Welcome To The Prodigy's Nightmare

Twenty or so years after the Sex Pistols stripped rock 'n' roll down to its raw, nasty essence, The Prodigy have arrived to tell you to go fuck yourself.

Certainly there hasn't been a band from England since the Pistols that has so quickly and dramatically alienated so many.

Nothing like opening your album with a song called "Smack My Bitch Up," featuring a fart-like synth intro, to let the world know where you're coming from. The Prodigy have drawn the line in the sand and, before most of America has heard more than one song, "Firestarter" (which received massive MTV play), just about everyone who cares at all about modern rock has decided which side of that line they're on.

I've listened to Tool fans, Neil Young-heads, not to mention hip-hop and trip-hop aficionados (and a long-time follower of techo) complain about the band with the obnoxious lead singer with the ugly haircut. But I've also been surprised to find plenty of support for the group, including a major Radiohead fan enthusing about Prodigy and how "scary" they seem.

To all of you Prodigy naysayers, I hate to break the news, but this is the real shit. And for all the carping, plenty of people have gotten the word. Over 200,000 copies of the album were sold during its first week of release. You know all that hype about these guys and the Chemical Brothers leading an electronica takeover? Well while Dig Your Own Hole, excellent as it is, hasn't quite made America listen up, Prodigy's The Fat of the Land sounds like the album to turn the tide.

Getting down to the nitty gritty, what Prodigy have managed is to make a rock 'n' roll album that uses techno beats. Is that a big deal? Is it the new sound of late '90s rock? Who knows. But if at least a million copies haven't sold in the U.S. by the time school starts, I'll be mighty surprised.

If you've heard "Breathe" (the video is currently in solid MTV rotation), then you know why over 1.5 million copies of that single have already sold in other parts of the world. Like Depeche Mode's infectious techno-rock hit of some years back, "Personal Jesus," "Breathe" has hooks that, once they've pierced your skin, just won't let go. Not since Johnny Rotten has a singer gotten in our face in quite as intense a way as Prodigy's Keith Flint (yep, he's the guy with the devil hair).

As infectious as it is scary, "Breathe" is a brilliant, pure rock 'n' roll record that mixes techno rhythms and a nasty guitar riff courtesy of non-band member Jim Davies. While the sound is absolutely intoxicating, the lyrics leave one wondering what the song is all about. A rape? A mugging? Drug abuse? "Inhale, inhale, you're the victim," exhorts Maxim, one of the two "singers," while Flint, in a maniacal punk snarl exhorts "Down, bye, bye, die."

While "Breathe" is the standout track, you'll quickly become obsessed with hard-beat tracks such as "Diesel Power," with a rap from Dr. Octagon's Kool Keith, and the ambient Brit-pop "Narayan," which features vocals by Kula Shaker's Crispian Mills.

What are guest rappers and lead singers doing here, you might wonder? Providing irrefutable evidence that the true ringleader of The Prodigy's dark carnival is programmer/sonic collagist Liam Howlett. While it's too soon to say if Howlett is the Phil Spector of electronica, it's already clear that his ability to take disparate audio elements and craft them into uncompromising hit records is awe inspiring.

Strangely enough, at least some of The Fat of the Land reminds me of '60s psychedelic jam records. Clocking in at just over nine minutes, "Narayan" mixes dance beats, a psychedelic vibe and those unmistakeably British vocals. It should fall apart, but it doesn't; Howlett throws a trippy bridge in after about five minutes, before returning to the main musical theme.

These guys clearly have a great sense of humor too. Asked about the

controversial tittle, "Smack My Bitch Up," Howlett told a New Musical

Express reporter, "With 'Smack My Bitch Up' the album's got quite a

strong B-boy reference floating all the way through it... It's probably

the most pointless song I've ever written -- I've got no explanation as

to why I've got that lyric in. It's just there and it works. And yeah,

if all those fire brigade people wrote in to the papers complaining

about 'Firestarter,' we expect some kind of reaction to the record. But

it wasn't done on purpose. It was done simply because I used to be into

hip-hop."

And about that line in the sand -- God help you if you're on the other side.