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The Prodigy
Adrenaline Stadium 
By Martin Richardson
The Prodigy gig represents an all-out assault on the senses. As the evening progressed, the casualties of combat could be seen, unclad, wide-eyed and plastered in sweat, steadily sneaking from the pumped-up seething mass of the dancefloor. They were looking for safer retreats, away from the fusillade of percussion which drove the evening relentlessly forwards with reckless abandon. The band was listed by Q Magazine as one of the top 50 live acts to see before you die, and a section of the audience seemed to be trying everything possible to bring about a causal link between the two events.

But the Prodigy experience has always been about sounding alarm bells – both literally in their klaxon-studded soundscapes, and figuratively in their two decades of establishment-baiting and cage-rattling. Forged in the crucible of Britain’s rave culture, they emerged from the suitably anonymous hinterland of ‘just beyond the edge of London’ (Braintree, in mid-Essex, neatly encapsulates the rave scene by being both too far from the capital to be part of the bright lights, yet too close to maintain its own identity). And, at just the time that Britain’s po-faced politicos were drafting legislation to curb the spread of ‘music characterized by repetitive beats’ (and the lively drug culture that followed it around the fields and warehouses of the South East), bringing the music that was alarming the old fogeys into the charts. Admittedly, the first big hit, “Charley Says”, was a deeply irritating burst of toytown techno, but Liam Howlett was already ahead of the game. Taking a u-turn out of toyland with all the breathless fury of a handbrake turn in a hot-wired Ford Mondeo, it was eyes down for a tour of big beat and beyond.

As is so often the way, controversy sold: every f-word, every video shunted into the late night graveyard for fears of ‘explicit content’, every carefully calibrated tabloid outrage. As Thatcher’s Britain died of quiet neglect, this, announced the Prodigy and their peers, was the real deal. An outraged hedonism, a yell of unfocused rage. A chemically-enhanced world where arson and domestic violence become in-yer-face rallying cries, and broadsheet arts critics debate irony in their ivory towers while tabloid scaremongers decry anarchy.

The surprise is not so much that it succeeded, but that it endured. Storming the indie-rock citadel of Glastonbury moved electronic music into the mainstream. The group’s fans proudly tracked their heroes’ ever-shifting stylistic tics as the broad church of techno developed new cults and sects, while the likes of The Prodigy, FatBoy Slim and others formed a high priesthood overseeing it all. And, faced with the challenge of making their music work in an environment where the game had slipped out from the underground and now had to function for an audience which wasn’t up for the anarchic edge of an old-skool rave, the best acts managed to transfer their show into ordinary arenas.

That’s the challenge that faces The Prodigy in Moscow: our venue, the cavernous Stadium Live, shares something in common with the early days of the ravers. No field – it’s an indoor arena – but the same sense of an empty space, ready to be put to any purpose. Even allowing for a bar and a carefully demarcated fan zone for the most enthusiastic (or wealthier) devotee, the overall vibe is not too far removed from the ‘open the doors and cram ‘em in’ ethos of those squatted gigs in run-down industrial suburbia, back in the day. To complete the authenticity, there’s even an alarming crush as everyone struggles to a badly-organized exit, ears still ringing and eyesight struggling after an extended blaze of strobes. The major change is the cover charge, not the ambience.

But the problems start with the show. There’s nothing wrong with a sound mix which is determined to push every dial up to 11, but there is a problem when the balance leaves the band’s carefully woven tapestry of sample and slogan lost beneath a devastating barrage of percussion, percussion and yet more percussion. Attending the show felt more like witnessing an artillery bombardment at times, and hoping that the fog of war might subside for long enough to allow the outlines of a recognizable track to take shape. It certainly challenged the claim that the Prodigy’s longevity is built around an ever-evolving sound – almost all that could be heard at times was the roar of drums and the yelling of slogans over the swirling din. The experience became a visceral one: basslines throbbing so deep that your trousers shook in sympathy regardless of whether you wanted to dance; shoutalong phrases tossed between crowd and stage, all “Smack my bitch up” and “Twisted firestarter”. Dancing? Yes, but not quite. Leaping in the air, pounding the sky with our fists, transforming the space into a vast pulsating mass of humanity. Individuality is sacrificed, this music is democratic in that it reduces everyone to the same basic state. Guitar solos definitely not welcome.

For some, this is a nightmare waiting to be unleashed. A 90-minute set offers no respite at all, no slower number, no chance to talk to the crowd (to harangue the crowd, yes – barely a track passes by without Howlett demanding to know ‘Where the f*ck are ya, Moscow?’ or give a shout out to his ‘party people’ in ‘the place to be’). It creates the impression of being on amphetamines, without any chemical stimulant stronger than a beer, but gives a stronger whiff of the draining downside of speed rather than the boundless energy promised by the drug on first acquaintance. Almost the sole moment of musical clarity in the entire show comes in the encores – “Out of Space”, a familiar golden oldie, set the crowd singing along to a spot of Max Romeo reggae and briefly steered away from the pounding power of the percussion.

But for most, even the hollow-eyed refugees from the dance-floor destruction site, the show was clearly a resounding success. Whether it was old-timers reliving their youth, or youngsters looking for a carefully regulated taste of the heady days of the rave-flavored Summer of Love, approval was almost universal from all sides. From fist-pumping schoolgirl, sitting on the bar shouting along, to her jovially-prancing father happily free of the need to bust his own moves, the erstwhile heirs of the Sex Pistols’ shock’n’roll mantle unwittingly became a happy family evening out. The Prodigy as babysitter? You saw it first in Moscow!

02.06.12
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