The Prodigy, The Academy, Birmingham

Power, pounding beats and brutal diversity bring the fans alive
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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 a 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.

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 a 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, laying shrouds over racks of equipment. The Prodigy was turned into a one-man band. Howlett persistently rejected tracks endlessly re-working them until he was satisfied. One thing he was sure of was the desperate need to kick out any compromise. When he is 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, as they had to, but are they content to have a lessened involvement with the recording process? They seem unfazed, but bounding around and strutting across the stage as though it were still 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 an woolly mammoth baselines. The Academy becomes an indoor stadium, as all of its surfaces quake with volume stress.

The old chestnuts are burned up surprisingly quickly. "Breathe'' suffers due to Keith's drowned vocals struggling to rise above the beats. The crowd sing every line in unison. "Firestarter'' is also despatched early on ... It's encouraging some of the new numbers are so strong, moving The Prodigy in different directions. The songs that feature vocal loops by actress Juliette Lewis are particularly effective, although "Spitfire'' and "Hot Ride'' do have to contend with Maxim's overdone MC-shouting.

At least two of the new tunes are revealing an interest in Arabic samples with either 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 to the 1980s, with its electro-Hi-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 drumbeat. This turns out to be the intro to "Smack My Bitch Up'', which provides the MCs with full pantomime opportunities. Their dance moves can give only the very slightest of gestures great weight. They might seem like basic movers but they have charm and wit. In 20 years time, The Prodigy could have a future in Blackpool variety entertainment.

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