, a stillness punctuated by the hollow sound of the worst single of their career: 2002’s mind-twistingly bad “Baby’s Got a Temper”. Fresh out of ideas, it saw The Prodigy at their least prodigious, embarrassingly sampling their biggest hit “Firestarter”, its banal lyrics alluding to rape and drugs (“We love rohypnol! She got rohypnol! We take rohypnol! Just forget it all!”). Ultimately their creative supremo Liam Howlett hung his head shame, distancing himself from the track, as NME branded the band “total fucking idiots”.
They regrouped. The title of their fourth LP – 2004’s comeback album Always Outnumbered Never Outgunned – conveyed Howlett’s thoughts on his band’s time away from the spotlight. They’d spawned a plethora of pale imitations, but what echo is as pure as its original sound? It was hyperbolic bullshit of course, and with the exception of tracks “Girls” and “Spitfire”, The Prodigy’s remaining three members (dancer Leeroy Thornhill left in 2000) sounded at best like a grizzled, ageing parody of their former selves.
Sixth LP The Day Is My Enemy is undoubtedly their angriest – and worst – LP yet, the majority of the album mirroring the desperation and aimlessness of that god-awful 2002 single. Over the course of fourteen tracks, Howlett strains himself to replicate the nuanced fusion of filth and fury that was The Fat of the Land, but the tracks continually buckle under the weight of his overblown sledgehammer approach to production. Worst of all, Keith Flint is unleashed far too often as vocal protagonist, frequently gatecrashing and ruining songs like a drunken uncle not wanted at the party: wailing like a pound-shop Johnny Rotten on “Nasty”, and screeching like an embarrassing karaoke doppleganger on “Wild Frontier”.
Allegedly a protest record for a generation struggling to reaffirm its sense of identify, Howlett abandons the subtlety, nuance and finesse that made Jilted Generation and Fat of the Land such potent cocktails of wrath, disdain and anxiety. It’s telling that the LP’s strongest tracks don’t feature Flint: the sparking, sci-fi glimmer of “Beyond the Deathray” (a close cousin to 1997’s “Climbatize”), and the eponymous opening track, which combines stabbing synths, a militaristic percussive backdrop and an eerie but ultimately euphoric female vocal to staggering effect. The title track is light years beyond the rest of the album in terms of quality – a lone mirage amidst the desert of overwrought, directionless dreck.
The most frustrating thing is Howlett’s lack of creativity. The Prodigy have never been immune to regurgitating their own ideas, but they continually regress here to classless acts of self-cannibalization. The percussive backbone of 1997’s excellent single “Smack My Bitch Up” shows up on at least three songs, and “Get Your Fight On” is less close cousin to 2009’s “Take Me To The Hospital” and more malformed, genetically identical twin. It’s a testament to how brilliant they once were that Howlett has spent his last three albums mimicking his earlier output, but we expect better from a man who once set the template for his imitators, reduced here to a boated serpent gorging on its own tail.
The album’s lowpoint though is “Ibiza”. Ostensibly an electro-satire lampooning overpaid superstar DJs and their dumb and devoted acolytes, it displaces “Baby’s Got A Temper” as the nadir of The Prodigy’s canon. It’s a strong contender for the worst track of 2015 (along with Peace’s “Money”): a cringe-inducing barrage of directionless electro-squawl that should, if there’s any justice, derail Seaford Mods’ career prospects (the song features them) simply by association.
There are precious few shafts of light piercing the gloom, but occasionally the subtler moments of the LP betray a whispered echo of what this album might have been: the spine-tingling, expansive opener to “Roadblox”; “Wild Frontier”‘s scizophrenic soundscape before it’s marred by Flint’s vocals, a trick he repeats on the final track. “I don’t want to be sterilized!” he screeches on “Wall of Death”. And yet, devoid of the punkish traits The Prodigy have always considered essential to their sound – innovation, insubordination, fearlessness – this LP is as sterilized and recycled as the pop gunk that the band profess to loathe. The Day Is My Enemy was, unsurprisingly, peddled as a return to form by Howlett, an imperial-like resurgence for a band self-styled as peerless imitators “always outnumbered, never outgunned”. But if Liam Howlett fancies himself as a returning emperor, then it’s important to point out that — this time, at least — he isn’t wearing any clothes.
PUBLISHED: PRETTY MUCH AMAZING – MARCH 2015