The Prodigy - Rivermead Leisure Complex, Reading
A fierce career-spanning set tracks their journey from acid-house malcontents to three-decade veterans of British popular music
Beneath five large dishes suspended in front of a massive photograph of an insouciant fox, Prodigy MC Maxim stalks in a full-length fake fur coat with the hood up, like a giant walking gerbil. Beside him, Keith Flint sports a Siouxsie Sioux-circa-1977 peaked cap, but the effect is less terror of the suburbs than post-punk bus conductor come to clip your ticket and take any more fares.
Let’s face it: The Prodigy are ridiculous. But that’s a compliment. A big part of what’s turned this band from acid-house malcontents to three-decade veterans of British popular music is their absolute refusal to play the game of cool. They’ve cultivated an image that’s defiantly disconnected from what everyone else is doing, saying and thinking. The risk is they can look out of touch, off the pace – middle-aged men with a dated vision of the future – but it’s a risk that’s proved well worth taking. That fox on the backdrop, on the cover of the new ‘The Day Is My Enemy’ album, and all over every bit of merchandise associated with it? That’s what The Prodigy have very carefully made themselves into: the world’s biggest underdog.
Those who like their music serious-minded and considered have always had a hard time with this band: they call Keith a “plastic punk” and moan that Liam Howlett’s pugnacious beats frame songs that rage inchoately against last year’s targets. Yet the whole point of The Prodigy is that there always has to be a prick out there to kick against: there’s nothing more punk rock than a band who actively goes out of its way to get people to hate them, and The Prodigy always work hard to make sure they piss the right people off.
Not that there’s anyone here tonight who’s anything other than a devoted true believer. The fascinating contradiction is that while The Prodigy’s music needs to remain rebellious and nonconformist, the live Prodigy experience retains every ounce of communal euphoria that fuelled the rave scene of the 1990s that they tumbled out of. Their combination of volume, aggression and a sound that’s built on high-velocity collision brings about a shared release.
Part of this relies on familiarity, but it’s delivered in a typically uncompromising, almost Puritanical way. It would be the easiest thing in the world for The Prodigy to dash through a greatest-hits set, yet half of tonight’s gig features songs from the new album – and they get the biggest cheers.
A cynic could suggest that the Middle Eastern-flavoured ‘Medicine’ goes down so well is because at its heart lies a canny overhaul of the 11-year-old ‘Spitfire’, from 2004’s ‘Always Outnumbered, Never Outgunned’. You can argue that by opening the set with the slashing swordplay of ‘Breathe’ and following it with recent single ‘Nasty’, Howlett is encouraging you to hear the similarities between the scratchy, springy, guitar-like sounds that underpin both. But the truth is that The Prodigy make music so individual that the only thing any new song of theirs reminds you of is a previous Prodigy record. The new material – the first made with the current live incarnation (which includes guitarist Rob Holliday and drummer Leo Crabtree) already in place – works so well that ‘Firestarter’ feels a little flat after a seismic ‘Wild Frontier’. ‘Rok-Weiler’s tempo-shiftingbark and bite and the foul-mouthed shoutalong ‘Wall Of Death’ crackle and spit like a post-apocalyptic bonfire.
But sometimes the past meets the present in an unexpected way. ‘Their Law’, written to protest an anti-rave bill passed by the last Conservative government, is a song whose time has come again. Rolled out to a breathless, pummelled crowd as the first of two encores, its renewed relevance and tensely coiled rage proves that these perennial underdogs may be older, but they still have the sharpest ofteeth.