Crossing over is never easy, but its difficulty can be rewarding. Since the ’60s, popular music has been immeasurably enriched by the exchange between the United States and the United Kingdom: sharing a common language and roughly equal in inventiveness, the musicians of the two nations have created a more vital culture than either could have done alone. Rock gets the most attention in this regard: without the ping-pong of inspirations between British and American artists, the history of rock would be impossible to imagine. Jimi Hendrix recorded his albums in London with British bandmates; by steeping themselves in black American rock and roll to a degree white Americans couldn’t, the Beatles and Stones became the primary inspirations for an entire generation of American rock artists; Zeppelin and Sabbath laid the foundations for American metal; American college rock of the ’80s provided vital models for My Bloody Valentine and Radiohead in the ’90s. But the cross-pollination goes well beyond rock as well: Sade, after her initial success, has been far better appreciated Stateside than in Britain, while in the last ten years artists like Adele and Amy Winehouse have done for black U.S. soul what Lennon and Jagger and Page did for black U.S. rock. To borrow the term from diplomacy, it’s a special relationship.
What exactly is it that permits some acts to cross the Atlantic but not others? Pop globalization is a crucial factor, but then again not everything translates: Van Halen and Take That are striking examples of artists neck-deep in platinum and even diamond plaques at home but known only to a niche crowd across the pond. Perhaps most mysterious of all is the case of an act that crossed over in two separate dimensions, plugging British underground culture directly into American TV and radio. The Fat of the Land, the third album from the Prodigy, the name of a collective centered around DJ-composer-producer Liam Howlett, managed to sell over 2.5 million copies in America despite specializing in a spiky, high-res synthetic sound that made no concessions to pop sensibilities. The album’s recent 20th anniversary is as good an occasion as any to revisit its sound and explain how a collection of impenitent, hardcore electronica successfully appealed, and without apparent effort, to an audience dramatically distinct from that of its place of origin.
Big beat, the electronic genre the Prodigy is generally grouped under and in which it’s generally acknowledged as a pioneer, was rooted in a broad, loose, and distinctly British subculture whose music fused the influences of American hip-hop, house, and techno with the Jamaican music of the sound system culture of urban Britain’s large Jamaican population and the acid house developed in, and exported from, the resort island of Ibiza by DJs like Paul Oakenfold and Danny Rampling. In keeping with the ecstasy-fueled raves that were its primary venue, this sonic confederation existed in a state of constant flux, spinning off genres and subgenres at a dizzying pace: The only constant was an interest in serving the bass, though not always at the same volume or pace.
If trip-hop (another evolution of the culture) hived off into a subtler, more pensive aesthetic, big beat bulked up and started getting more frantic and digital. Howlett was instrumental in the latter process: At barely 20 years old, the young DJ from Essex who had recently graduated from breakdancing to raving caught the ear of an XL Recordings executive and was soon after signed. After “Charly,” a bright, swift, chipper, winding single, seared the rave circuit, an album was all but inevitable. Joining agile breakbeats with four-to-the-floor pacing and digital melodies whose cheerfulness was so pronounced as to feel faintly morbid, Experience (1992) was a landmark whose laughing-gas innovations paved the way for the darker, more fluid mastery of Music for the Jilted Generation (1994). As the title implied, Jilted didn’t please an audience so much as it created a new one for itself. Notes of open antagonism meshed with chill ambience and a questing rhythm, and the resulting hybrid was intoxicating even in the absence of pharmaceutical help. By the time Fat of the Land came around, the Prodigy had already repeatedly lived up to their name, their music forming the leading edge of a major nation’s foremost underground culture.
Complacency wasn’t in the cards. Contrary to its title, the sound of Fat is far from any middle-period bloat. Muscular and lean, it’s an album to burn off calories to. Howlett had perfected the art of mixing samples, synths, and beats to emphasize their concreteness — like Sleigh Bells’ Treats, Fat of the Land feels louder than it actually is (and it is actually quite loud to begin with) due to a relentless competition between skillfully arranged textures. The music is driving, but it also crunches, cracks, grinds, and hammers; the complexity of impact is compounded by vocals whose tone ranges from veteran Bronx MC Kool Keith’s blunt confidence on “Diesel Power” to Prodigy rapper Maxim’s agonistic exultance on “Mindfields” to Prodigy dancer and figurehead Keith Flint’s acidulous, boastful charisma on “Firestarter.” A sense of various intensities compels alertness.
The music is grand, sublime, and overwhelming — but what else is there to say? If rock demands sympathy with the devil, writing about electronica demands empathy with the machine. What counts is physics, not psychology. The lyrics, though hardly nonsensical, do nothing more than frame the beat. The essence of the song is mute, nonhuman: The system can be organic or metallic or spiritual, what counts most is its precision, which is wordlessly elevated to an ideal. Words demand reflection, but what electronica offers is not the introspective labor but an experience of power at its most basic, a concentration of waves and radiation. As the LP’s nine-minute marathon “Narayan” suggests, there are no words as such in electronica: language exists only at the level of mantras. If OK Computer comments on a system that its band was implicated in, it still retained a sense of separateness from it which manifested as irony; meanwhile The Fat of the Land channels it directly from within, without equivocation.
With the exceptions of the rather aggravatingly monotonous “Serial Thrilla” and “Fuel My Fire,” the album holds up marvelously. Excellence is one cause for its success in America on a scale beyond the collections of other electronic artists, British or otherwise. But then again Music for the Jilted Generation holds up at least as well, but still left the Stateside audience cold. So the solution to the mystery of Fat’s appeal has to be found somewhere else, in a trend progression particular to the American market.
One of the few certainties in 1997 was that grunge, the dominant subgenre of rock, had bled out. Everything else was murky, indecisive. It was an interesting year precisely because there was no one personality or genre that was magnetic enough to sway everything around it. Given the long-running dominance of rock and the various evolutions it had achieved following the burnout of one or another of its dominant subgenres, the natural assumption would be that rock would strike on some other mode of presentation and continue to remain on top. What mode that would end up being, though, was unclear. The atmosphere of rock, and in many ways of pop in general, in 1997 was one of interregnum: In the absence of definitive pacesetters, the radio and MTV playlist that year consisted of mediocre music from a variety of genres. No act could claim the triple crown of huge record sales, aesthetic excellence, and a striking sense of image.
It was in this confused landscape that the Prodigy, a weightier “rock band” (Fat does feature a high concentration of heavy guitar samples) could look like the next big thing, particularly once the dancer slash front man Flint underwent a drastic makeover — the “Firestarter” video shows it off, punk piercings, shavings, and metal choker accentuating a lean, nightmarish physicality, at once repellent and magnetic. It seemed plausible and desirable for an industry and journalists seeking relief from the excesses of grunge that the far-out ecstasies of London could succeed the muddy despair of Seattle as the latest sound to carry impeccable underground cred into the pop spotlight. It’s no accident that the label that released Fat of the Land was owned by Madonna, who one year later would adapt electronica to pop in her Ray of Light LP, nor that the name of the label should be Maverick: Cultural prestige was, more and more, becoming a matter of discovering alternatives.
An album this accomplished was unlikely to leave direct successors, and didn’t. But the serrated mentality it gave voice to didn’t vanish either. It was at once unexpected and predictable that the Prodigy would end up taking the blame for the rise of nü-metal that followed soon after 1997. (Limp Bizkit’s debut album also turned 20 this summer.) The charge was false — Metallica, Rage Against the Machine, and Nirvana were the real culprits — still, there was clearly some affinity in their tendency toward defiant aggressive posturing, even though the Prodigy lacked the American taste for self-centered expression.
Strongest of all was the affinity between the Prodigy and a different set of American rock musicians. The overlap between industrial metal and Fat of the Land was broad: a similar auteurist vision, a chilly focus on the inhuman and nonhuman. Though not nü-metal, industrial metal was clearly adjacent to it: The grimness was parallel even as the craft and thoughtfulness with which it was expressed differed. You could see the difference most clearly in the music videos, and in a way the industrial metal–big beat convergence got the greatest music video of all: The Matrix (1999), which in the process of becoming a great movie, assembled a musical style specific to it, all cold fire and crisp edges. On the Matrix soundtrack bangers from Ministry, Rob Zombie, and Marilyn Manson fit in perfectly with Fat’s “Mindfields” and other big-beat classics, most memorably the Propellerheads’ “Spybreak!,” which accompanies the iconic lobby shoot-out. It was hard not to see that film and hear its music and not believe in the future they both imagined: forced inside an implacable system (the body, liberal capitalism, the West), with no alternative to cold, rigid anger, entirely transparent but incapable of assimilation.
Who lives in that future now? Everyone, and no one. Every period draws up the blueprint for the period to come, but there’s always something unexpected in the process of realization. Antagonism is not naturally cold and anger isn’t naturally rigorous: The fury that Fat of the Land spoke to still exists, but no one can afford to pass it off as cool, much less cold, anymore. The album seems exemplary of a world where the habits of restraint instilled during the Cold War still held, even as its surfeit of fire imagery suggested that that state of affairs couldn’t last much longer. After a long hiatus from the group, it became clear that Experience’s clouds of cheer and Jilted’s pools of calm had boiled off entirely, leaving behind technically precise but spiritually cacophonous remnants. Loudness, as opposed to texture, became primary on Always Outnumbered, Never Outgunned (2004), Invaders Must Die (2009), and The Day Is My Enemy (2015), albums whose increasingly violent titles are generally more interesting than their actual contents.
The Fat of the Land is still a very good album, but its timeliness lies in its historical value, as a relic of a decade when the concept of “underground” still (barely) stood for something, and cold, stern precision could be wedded to popularity and anger. In a year when days are measured by the space between meltdowns, that aesthetic seems meaningful precisely because it isn’t timely.