They’re back! Hang out the bunting! Ring the bells! Release your maternal grip on your by-now well-worn copy of Fat of the Land! And prepare to start the fires as the original electro-punk anarchists spit a vicious wad of venomous bile towards pretty much everything! After a number of years in gestation, Liam Howlett, knob-twiddler extraordinaire has finally given birth to Always Outnumbered, Never Outgunned, a mewling mutant baby of an album, that hopes to grow bigger and brighter than its older brother, the seminal Fat of the Land. After all, in the seven years between the two, all we’ve had for sustenance is the “Baby’s got a Temper” single back in 2002.
We need to get the bad news out of the way first though, folks. Always Outnumbered, Never Outgunned is pretty much a Howlett solo album; Keith Flint, Leeroy and Maxim don’t even make an appearance. The good news is that he’s brought along a host of famous mates including Liam Gallagher, Kool Keith and Princess Superstar. The problem is, none of them can match Flint in terms of the angriness required to match the aggressiveness of the music. Would you rather have “Firestarter” sung by a bat-munching, excessively pierced anarchist lunatic or Justin Timberlake?
Musically, Howlett has refined over the past seven years, like a punk cognac. Give The Neptunes a ten-year crack habit and a job slaughtering pigs and they still won’t sound half as sleazy and aggressive as this. Always Outnumbered… is an impossibly vicious album, at times sounding like it’s reaching out of the stereo, punching you in the face, demanding your milk money and calling your mum something rude, before kicking a nun. Opening track “Spitfire’” does just that, burning your scalp with walls of white noise punctuated by little staccato bleeps every now and then: vintage Prodigy, a bit like “Breathe” in its sinisterness but more like Nine Inch Nails in its constant aural assault. We LOVE it, and were there no such thing as pop idol and other reality TV rubbish, it would be the best-selling single ever.
Not much else like this on the rest of the album however, as the next song and first single “Girls” opens with beats that could soundtrack films of men in the 70’s dancing like robots, before launching into another electronic apocalypse. The result sounds like one of the songs off the old Sonic the Hedgehog video games as made over by Aphex Twin, whilst the guest singers Ping Pong Bitches rap casually over it. Next, Juliette Lewis of all people makes an appearance on the shuddering, jerky “Hot Ride” adding a husky moan to a song that swings manically between bubblegum pop and hard rock, one minute sounding like Britney Spears, the next sounding like Kim Deal. It’s a natural born killer of a song (sorry). The fact that Howlett has treated the vocal performances like samples, weaving them into the melodies like one would weave a very controversial rug creates a more whole song: the songs are less divided, and Howlett shapes the vocals to his music rather than the other way round.
Liam Gallagher’s much-mooted collaboration “Shootdown” turns out to be a bit of a disappointment. Frankly, Gallagher sounds bored with it all. As far as rock/dance collaborations go, give me “Let Forever Be” by the Chemical Brothers and Liam’s more talented brother any day. “Memphis Bells,” featuring Princess Superstar (of “Bad Babysitter” fame) is a bobby-dazzler though, with eye-bulging bass synthesizers and one of the catchiest melodies you’ll hear all year. Princess Superstar herself barely features on the track however. Maybe she had her boyfriend in the shower or something.
“The Way It Is” shows off Howlett’s phenomenal abilities as a producer perfectly. Mixing a Michael Jackson “Thriller” loop to typical Prodigy squealing synthesizers, and the result sounds like Daft Punk giving The Faint a cheap lap-dance, and it’s the most straightforward song in the album. It should feel out of place amongst all these angry songs, but instead it slinks into the line-up like a cat burglar.
Other songs such as “Action Radar” and “Get Up Get Off” are perfectly serviceable, but bring nothing to the overall picture the album paints. And it’s here the main problem with the album (apart from the absence of the normal members) lies. With Fat Of The Land, each and every track could have been a single, none of the songs felt like they were there just to pad out an album. On Always Outnumbered, Never Outgunned, the songs that are going to be singles couldn’t be more clearly marked out if you had Howlett shrieking “THIS IS GOING TO BE A SINGLE!!!” before each of these songs. The difference is startling. Howlett has, to his credit, tried to diversify the feeling that he puts into most of his songs, and you get flashes of hip-hop here, and pop there, as if he is aware that the same old electrical onslaught gets a bit samey.
Now, the question on everyone’s beautiful lips; “Is it as good as Fat of the Land?” As you’ve probably guessed from the review; no. It’s an excellent album in places, very occasionally surpassing Fat of the Land in terms of tunes and production sensibilities, for example “Spitfire.” Generally, the album lacks a soul, lacks the mojo that made Fat of the Land so great. Maybe it’s because the Prodigy have nothing to despise: seeing as being against the war in Iraq is soooooo 2003. Always Outnumbered, Never Outgunned has been barely worth the long wait, but newcomers should start with the older stuff.