Sunday, 17 February 2019

The Fat Of The Land - The Prodigy

Provenance: As was the case with ZZ Top's Recycler, my exposure to The Fat of the Land came about thanks to my mum's employment at a library. This time around it wasn't an old chewed-up tape but a CD that had to back, so I recorded it onto cassette along with Led Zeppelin IV.

Why did I request this album? Possibly because of all the brouhaha around third single 'Smack My Bitch Up'. The controversy surrounding the song made its way to Parliament, although the subject of early day motion 565, proposed by newly-minted Labour MP Barry Gardiner, was actually the billboard campaign for the singles. Signatories to this motion included Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell and Diane Abbott.

The video, directed by a former drummer from the black metal band Bathory, got the curtain-twitchers of Middle England going too. You can see why. There's a good article on the Louder website about the infamous video's genesis; my favourite detail, given the signatories of the early day motion, is that the model playing the protagonist was called Teresa May. Then there was 'Firestarter', which also got talked about in Parliament on the basis that its video might incite arson, possibly in the same way that Link Wray's 1958 instrumental 'Rumble' was considered a likely tinderbox for street gang violence.

The fuss, especially around 'Firestarter', all seems impossibly tame now. Hell, even dad-rock idiot and cow tongue graftee Gene Simmons recorded a version of 'Firestarter', which you can see here if you truly hate yourself that much.

Review: I'll start by saying I had to listen to something other than the Prodigy to cleanse my palate after checking that Gene Simmons link worked. I just don't think I could've given 'Firestarter' a fair shake otherwise. Anyway, I'm not a massive dance fan, but that's okay, because the Prodigy were always the most 'rock' sounding of that tribe. Certainly, the songs on Fat of the Land follow something closely resembling the rock music I was almost exclusively listening to at the time. Hell, the band did an L7 cover and were even fronted by Keith Flint, a kind of John Carpenter re-imagining of Vyvyan from The Young Ones - that's cool, right? Right?

Yet despite the guitar hooks on 'Breathe' and the rapping on 'Diesel Power', it's unmistakably a confection put together through the tried and tested technique of melding a clutch of samples with some big beats and studio magic. So although 'Smack My Bitch Up' became notorious for its subject matter, its true charms are to be found in its barrelling percussion and Shahin Badar's beautiful, wordless vocal (apparently based off of a track by Sheila Chandra, a remarkable singer in her own right whose voice has sadly succumbed to Burning Mouth Syndrome).

Listening to this from the perspective of 2019, it's odd to hear just how much dynamic range exists in the music. Had I misremembered how loud Fat of the Land was? Or have contemporary studio practices in popular music rendered such notions as dynamics the preserve of nerds and wankers? Much pop music in the present day sounds like it packs out every inch of aural real estate with grey noise, giving the track enough heft that it, no doubt, 'slaps' in one's ear-pods. Friends, on a proper stereo system, it sounds shit. Not Fat of the Land - certainly, 'Serial Thrilla', 'Diesel Power' and 'Fuel My Fire' sound chunky, but there's good definition between all their elements, and a track like 'Funky Shit' really shifts around dynamically. Forgive me for pulling a Horatio Caine here, but you could say...that these songs really 'breathe'.

Oh, and my favourite track on Fat of the Land is the one most obviously wedded to hip-hop, 'Diesel Power'. Kool Keith, who was someone Liam Howlett sampled on a few occasions, spits a wonderfully aggressive lyric over a bombastic, relentless backing track that reeks of smoke and adrenaline. Bottle it up and sell it as psych-up juice - it's what I listen to in the gym if I want to try and lift something moderately heavy more than a few times.

Actually - the closer I listen, the more I'm tempted to say that it's a dance-metal album fused to the spirit of Afrika Bambaataa. Perhaps it's just the bowl of chili I had earlier (a dish which, it has been claimed in a court of law, can mess with your mind) but to me there's a direct thread between Fat of the Land and Bambaataa's seminal Afro-Teutono-futurist floor filler 'Planet Rock'? Fat of the Land might be its gobby, steroid-addled British nephew, but a blood relation nonetheless. Yet Howlett was determinedly pursuing a singular vision, and its exciting to hear the symphony of cymbals he created in the coda to 'Narayan'; and its only on today's listen that I became fully conscious of the huge heartbeat bass drum at the core of 'Firestarter' (a favourite amongst my generation, not least because an instrumental version featured on the Playstation version of Wipeout 2097 - a kind of cyberpunk Mario Kart if that helps orientate younger readers).

Yeah, Fat of the Land was - and remains - the absolute business. I've got a couple of other Prodigy albums, and they're great; but this is the one where sonic invention is married to a pop sensibility, enabling even a denim 'n' leather bore like me to enjoy it from front to back. A triumph.

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