Liam Howlett’s got some big ones. After fans go apeshit for his band’s 1997 release, The Fat of the Land, he goes M.I.A., fires the other members (including killer klown Keith Flint), and eventually releases an album that’s nowhere close to being worth the seven-year-wait. Even brassier, said album sounds identical to The Fat of the Land and could pass for any number of superficial electronic records — released in 1998.
Thing is, although music hasn’t exactly developed, the climate has changed. Skull-crushing beats have been impeached by tinny crunk blasts, and the car alarm has been replaced by spiky chord shards as the sound effect du jour. As a result, Lil’ Jon and Franz Ferdinand rock, and the Prodigy’s fourth proper album, Always Outnumbered, Never Outgunned, is boring. Who’d have thought?
Certainly not Howlett, who in 1997 had the number one album in more than twenty countries, including America (a feat that generates discussion to this day). The Fat of the Land was a monumental achievement in its transcendence; it gave personality to a faceless, nameless wave of electronic acts that were often indistinguishable. Videos for “Firestarter” and “Breathe” were gritty, sweaty pieces of celluloid that rivaled Aphex Twin in their panicky visuals. And whereas “electronica” live shows featured glorified deejays hiding behind synthesizers and laptops, designated frontman Keith Flint energized crowds and made small children cry with his on-stage theatrics and terrifying face.
Taken into account, it’s pretty disheartening that Always Outnumbered kinda sucks. The personality has vanished, and while Liam seems like a swell guy and all, his now front-and-center presence doesn’t have enough spark to make the octane-charged tracks catch fire.
Opener “Spitfire” takes a cue from Jay-Z’s “99 Problems” by cranking up both the massive guitars and drums and letting a rolling vocal sample (“If I was in World War II, they’d call me ‘spitfire’ “) do the talking. “Girls” continues the ’80s hip-hop influence with an electro breakbeat and quirky flute melody, but things get sluggish with the back-to-back inclusion of “Memphis Bells” and “Get Up Get Off,” both annoying throwaways. “Hot Ride” provides some redemption, as do the hypnotic “Action Radar” and fuzzy “Medusa’s Path.” “Phoenix” has a Middle Eastern vibe that works wonders, and “The Way It Is” is worth hearing if only for the I-can’t-believe-he-did-it lifting of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” groove.
“What’s the problem?” you ask. “Always Outnumbered seems like a great record.” And it might be, I’d say, if you only listen to it once. But it’s not great enough. Not if you went apeshit over The Fat of the Land. Not if you’ve heard Howlett’s masterful mixtape, 1999’s The Dirtchamber Sessions, and went apeshit over that, too. Not if you waited seven years for a new album and all you got was this.
The problem is that it’s not bad. I’d rather it be horrible than what it really is — mediocre. The repetition of the beats makes you queasy, broken up only by a handful of muddled cameos, none of which come close to “Diesel Power.” The Prodigy once made a killing by being extreme. A restless, adrenaline-addled sonic nightmare. An audio version of A Clockwork Orange. A face-pierced killer klown starting fires.
Now we get appearances by Kool Keith and Liam Gallagher, which add some juice but also remind us how cool these guest spots would’ve been ten years ago. Howlett still has a few gems left, and he’s too good to make a bad record. Question is: Does he remember how to make a great one?