Mercury Prize shortlist nominees (number: 1997)
Braintree ravers The Prodigy were already a big deal before the release of this third album, 1994's Music for the Jilted Generation LP having hit No.1. But if the band's ballistic beats could (just about) be ignored in 1995, their releases of 1996 changed everything.
Breathe, issued in November, charted at No.1, laying a perfect foundation for The Fat of the Land's summer-of-97 launch. But it was this set's lead single which elevated The Prodigy from crossover attractions to mainstream-slaying megastars.
The Breeders-sampling Firestarter was, for many, the sound of 1996. Dancer Keith Flint stepped up to the mic (for the first time) to rasp a combative nursery rhyme that instantly collapsed pop's four corners. His appearance in the track's video, twin rows of spikes atop his head, was indelibly striking, and soon enough parodied.
Firestarter was the band's first No.1 - and with it these rabble-rousers altered not only their own fortunes but the entire pop firmament. But as Music for… illustrated, there was more to the skills of central songwriter Liam Howlett than mountains of machine-gun breaks.
Music for…'s three-track Narcotic Suite showcased a less-caustic sound, and The Fat of the Land balances its bangover-encouraging bombast with more spacious offerings.
Climbatize is one such piece, a slow-burning, almost meditative instrumental that fills its MC-shaped space with alien buzzes and insectoid percussive chatter.
Unlike its immediate predecessor, The Fat of the Land featured a variety of guest vocalists: Kula Shaker's Crispian Mills (Narayan), Kool Keith (Diesel Power) and Republica's Saffron (Fuel My Fire). These turns immediately date this set, threatening its longevity into the 21st century. But in fairness to the often-maligned Mills, his performance is tremendous, mantra-mumblings aside.
And persist this album has - today, it can hold a twitchy attention for the duration, passing from the thumping Funky S*** to the crunching guitars of Serial Thrilla. Marking its 15th anniversary, this expanded reissue features six new remixes, geared more for newcomers than longer-term acolytes.
The Noisia and Alvin Risk remixes, of Smack My Bitch Up and Firestarter respectively, trade in low-end lurches and uncompromising womp commonplace in contemporary EDM.
The Zeds Dead mix of Breathe turns stadium-chiptune at times, like Chipzel's Super Hexagon soundtrack fired into the sun, and Baauer's Mindfields incorporates incisive hip hop elements. They're fine-enough extras, but inessential compared to the vital originals.
The punkest single of 1996 wasn't by Green Day, or Rancid, or any of the other snotty US bands making a killing reheating the sound of the Buzzcocks and UK Subs for the American suburbs. In fact, it came from a quite unlikely source: The Prodigy, a UK rave outfit helmed by the young Liam Howlett who, following the Criminal Justice Act legislation that turned blissed-out ravers into lawbreakers, decided to channel his music in a quite different, anti-establishment direction. Firestarter, a demented burst of punk-rave with a video featuring dancer-turned-singer Keith Flint, dyed hair spiked up like a pair of devil horns, going mental in a sewer, made The Prodigy – already a pretty big deal following 1994's chart-topping Music For The Jilted Generation – into household names.
It would take 15 months for the Prodigy to follow up Firestarter with a full album, but by the time it arrived, they had reinvented themselves almost entirely. The hi-octane techno beats of yesteryear take a back seat to heavier, slower hip-hop influenced numbers like Mindfields and Diesel Power, the latter featuring a rap from former Ultramagnetic MC Kool Keith. The rave-speed tracks like Funky Shit and controversy-baiting Smack My Bitch Up, meanwhile, simmer with negative energy, utterly divested of the loved-up vibe that dominated dancefloors mere years before. Throughout, Flint and fellow MC Maxim play the role of demented ringmasters, barking cartoonishly grotesque rhymes, and there's space for a couple of guest spots as well. Kula Shaker's Crispian Mills might just have turned out his finest moment on the nine-minute Narayan, exhorting cod-mystically about ''the western sun'' over slamming breakbeats (not sure about the Buddhist chant interlude, mind). And things climax with a hell-for-leather cover of L7's Fuel My Fire that grafts seething, Generation X rage into a sleek techno engine and hands the keys over to the joyriders.
Heavy enough to appeal to the rock kids but remaining a dance album to the core, Fat Of The Land was almost single-handedly responsible for breaking electronica in the US. The Prodigy would never better it, but then, it's hard to know how they could.