The Prodigy, Academy, Birmingham

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The Independent Culture

When this year's Always Outnumbered, Never Outgunned finally emerged, The Prodigy's followers had been parched of product for far too long. Liam Howlett was struggling with writer's block in quietest Essex. The frightening sidekick characters of Keith Flint and Maxim had been locked out of his bedroom, where much of the album was being shaped under the sheets, shuffled around on Howlett's laptop.

Liam had shuttered up his conventional studio, ditching the burden of too many blinking lights. The Prodigy was turned into a literal one-man band. Howlett persistently rejected tracks; endlessly re-working them. One thing he was sure of was a desperate need to kick out any compromise.

When he's writing, he always has flashes of the Sex Pistols and Public Enemy, his two great musical pillars. The resulting album is hard, but this gig is harder. Keith and Maxim have returned, but are they content to have a lessened involvement with the recording process? They seem unfazed, bounding around the stage as though it were 1997. Maxim has a white-painted band across his face; cocking his head like a wary vulture. Keith appears shell-shocked; his vocal contributions minimal compared to Maxim's. Howlett stands on a big podium, as reserved as ever, attending to his bank of laptops and keyboards. The sonic details of his album are initially obscured by beat thunder and woolly mammoth basslines. The Academy becomes an indoor stadium, as its surfaces quake under volume stress. The old chestnuts are burned up surprisingly quickly.

"Breathe" suffers due to Keith's drowned vocals, struggling to rise above the beats; "Firestarter" is also despatched early on. It's encouraging that some of the new numbers are so strong; moving The Prodigy in different directions. The songs that feature vocal loops contributed by actress Juliette Lewis are particularly effective, although "Spitfire" and "Hotride" do have to contend with Maxim's increasingly overdone MC-shouting. At least two of the new tunes are revealing an interest in Arabic samples, with heavily distorted flute or wailing vocal escalations. "The Way it Is" provides Keith's finest moment, built around a "Thriller" sample and degenerating into brutal repetition.

"Girls" fires off back into the Eighties, with its electro hip-hop loops and bleeping analogue patterns. Just before the encore, there's a flagging patch where Maxim tries out some limp audience-baiting, rapping against a stripped-down drumbeat. This turns out to be the intro to "Smack My Bitch Up", which allows the MCs full pantomime opportunities. Their dance moves can give only the slightest gestures great weight. They might seem like basic movers, but these pair do have charm and wit. In 20 years' time, The Prodigy could have a future in Blackpool seafront variety.