Honestly, if you’d have tried to place money on The Prodigy having a number one album in 2009 four or five years ago, you’d have been laughed out of the bookies.
Yet top the chart they did with album five ‘Invaders Must Die’ last month, and tonight they perform to a hot, sweaty and well sold-out Wembley Arena; it’s their second night in a row at the north London mega-dome, a featureless hanger in the middle of a sea of concrete and steel, and they’ve another (also sold-out) gig in 24 hours’ time south of the river at their much-loved Brixton Academy. The band is riding a high that next to nobody could have seen coming until their latest songs began to click with old-school fans, triggering acute nostalgia while also sounding like no other band around, of the new-millennium era or the rave scene they helped open to the mainstream in the early 1990s.
2003’s album ‘Always Outnumbered, Never Outgunned’ – arriving some seven years after the zeitgeist-defining ‘The Fat Of The Land’, and the fourth Prodigy album ‘proper’ – was a number one album for a week, but had no radio hits. It also lacked two-thirds of the Basic Prodigy Model, namely Energizer Bunny From Hell dancer-cum-snarling-vocalist Keith Flint and bouncy muscular emcee Maxim Reality, instrumental lynchpin Liam Howlett turning to stateside performers and his wife’s brother-in-law Liam Gallagher for vocal spots. The results were sketchy at best, deplorable at worst; all signs suggested The Prodigy were over, a feeling strengthened by the release of a greatest hits compilation and an accompanying tour. The apparent message from the makers themselves: we’ve peaked, see ya.
They were wrong. ‘Invaders Must Die’ sold more copies in its first week of release than both ‘Always Outnumbered…’ and said singles collection, ‘Their Law’; clearly, there was still demand for original Prodigy beats, and for the reunited three performing with all cylinders firing. Tonight, a writhing sea of bodies, arms aloft and waving like tube worms on the bed of a violent sea, expresses its appreciation of a frankly staggering physical display from Flint and Maxim – the former only a few months off his fortieth birthday, the latter two years older – with such vigour that it’s impossible to not feel a tingle in the fingertips, a sizzle down the spine, as catalogue classics are delivered with an electricity that defies the band’s position as veterans of their chosen field. Many a pretender has tried, and failed, to claim their crown as champions of the live dance music world, and tonight makes it clear why.
Backed by a lighting rig of furiously flashing bulbs and tubes so expansive it must surely cost the GDP of Portugal to run for an hour and a half every night, the core trio – complemented by live guitarist and drummer – of The Prodigy race through a set packed with hits – sorry, Genuinely Massive Hits. ‘Breathe’ arrives early, ‘Firestarter’ not long after; ‘Voodoo People’ and ‘Poison’ sound enormous – with or without this massive PA, you feel they’d always be huge – and the band’s latest single ‘Omen’ is received like an old friend, already sounding like a classic in the band’s sizeable catalogue of guaranteed crowd pleasers. Maxim prowls the stage, dropping down to crowd level on occasions (albeit maintaining a safe distance from the grasping hands); his face splashed with white make up, deepening the darkness of his bottomless eyes, he dances on his tip-toes like a strangely camp undead boxer, always with an encouraging announcement for his faithful followers, his Prodigy Warriors, his Voodoo People, his Fucking London City Masses. He is impossible to tear your eyes from, possessing a stage presence a million times bigger than his already considerable frame.
Flint, in comparison, plays little part in proceedings – his spinning-top dance moves are wheeled out regularly, but actual interaction with his better-skilled vocal partner is brief, coming to a head on 1996 number one single ‘Breathe’. A camera close up on his wickedly smiling face seconds before ‘Firestarter’ erupts captures the man in his element, about to explode in a brilliant frenzy of colourful energy, but for the most part he plays the court joker to Maxim’s straight-faced master of ceremonies. Howlett is the silent partner, always focussed on his array of electronic switches and dials, buttons and screens. Precisely how much of this music he conducts live from the stage is unclear, but when the effect on an audience is as thrilling as this, who really cares.
Not once do The Prodigy relent, save for the brief pause between main set and encore; all the while front-row faces beam their admiration for a band that, nearly twenty years into a career that seemed restricted to underground channels ‘til an unlikely chart success with the cheery rave track ‘Charly’ back in 1991 (and even then longevity wasn’t exactly expected, let alone progression to the band of 1996 when world domination was less a pipe dream and more a fantastic reality), continues to stamp its mark onto their synapses. And memories of the band’s earliest releases remain fresh as Maxim introduces the opening track on their ‘Experience’ debut, ‘Jericho’, as the pre-encore set climax. It, like all that's preceded it, sounds immense, the sonic equivalent of lining up a stack of tanks to create a heavily armed Newtons Cradle inside your inner ear. Jogging on the spot, the dreadlocked ringmaster cracks the briefest of satisfied smirks while Flint mirrors his movements; face to face, a second’s reflection of former glories.
And a combined realisation that the past isn’t done with The Prodigy yet, that their massive fanbase refuses to forget them, still moved – physically and emotionally – by the group’s newest cuts. Somehow, the antics of Flint and Maxim turn a Big Gig into a rather more intimate than anticipated experience – perhaps it’s down to the familiarity of the material on show, and the memories the tracks stir in punters of a particular age, but it’s almost like we’re all on that stage with them, living the songs in the second they’re spat from larynx and laptop. There’s a closeness that only comes with the truest love for a band’s career, and from their overcoming of obstacles to succeed when many had written them off.
Coming to a festival main stage near you soon: the most insatiable, beyond-loudest, unstoppably kinetic brand of sonic chaos this country has produced in a generation. And it’s far from being jilted yet.