One of few acts around long enough to stake a claim to "electronica" in all its different iterations, The Prodigy started with a string of early-'90s rave anthems full of whirring sirens and cartoonish catcalls. The giddy breakbeats in classics like "Charly" load the dance-music canon from the bottom, but they haven't defined The Prodigy since frontman Keith Flint first commandeered the spotlight. His creepy mug gave The Prodigy a face when electronica had none, and his ferocious vocals lit the fuse to smashes like "Firestarter" and "Smack My Bitch Up," a decidedly dicey track that won The Prodigy a lot of attention, for better and worse.
Seven years later, on a smaller stage, Prodigy mastermind Liam Howlett has ditched Flint and gone back to basics. Vocals come by way of a curious castJuliette Lewis, Liam Gallagher, Kool Keith, Princess Superstar, and Twista among thembut Always Outnumbered, Never Outgunned focuses most intently on gritty noise and big beats. "Spitfire" opens with a mess of crying signal sounds and a billowing bass drum, trading in the kind of danger and menace that The Prodigy pretty much owns. "Girls," the first single, skews as disco more than dirge, tossing electronic trills over electroclash vocals by Ping Pong Bitches. Like most of the album, both tracks prove strong and competent, but devoid of the kind of charge needed to make a new mark. Tracks with Twista and Lewis (who sounds tough and lascivious) march down raucous paths, but they're good, not great.
A few highlights enlist snaky samples to otherworldly effect: an Eastern European reed in "Action Radar," the hook from Shocking Blue's "Love Buzz" (the '60s song covered by Nirvana) in "Phoenix." Always Outnumbered, Never Outgunned offers few anthems, though, which makes it decidedly less than prodigious.