China: 20 Years of The Fat Of The Land

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The Prodigy – The Fat Of The Land

Released June 30th, 1997 on XL Records

BestEverAlbums:  #397

The years following Kurt Cobain’s suicide marked a sea change in the makeup of popular music in England and North America.  Hip hop and electronic music ate up market share until a rough sort of equality emerged; “the kids” were just as likely to be into dirty south or drum n bass as they were rock ‘n’ roll, signalling that the Boomers were finally old and ready to be put out to pasture.  One of the key drivers of this changeover was the popularity of big beat between 1996 and 1998.  This movement – a product of the Chemical Brothers, the Prodigy, Fatboy Slim Crystal Vegas, and helped along by the equally-brash sounds of other electronic acts like Daft Punk and the Sneaker Pimps – brought the slamming sound of drum breakbeats into the bedrooms of suburban teens from coast to coast.

The Prodigy were a little different from the others in that they incorporated a definite punk rock influence into their music.  The most obvious of these influences was of course singer Keith Flint, who wore a pink mohawk and looked like he’d just crawled out of a bender in the basement of Malcolm McLaren’s haberdashery.  There was also an aggressiveness to the way Liam Howlett arranged and programmed the songs, a certain je ne sais quoi that put the group more in the realm of anarcho-electro-punks Atari Teenage Riot than other English big beat acts that were jamming up contemporary rave culture.  “Smack My Bitch Up”, with it’s controversial Kool Keith sample and it’s car-chase propulsion, was discussed endlessly as to whether it was misogynistic or simply a reflection of the culture.  “Breathe” and “Firestarter” took the clenched-fist industrial energy of Trent Reznor and made it okay for kids tripping on E and glowsticks.  “Funky Shit” and “Naryan”, meanwhile, were closer to what the Chemical Brothers had been doing on Dig Your Own Hole.  Regardless of which direction the album took, it had the energy and edge that kids went for in the late Nineties.

It was such a success that at one point, probably around 1998 or so, I overheard a big farm kid claim that AC/DC wasn’t a real rock band and that real rock bands sounded like The Prodigy.  He was objectively wrong (and dumb as a rock to boot) but there you have it:  proof that, for the thrill and excitement that “the youth” craved, big beat was doing what rock ‘n’ roll acts couldn’t.

 

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NZCA Lines – Infinite Summer

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NZCA Lines – Infinite Summer

Released January 22nd, 2016 on Memphis Industries

Some have opined recently – in forums, at any rate – that the concept album is dead.  This rather bizarre pronouncement is typically preceded by a question, something along the lines of “What was the last concept album you heard?” and expounded upon by a legion of adolescent rockists talking about The Wall, and why no one makes albums like The Wall anymore, and about how this is somehow indicative of the general death of music at the hands of those awful soulless pop stars.

The problem here is that every one of these people expects their concept albums to sound exactly like The Wall: dreary, overly grandiose, weighted down with its Very Important Conceptualizations and dripping with self-indulgent notions of Art, notions that are seemingly inextricably tied with bluesy guitar solos and radio singles.  Thus, when an album like The Monitor, or Hospice, or good kid m.A.A.d. city comes along, their status as being a “concept album” is dismissed in these circles as they’re “too noisy”, or “too indie”, or “hip hop”.  The kids wearing t-shirts of their parent’s generation will never accept them because they didn’t live through the 1970s or they’re not beaten to death by Rolling Stone.

Infinite Summer is another one of those albums.  Michael Lovett, along with Ash guitarist Charlotte Hatherley and Sarah Jones of Hot Chip, has put together a science fiction story that has a lot in common with the sort of mystical concepts prog bands used to drown their albums in during the latter half of the 1970s.  The sun has grown to the size of a red giant, and the destruction of the world is imminent.  Half of the world, a sweltering urban jungle, has decided to give up and embrace the destruction; the other half believes that there’s still something worth fighting for and wants to figure out how to rebuild civilization into something lasting.  In true Matrix-style fashion, both sides have time to throw a gigantic rave.

The dismissal invariably occurs here because of the fact that this is a concept album built around synths, processed guitars, smooth vocals, and the legacy of Daft Punk.  It’s a relentlessly moving Europop-style album, and its disco bona fides mean it’ll never be accepted by the rockists as being a “true” concept album.  Granted, the idea kind of falls apart when everyone starts dancing despite the impending doom of the human species, but at the same time it works, given that it seems like the sort of thing the human race would do in it’s hour of destruction.  The tracks also get a bit same-y for something so conceptual, but there’s always something you can hang your hat on for the next listen, so each spin of the record brings you deeper into its folds.  That there are a lot folds here is testament to the trio creating it; it’s at once sweaty, romantic, and stylishly aloof, and in the place where these three meet is a great big heart beating for all of us.

Not every concept album needs to sound like The Wall, and Infinite Summer is infinite proof as to why.

AFX – orphaned deejay selek 2006-2008

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AFX – orphaned deejay selek 2006-2008 (EP)

Honestly, the breakbeats on “oberheim blacet1b” were enough to convince me.  Computer Controlled Acoustic Instruments Pt 2 was a rather mediocre collection of the usual abrasive art-noise; orphaned deejay selek is more abrasive art-noise, but it’s abrasive art-noise that you can sort of dance to.  Richard D James has always been at his sharpest when he’s welded himself to a beat, although his bizarrely mutant ideas of what constitutes a “beat” tend to stretch definitions beyond all recognition.  AFX is, of course, the particular artist label that brought the bouncing acid-rave of the Analogue Bubblebath series as well as the searing style of drill n bass on Hangable Auto Bulb, so the fact that it approaches the neighbourhood of club-readiness is probably not all that surprising.

The man promised that he had over a decade of music simmering, waiting to be released, and the third installment in that promise is as good as anything he’s ever released under the AFX moniker.  It’s further proof that he never fell off, but just went away for a while; now he’s back, and the acid flows freer than ever.