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POP MUSIC

Setting the World Afire

England's Prodigy is igniting the pop world with its exhilirating marriage of rock liberation and dance music escapism. But please, America, can't you lower your expectations just a bit?

June 08, 1997|Robert Hilburn | Robert Hilburn is The Times' pop music critic

Prodigy's recent concert at the Mayan Theatre was one of those events you live for in pop music--a night of glorious sights and sounds that sticks in your mind the next morning as if pressed there by a steam iron.

The manic set was highlighted by a captivating version of "Firestarter," the 1996 single that combined what were long believed to be incompatible cultures--dance music and rock--much the way Run-DMC's version of Aerosmith's "Walk This Way" a decade ago achieved a breakthrough marriage of rock and rap.

Given the show's nonstop energy, it was understandable that the band members seemed to be moving in slow motion the next afternoon as they sat in a Sunset Strip hotel room talking about the high expectations surrounding the British group.

Liam Howlett, the band's leader, grimaces, in fact, when asked about the way "Firestarter" triggered an industry buzz in the U.S. about techno being the Next Big Thing in pop.

"Sure, I worry about the expectation level," the soft-spoken Howlett, 25, says. "They are so high that no one can live up to them. That's why we turned down the U2 tour. If we went around America playing stadiums, it'd only add to the feeling of hype that is out there.

"People want to discover music for themselves. They don't want to feel like something is being pushed down their throats. We wanted to come here and do it properly, start out in small venues so people can see us up close and see what the band is all about for themselves. . . . It's not about hype, it's about music."

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With its hard-core dance culture ties, Prodigy is such a confusing force that there's debate over what to call it in a pop world obsessed with labels.

Dance?

Techno?

Electronica?

"Well, certainly not electronica," snarls Keith Flint, the fright-wigged dancer-singer whose appearance is enough to make you think there's going to be someone missing this night on a sanitarium bed-check somewhere. "I don't even know where that word got started. Someone probably thought it was cute and that it was a way to describe everything that doesn't have the usual rock [instrumentation].

"There are lots of dance bands in England that we like, but there are also a lot of crap bands that people are calling electronica and you find yourself part of something that doesn't really represent you.

"Ultimately, what you're talking about with these terms isn't music, but fashion. It's the flavor of the month and we're not that kind of band. We've been doing this for 6 1/2 years now. It's not like we are trying to jump on some bandwagon. If anything, we want to get off that electronica bandwagon."

While flashy and aggressive on stage, the four members of Prodigy come across as disarmingly down to earth during an interview. They are polite and patient as they explain their somewhat convoluted rise from the underground dance scene to a level at which their next album, "The Fat of the Land," will probably enter the charts in England at No. 1 next month.

Some observers expect the album, on Maverick Records, also to crack the Top 10 here, even though the group's last album, 1994's "Music for the Jilted Generation," didn't even make it into the Top 200.

Each member of the group plays a high-profile role in the show, but Howlett is the one who creates the music on a battery of synthesizers and who writes much of the lyrics.

Prodigy's aim, Howlett explains, is to re-create the energy and escapist good times of the dance world, but with songs that carry some of the liberation of rock. The results, in such songs as "Firestarter" and the new "Mindfields," are recordings as youthful and self-affirming as the Who's "My Generation" or Pearl Jam's "Not for You."

The ideas in the songs are backed by musical strains that combine everything from hip-hop and rave to ska and punk. It's a mix that, perhaps, had to come from England, where the barriers between musical styles are less rigid than in the U.S. At one of the massive British festivals, such as Glastonbury or Phoenix, it's the norm to see bands from all those genres on the same bill.

Listening to Prodigy, you get the feeling that Howlett woke up after attending one of the festivals with all the sounds dancing in his head--and decided to put them all into his music. Which is pretty much what happened.

"I get depressed by the English dance scene--all its arbitrary rules about what's proper and what's not," he says pointedly. "I hate purists and formulas.

"That's why we don't want to be tied to any [style]. I'd like to think we are in a similar position as Nirvana, though on a much, much smaller scale. They didn't want to be categorized as a grunge band, which was a [marketing] concept. They just wanted to be seen as themselves and that's what we want as well."

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