Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Boom and bust

The Crystal Method
Divided by Night
Score: 4

The Prodigy
Invaders Must Die
Score: 5

Back in 1997, the tide was high for big beat. The Prodigy, The Chemical Brothers, Fatboy Slim and The Crystal Method had infiltrated commercial rock radio, and contemporaries of lesser stripes, like Apollo Four Forty and Propellerheads, were gaining word of mouth. Electronica was going to be the next big thing. With Portishead, Massive Attack, Tricky and techno having crashed the gate for electronica a few years before, it was reasonable to see big beat's successes as a prelude to a mainstream takeover in America.

Instead, the next two years spurned the forecasters, as the rise of teen pop and nu metal eclipsed whatever gains big beat was making, and, in short time, each staked a stronger claim to the term "takeover."

Stubborn in their longevity, big beat's big four have persevered to this day, with The Crystal Method's Divided by Night the latest shot across the bow. In a sign of solidarity (or coincidence), the Los Angeles band have followed in the footsteps of their transatlantic Brothers, making an album that not only brings aboard plenty of guest vocalists, but that places its nocturnal declaration squarely in the title. But where the Chemical Bros' most recent album, We Are the Night, had litheness (and some lighthearted humor in "The Salmon Dance"), Divided by Night is a bulkier customer. The title track and "Dirty Thirty" start the album with an appealing robo-workout, synths sidewinding and squelching, respectively. "Drown in the Now," though, usurps their role, arguing with its lengthy build that it is in fact the rightful album opener. And the tracks that follow wouldn't seem to object, all hewing to a formula that de-emphasizes the DJ and gives the floor to the guest vocalist.

Of course, the drawback to this approach is that if the vocalist doesn't carry the track, the beats and synths aren't likely to, because they've been assigned a less active role.

Matisyahu can be an impressive performer, as 2005's Live at Stubb's showed, but surely "Drown in the Now" must've looked a mess even on paper: Middle Eastern chants; fast, reggae-inflected rap; Sting-like callouts; big beat's humping and thumping. Justin Warfield's collaboration, "Kling to the Wreckage," doesn't come out any better. The Crystal Method hook the She Wants Revenge singer up with an overly busy palette of whizzing synths that clashes with the morbid quiver inherent to his voice.

"Sine Language," a collaboration with fellow producer-DJs LMFAO, hits a sweet spot, maybe because The Crystal Method are more skilled at cutting loose than inspiring contemplation. LMFAO turn in a humorous performance outfitted with impressive lines ("I got five dollars, but I feel like a million") and terrible ones ("At the club, the line is long / about as long as my dingalidong").

The Prodigy, always the most forceful of big beat's big four, bring high-octane pummeling on Invaders Must Die, from the rally cries of "Colours" to the spasmodic warnings of "Piranha." Fat of the Land fans will recognize nods to "Smack My Bitch Up" in "Thunder" and "Invaders Must Die," and "World's on Fire" could be the aftermath of "Firestarter": Keith Flint keeps spitting, "The world's on fire / the world's on fire / and it's about to expire."

The album's prize cut, "Warrior's Dance," starts off with the whistles of an evil sax, as we, like snakes roused from woven baskets, surrender to the sound, transfixed. Summoned. Murky synths churn in the background, and a pitched-up house diva issues an invitation: "Come with me to the dance floor / you and me, 'cause that's what it's for / show me now what it is / we got to be doin' / and the music in the house / and the music in the house." WHOOM! The set crumbles away and we find ourselves in a superclub, shaking it like we've just been elasticized and snapped into motion.

"Warrior's Dance" gives Invaders Must Die a surge that carries into the next few tracks, making Flint's typical exhortations in "Run With the Wolves" and "World's on Fire" more meaningful than they deserve to be. For the most part, the album's heft is false, an illusion perpetrated by the production, which confuses simple loudness for power. Despite tracks coursing with aggression, Liam Howlett captures little feeling of risk or danger.

Invaders Must Die charges along, changing course only for the finale, "Stand Up." The celebratory, house-party vibe brings to mind a victory feast after the battle, the proud horn section blaring away in triumph. The Prodigy have survived to fight another day. Now, what about that American takeover?

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