REVIEW: Prodigy – Fat of the Land (1997)

PRODIGY – Fat of the Land (1997 XL)

Electronica was all the rage (all the rave?) in 1997.  The Orb, Chemical Brothers, Orbital and more were hitting new highs.  U2 was hot for electronica, and rock bands began incorporating new beats into their songs.  Nobody crossed the boundaries between rock and dance better than Prodigy (formerly, The Prodigy) on their 1997 commercial breakthrough Fat of the Land.  Leader Liam Howlett and his gang of backing miscreants struck gold with their genre-bending third record.  Dancer Keith Flint had risen to to a frontman position, sneering his way through tracks like “Firestarter” all the way up the charts.  His green bi-hawk and facial piercings made him an unforgettable music video mainstay.  The group’s MC Maxim Reality had two lead vocals on the album including smash hit “Breathe”.  Dancer Leeroy Thornhill, well, he just kept on dancing!

Commencing with the controversial third single “Smack My Bitch Up”, this album opens with a bang.  Based on a sample from “Give the Drummer Some” by Ultramagnetic MCs, the group were forced to defend the vocal hook:  “Change my pitch up, smack my bitch up.”  Insisting they were not misogynists, Howlett said it means to do “anything intensely”.  The music certainly is that, with rapid beats and sound assaulting the sense from the get-go.  Then it goes raga at the halfway point, intertwining genres beyond recognition.  MTV pulled the video, only for it to win two awards in ’98.

“Breathe” featuring Flint and Maxim on vocals was selected as the second single.  This pounder boasts a Brian Downey drum fill from Thin Lizzy’s “Johnny the Fox Meets Jimmy the Weed” (immediately obvious, but only after you’ve been told it’s there).  Coupled with rapid bass, swishing swords, record scratches n’ clanging hooks, there’s also a cool wacka-jawacka guitar sample on the verses.  Despite the awkward hook of “psycho-somatic addict-insane,” the song is beyond catchy.

Kool Keith handles lead vocals on the slower, forceful “Diesel Power”.  It’s just an ode to the love of making music.  “Build with skill, with technique, computer A-DAT, My lyrical form is clouds on your brainstorm.”  Clever internal rhymes and relentless rapping form the main hooks while Liam Howlett lays back with the music.  Had there been a fourth single, “Diesel Power” would have been perfect, bringing in rap fans to hang with the rock.

“Funky Shit” is what it says, bearing the main hook of “Oh my God it’s the funky shit!”  Beats and samples form a cool track that sounds like something from a 90s action movie or video game.  Moving on to a pounding “Serial Thrilla”, this one creates a heavy tune with nothing but beats, samples and sneers.  Try bangin’ your head to it for some genre-bending action.  Keith Flint does the lead vocal:  “Damage destructor, crowd disruptor, you corruptor, every timer.”  Nothing fancy, but still sticks to your brain like supersonic electronic peanut butter.

Side two:  the sound of a jammed computer leads into the exotic “Mindfields”, with Maxim back on lead vocals.  The main keyboard hook is backed by beats and samples designed to enhance.  Then we’re into the centerpiece of the album, a nine minute dance epic called “Narayan” with Crispian Mills of Kula Shaker singing and co-writing.  Sounding a lot like a Kula Shaker remix, this track is as close to standard song structures as they get on the album.  Mills’ smooth voice and knack for an exotic melody works as the perfect foil for Prodigy’s layers of beats and samples.  “OM, Namah, Narayana” goes the Indian-sounding chorus, a sound that Mills also frequently brings into Kula Shaker.

For some, the centerpiece will not be the epic, but will be the smash 1996 hit:  “Firestarter”. Infamously covered by Gene Simmons, this breakout hit became what it is because of Flint’s snotty vocals, pounding bass, and catchy samples.  What is understood need not be discussed:  this hit was destined to be.  But after all that smashing and grabbing, “Climbatize” enters the scene with stuttery Van Halen-like distortion and a soft keyboard hook.  Jungle beats and ominous keyboards distinguish this track from the others.

The closing track is the heaviest.  “Fuel My Fire”, an L7 cover with Flint on lead vocals and “Gizz Butt” (Graham Butt) on guitar.  There’s a cool keyboard hook to go along with the incessant, noisy rocking.  This second shortest track on the album is overcharged with electronic buzz and standard rock-like drums.  A brilliant closer to an album that is more of a journey than you’d expect at first glance.

Indeed, Fat of the Land cannot be distilled down to the sum of its parts.  While not overly challenging, it does layer beats and samples in such as way as there is always some form of hookiness at work.  There are a variety of tracks, both instrumental and vocal.  By the end of it, you’ll feel like you’ve been on an adrenaline-fueld, surrealistic excursion.  A weird jungle-y acid trip through the transistors of the past.

4/5 stars


#952: Hackers


The internet (otherwise known as the “information superhighway” or “the weeb”) was just beginning to enter public consciousness in 1995.  Hollywood struck while the iron was hot with Hackers, a pretty shitty movie starring Johnny Lee Miller, Matthew Lillard, and Angelina Jolie.

I saw Hackers in the fall of ’95 at a drive-in.  It was so bad that when the film broke partway through the movie, I didn’t even care.  “I want to see the rest of the movie!” complained my girlfriend in the other seat.  She was mad; she didn’t want a refund, she wanted to see Hackers.  They eventually got the movie back up and running, for what it was worth.  We mocked the corny dialogue about “14400 BPS modems” and terrible visuals.  “That isn’t what the internet looks like!”  She was right.

The only lasting impact the movie had was its CD soundtrack, which was still in demand six months later.  Featuring the Prodigy, Orbital, and Underworld among others, Hackers was popular with the growing electronica crowd.  It was also hard to find used, and expensive new.

As discussed in Record Store Tales #795: A Case for Security, CD theft was a major issue for local stores in the mid-90s.  There was a roving gang of thieves called the “Pizza Guys”* who ripped off CDs from major chains and then sold them all over town.  The cops were aware of the situation, and instructed us to keep buying from them so they could collect evidence.  We followed their instructions and they had pages and pages and pages of information on these guys.  What they sold, where, and when — and what ID they were using.

Nobody liked dealing with those guys.  They were rude, and drew attention to themselves with the massive amounts of new releases they were selling — multiple copies.  They were cocky and got bolder week by week.  But not as bold as the rookie employee dubbed “The Boy that Killed Pink Floyd”.

He wanted the Hackers soundtrack.  He wasn’t willing to pay new prices and he had his name in the computer for a used one.  Then he got a bright idea.  He didn’t “ask” the Pizza Guys for a copy.  He just made it really obvious that he wanted one.

One day when we were buying CDs off the Pizza gang, the kid asked, “No Hackers in here, eh?”

A few visits later, the gang was back.  Entering the store, one of the leaders smiled, nodded and simply said “Hackers!”   He had somehow acquired a copy, and even acknowledged the request.  I don’t know how our kid didn’t get fired for that one.  The boss was not impressed!  He finally got his walking papers after special ordering an expensive Pink Floyd CD single, deciding he didn’t want it, and putting it on the shelves to sell as a used item.  That was the end of the Boy Who Killed Pink Floyd!


*Because they served up hot slices.


REVIEW: The Tea Party – Transmission (1997)

For a review of The Tea Party’s Live in Australia album by Deke at Stick It in Your Ear, click here!

Scan_20160526THE TEA PARTY – Transmission (1997 EMI)

Tea Party fans are often split on Transmission.  There is little doubt that the previous Edges of Twilight album was a high water mark.  With over an hour of exotic and varied folks-blues-rock hybrids, it’s a favourite for many.  The band took a stark turn on Transmission, embracing electronics.  Jeff Martin produced the album himself, and you could not expect a more opposite album to Twilight.  Thanks to the opening single “Temptation”, the album was another hit.  Most fans seemed OK with the changes.

At first, it doesn’t seem like anything is unusual in Tea Party land.  “Temptation” (the album version anyway) opens with a fair bit of exotic strumming on some sort of stringed instrument, as the Tea Party often do.  Then the samples and looped drums kick in, and they are huge!  Middle Eastern exotics, radio noise, keyboards and a killer riff all combine with loops to create a new kind of Tea Party.  So far so good — the experiment paid off.

Martin had a penchant for odd song titles on this album, like “Army Ants”.  Vocals furiously distorted, this makes for a heavier Tea Party.  Jeff Burrows is providing some excellent drum backbeats, but at times they are buried under other sounds.  The title track “Transmission” is way better though, burning like electronic incense.  Static, loops and acoustics return for “Psychopomp”, one of the five singles they released.  While it takes a while to get there, “Psychopomp” boasts a powerfully melodramatic chorus, Martin roaring as he does.  “Gyroscope” has a spinning sound, one of the more hypnotic tracks (and also a single).  One of the more impressive singles was the ballad “Release”.  This was eventually given an EP of its own which we’ll look at another time.  A basic keyboard/drum ballad, it is simple and bleak but hard to forget.  It almost reminds of early 80’s Robert Plant.

There isn’t a lot of variety and distinction between the songs.  “Alarum” repeats the formula:  Electronic effects, exotic sounds, roared-out chorus.  This was the disappointing factor with Transmission.  The band had established themselves with a diverse sound, but that sound is narrowed on Transmission.  All the same ingredients are there, but they are focused by the electronic lens, which sharpens them but also bleaches them to all one colour.  “Babylon” is one of the exceptions, with drum & bass elements, and off-kilter song structure.  It was appropriately given a very bizarre music video.  An interesting experiment, but not as affective a song as something simpler like “Release”.

The Tea Party had some fun in other ways too. They like hidden bonus tracks, but this time they didn’t stick one at the end. They stuck an instrumental (dubbed “Embryo”) at the end of track 8 (“Babylon”). It’s actually a cool little piece of music.

Since the Tea Party are an ever-evolving band, it was safe to assume they would not stay in the electronics lab forever. Their next album, Triptych, was different again. Transmission remains their most loop-heavy album to date.  At least they did it at the right time — The Prodigy’s massive mainstream album The Fat of the Land was released mere months before.  The public were ready and hungry for computer-precise beats and samples, and the Tea Party delivered a unique hybrid with their own brand of rock.  For the most part, it worked.

3/5 stars

Scan_20160526 (2)

Part 239: Music for Your Mental Health


Music for Your Mental Health

Music can be absolutely vital to the human psyche.  I don’t know why it is, but the auditory sensation of vibrating air molecules that we call sound has an undeniable effect once modulated into music.  Some people find themselves drawn to the music, some the singing, others just the words.  Nobody experiences music exactly the same way, but for many of us, it has the ability to lift our spirits high.

I had a customer, who had been coming in for many years, who was diagnosed with a fairly common mental disorder.  He didn’t find it a  pleasant disorder to deal with.  The young man who I’ll call Billy had made a suicide attempt.  I didn’t see him for a while.  When I did see him come back, he had changed his appearance.  Gone was the long hair and beard.  What did not disappear was his love of music, which seemed to manifest itself even stronger after his attempt.

Billy had suddenly rediscovered 80’s new wave music, and with it modern electronica, techno, and trance.  He became extremely passionate.  He was especially fond of any and all New Order.  These artists in turn introduced him to the relaxing sounds of New Age music.  I couldn’t say it for certain, but if I had to make an observation, I would conjecture that the music gave him more focus and something to feel good about.

Soon, listening to music wasn’t enough anymore.  Billy wanted to make music.

His family were supportive.  Over the few years that I knew him, his family purchased for him the best computers, the best synthesizers, and encouraged him every step.  He dad acted as his manager.  They would come in periodically, looking for electronic music, and eager to update me on his musical progress.

“The CD is coming along well,” Billy would say.  “It’s going to be very relaxing, very dreamlike, and calming.  It’s great music.  I’m very excited.  My dad is helping me, we’re going to put a CD out.”

And put a CD out he did.   I’m far from the most knowledgeable person about electronic music, but it sounded good to me.  I could tell he put a lot of work into the tracks.  He did it all himself.  His extraordinary story got him some newspaper coverage too.  The best part was, the CD was really good.  I wouldn’t let him just give me a copy, I made a point of buying one.  I had to support my customer!

Music can be such a positive force.  It’s one of the few things I know of that can bring 100,000 people together.  It can change brain chemistry, and it can help us feel all kinds of emotions.  It can make you want to get up and dance, or make love, or play air guitar.  It can make you feel better and draw you in deeper.

Sometimes, I think about what music means to me personally.  I know it helped me survive.  Would Billy would have survived without music?  Would any of us?  There’s no way to know.  I do know that I am glad I got to know Billy.  He taught me that music really can change the world in powerful ways.

REVIEW: Stone Temple Pilots – “Out of Time” (2013)

STONE TEMPLE PILOTS – “Out of Time” (2013)

I don’t like Linkin Park too much, but Mrs. LeBrain does so I’ve heard a lot of their albums.  I did like their singer Chester Bennington, I thought he had amazing pipes.  It was more the rapping and the samples I didn’t like.  I always kind of wished Chester was in a band that I liked.

I do like Stone Temple Pilots though, and “Out of Time” sounds like Stone Temple Pilots!  It sounds like the young STP, when Weiland could really wail.  I don’t think I’m alone in saying that Scott’s voice is simply not what it once was, but Chester is in his prime.  And the song is great!  Solid riff, powerful sound.  If it lacks any of Scott’s swagger, the track makes up for it with Chester’s lungs.  It’s just great to hear Eric Kretz and Robert & Dean DeLeo rocking behind such a strong song.  Album and a tour?  Sure.  My interest is peaked.

Download it here, for free:  http://stonetemplepilots.com/

4/5 stars


REVIEW: Marillion – Radiation 2013


MARILLION – Radiation 2013 (Madfish)

Radiation (stylized as Radiat10n, Marillion’s 10th studio album) was another controversial Marillion album. Much like This Strange Engine and marillion.com, Radiation did not have that universal fan appeal that magical albums like Brave seemed to have.  It confused some of the staunchest of Steve Hogarth followers. It is unlike any previous album, but still rooted in the progressive experimentation that Marillion are known for.  Just had that modern twist to it…just enough weird stuff with samples going on to turn off the fans who felt like they were just hanging along for the ride after This Strange Engine.

I remember Tom saying to me, “This Strange Engine…was that the one that sounds like Hootie and the Blowfish?”

Perhaps in reaction to that, Radiation had a heavier, noise-saturated mix.  The band always said it didn’t come out the way they initially heard it, and always had hopes to remix it one day.  Now 15 years after its release, Radiation 2013 is a revisit to the original album with that fresh remix the band had always talked about.  It is packed in a handsome Madfish box, all the original artwork contained within, housed within a brand new cover by the same guy who did the original.


The original album itself has always appealed to me.  I tend to like the underdogs.  Born Again, after all, is my favourite Black Sabbath record.  My favourite Motorhead is Another Perfect Day….

Let’s start by talking about the original album.

Opening with a cacophony of orchestra noise, a campy distorted melody follows. Hogarth is warning us of global warming, a topic he visited 9 years earlier on “Seasons End”. “Under The Sun” follows this intro, with lyrics such as “It used to rain, dreary and grey, most every day but not anymore!” Looking at the bright side of global warming from the British point of view! A haunting ghostlike keyboard melody underscores this aggressive yet sparse tune.

This is followed by the pounding of “The Answering Machine”, a classic that is often performed unplugged these days.  The original album version is completely different, and I hear so much joy in Ian Mosely’s drums to just be sheerly having at it.

“Three Minute Boy” is supposed to be about Liam Gallagher.  It is another great song, and this one in a slower tempo.  It also has a haunting quality, and Steve Hogarth sings his ass off.

The very quiet “Now She’ll Never Know” is next. It’s a little simpler than the earlier tracks, partly because bassist Pete Trewavas is on guitar this time. Hogarth sings like a spectre of himself, fragile and weak, hiding.  It’s an awesome performance.  Then, sampled strings introduce the single “These Chains”, a late-Beatles-y ballad with a dramatic chorus.

The next track is the very Floydian “Born To Run”, regarding the “people of the north”. Never has Steve Rothery sounded so David Gilmour. Yet another classic guitar solo to add to his list of many, a showcase piece. “Born To Run” is a slow track, mournful yet also hopeful.   Ian Mosely used the subtlety he is known for and classes the song up several knotches.

Suddenly, the gothic keyboard crashes of “Cathedral Walls” assail the unguarded listener. Hogarth, his voice reduced to an echo, whimpers the lyrics. It sounds as if pain and anguish are wracking his body. The choruses are dense and powerful. This is by far the heaviest moment on the album, yet unexpectedly punctuated by quieter breaks.

The final song on the album is the 10 minute epic “A Few Words For The Dead”. It is very minimalist to start, but builds up to a barrage of vocal melodies by the time your trip is done. It is not an easy track to swallow but is worth the effort.

(The original Canadian CD had two bonus tracks: the incredible “Big Beat Mix” of “Memory of Water”, from the last album, and an unplugged rendition of “Estonia”.  These two bonus tracks are not on this version of Radiation.  I only mention it in case you were wondering. The “Big Beat Mix” was also available on the single for “These Chains”, along with an incredible cover of Radiohead’s “Fake Plastic Trees”.

RADIATION 2013 CDAs for the Radiation 2013 remixes?  There is no way, absolutely no way, that they can compete with my feelings for the original album that I know and love.  I spent 15 years with this album.  There is no way any remix could ever compete with that, in terms of love, familiarity, and meaning.  Having said that I also think the original, noisy mix is perfectly suited to these songs, and plenty awesome at that.  I love it.  It’s different.  Here’s some thoughts and memorable moments regarding the remixed versions.

“Under the Sun” – Cool guitar solos, more guitars.  More keyboards too, and a full, complex mix.  Lusher, more audible harmonies.  The song drags on a bit too long though.

“The Answering Machine” – Just as heavy and massive, but clearer.  Still features that distorted lead vocal.  Also goes on longer, with previously unheard lyrics.

“Three Minute Boy” – Additional keyboards, not drastically different.

“Now She’ll Never Known” – Possibly the best of the remixes so far.  Sounds as if, “Ahh, this is what it was meant to be like!” Makes the original sound muffled under a blanket.

“These Chains” – Very natural sounding, possibly the least messed with.  You can hear a guitar part at the end that mirrors the main melodies in a very Beatles-esque way.

“Born to Run” is completely different, a whole new vibe.  Now, instead of being a mysterious, a sunset-stained blues, it is a slow dance.  I definitely prefer the original version of “Born to Run”.  This is nice as an alternate take on a truly great song, but the original just has so much vibe.  The guitar solo is still chilling, though.  Spine-tingling.

“Cathedral Walls” is also inferior to the original.  It has lost its other-worldliness in favour of sonic clarity, an uneven trade.  There is also no “These Chains” reprise before going into “A Few Words for the Dead”.

“A Few Words for the Dead” remains hypnotic, has some more depth to it.  But the original mix was already really interesting and good.  I don’t think much was gained from the remix.

There are a few other associated albums related to this one, if you like it, that you can get from marillion.com:

Unplugged At The Walls. A double live unplugged CD, recorded in a restaurant during the mixing of Radiation. It features live versions of tracks like “Now She’ll Never Know”. It’s also where the “Fake Plastic Trees” B-side was lifted from.

Fallout: The Making of Radiation. A 2 CD compilation of song sketches, unfollowed directions, unfinished and finished ideas.  One disc is a complete album demo, the other, snippets of sketches.  Its cover art is featured inside Radiation 2013 as well.

Radiation will always be a favourite of mine.  It’s nice to finally have the remix of the album, instead of just wondering what it would be like.  Now I know.  And honestly?  Curiosity has been quenched.  Now that I’m not curious anymore, I know it will only be played a fraction of the times I will still play the original.

Radiation:  5/5 stars

Radiation 2013:  3.5/5 stars for the remix, 5/5 stars for packaging and album quality