Saturday, February 23, 2013

The Prodigy - Experience (Original TC Review)

XL Recordings: 1992

(2013 Update:
This review feels dated now, even though, technically, The Prodigy have yet to make any sort of proper reclaim to fame. An interesting thing happened a few years after I wrote this, though: old school hardcore started receiving props again, with acts making one-off throwbacks, and even occasional 'concept' albums; all the while, an American (re)fascination with raving undoubtedly has the group getting name-checked far more often than any point during the decade prior.

I should mention the writing here reflects my transitional phase from track-by-track detailing. It's not as cumbersome as my earliest reviews, but there are still clunky chunks of grammar. Rough around the edges, much like
Experience!)


IN BRIEF: It’s got the beat; that’s all we need.

When I randomly pulled this from my collection of music to review, the first thought that came to me was, “Why should I review this? It’s a decade and a half old; everything that could be said regarding Experience has been said and then some. Besides, with The Prodigy’s relevance inconsequential these days, it’s not like-”

And then I was struck dumb for a moment. Could it really be true? The Prodigy were no longer relevant? I’m not just talking about fading from popular musical taste, but that, for all the groundbreaking material that was released under the Prodigy banner, almost none of it has the slightest bearing on modern tastes. For anyone associated with electronic music throughout the previous decade, this comes as a bit of a shock.

Hands up if you grew up during the ‘90s. Remember just how big the Prodge were? Even with three albums that bore scant resemblance to one another, their impact was undeniable. Numerous hit singles. Multiple sub-genres spawned. Dynamic live show. Take-no-prisoners attitude. Hell, they even managed to break typical ‘dance sux’ mainstream America! Every young EDM fan had that moment when they paused and, much like Led Zepplin for rock fans, declared The Prodigy the best ever (even if that opinion changed within a day).

But Liam Howlett’s musical dry spell hurt, and a new batch of partiers emerged without a Prodigy experience (having to settle for superstar trance DJs instead, poor bastards). In a scene where trends take little time to change, Howlett was left to play catch-up rather than lead the charge as he always had. The new generation of ravers saw little interest in looking back to the past when they had their own scene. The Prodigy, once an unbeatable force no one could stop, became a token footnote regarding ‘90s trivia and ‘funny hairstyles in music’.

If the Prodigy material was firmly stuck in the ‘90s, this would be understandable. Like any Height-Ashbury folk rock act, they’d retain a level of respect but would still be unable to escape the era that spawned it. However, Howlett’s productions aren’t stuck in the ‘90s. Sure, they may conjure up ravey-raves or ‘electronica’ promos, but many tracks remain just as effective today as they were a decade ago, even without nostalgic blinders.

For all its old school hardcore trappings, Experience can still pummel a party fourteen years on. The opening four-track stanza - Jericho, Music Reach, Wind It Up, and Your Love - is as much an endurance test as it is a collection of songs. Howlett’s rhythms are super-fast and utterly relentless, yet always fascinating to hear, mixing up a dynamic blend of innovative breakbeats with stadium-sized resonance. Even Hyperspeed, despite a lengthier intro than the tracks prior to it, gives no respite, unleashing some of the most devastating beats on Experience. And Charly, though stripped down compared to the others, still packs a punch. Whatever Howlett did to create such powerful drums and basslines has endured far better than numerous copycats could ever have hoped.

But enough talk of the rhythms, you say. What about melodies and hooks? Unfortunately, this has always been where Experience stumbles. To be frank, most of them merely serve the rhythms: synth stabs giving extra punch to a kick; strings providing atmosphere; etc. Take out most of Liam’s beats, and you’d get very generic old school rave hooks that could fit into any number of producers’ discography.

This isn’t to say they aren’t catchy or even enduring. The uplifting pianos of Wind It Up or hoover fun of Charly still work today, and little things in the other tracks have moments of charm as well. However, you get the impression it didn’t matter what Howlett did to complement his rhythms - they were so good that anything could work, so he just grabbed a few proven techniques of the era rather than make his own styles.

Hell, maybe Liam himself realized this all too well. How else can one explain the absurd Out Of Space. Is there anything more loony than a boing sound? (well, maybe a kazoo) This track could very well be a piss-take on the very sound he popularized, showing no matter how corny the surrounding hooks, samples, effects, and even accompanying video got, the beats would still carry the track to awesomeness. Amazingly (and perhaps ironically), it went on to be one of their fans’ all-time favorite tracks.

The strength of Howlett’s breakbeats is further exemplified by Everybody In The Place, because this is the one track on Experience they are missing! Making use of a standard four-to-the-floor rhythm at a heightened BPM, this track comes off quite bland amongst the surrounding company, and unfortunately shows just how weak many of the hooks are without the dynamite breaks.

Still, Howlett was determined to show he had skill in other facets of music, so despite being stuck making mostly hyperfast breakbeats around this time, he managed to squeeze in an ‘epic’ track called Weather Experience, where two-thirds of the song are spent on sweeping string synths and chunky hip-hop beats. It’s a welcome respite from all the manic energy to be had on this album, and its slow build towards bubbling acid and a chaotic climax is quite cinematic in musically re-creating a sudden storm.

It might have been a mistake to include it though, because it leaves the follow-up tracks sounding incredibly lackluster in comparison. Fire and Jungle Bizness, while having some energy to them (you just can’t deny them riddims), aren’t nearly as interesting as the tracks that came in the first half of Experience. They sound more like tag-ons than killer tracks to finish an album off strong.

No matter. Experience does finish strong in spite of this with Death Of The Prodigy Dancers. You’d think a live track would sound completely out of place here, yet it’s a perfect capper. The Prodigy were always at their best performing live, and this track is as much meant for live gigs as anything. A complete acid thrash-fest, it was simply designed to put dancers Leeroy and Keith through their paces for the audience to witness. As Maxim’s MCing encourages them on while super-charging the crowd, you can only imagine what dazzling footwork Leeroy was displaying or what manic theatrics Keith was parading. And with your imagination doing the work, Death Of The Prodigy Dancers easily gets you pumped even if the sound quality isn’t as sharp as all the other tracks. (2013 UPDATE EDIT: imagination no longer required, here's some actual footage!)

And that’s why, even if The Prodigy aren’t as relevant in today’s scene, they can still hook in new fans with ease when given the chance. Howlett may have gone on from Experience to become a better songwriter but there’s still an exuberant innocence on display here. The energy was overflowing at this early stage, and its infectiousness has become timeless. “Check it out!”and “Let it rock you!”


ACE TRACKS:
Hyperspeed
Out Of Space
Death Of The Prodigy Dancers (Live)


Written by Sykonee for TranceCritic.com, 2006. © All rights reserved.


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