While we were all busy celebrating America’s independence by scarfing burgers and slurping brewskies, the British were firing back — not with gunfire but with the latest volleys from the British Invasion of the last year or two. American rock feels restricted to a tattered post-grunge shirt, but a new generation of Brits continue to use rhythms, noises, loops, and samples to expand the definition of the increasingly amorphous term rock & roll. Three new albums from the U.K. prove America may have won a few battles, but in 1997 we’re losing the musical war.
Start with the electronic-music landscape — in particular, Prodigy’s The Fat of the Land, the album on which the commercial fortunes of electronica supposedly hinge. Prodigy once confined themselves to robotic squiggles, but last year’s genre-busting single ”Firestarter” proved what could be accomplished by merging techno with punk and hard rock. Shrewdly taking his cue from that song, Prodigy leader and beat master Liam Howlett has made The Fat of the Land harder, more subterranean, more diverse, and more vocal-oriented than previous Prodigy records. Metallic guitars underline ”Serial Thrilla”; the creepy, blippy instrumentals should be perfect for the inevitable John Carpenter’s Escape From London. ”Fuel My Fire” fuels its tribal beats with industrial-music thunder, a drum thwack straight out of Led Zeppelin’s ”Rock and Roll,” and the hectoring of lead singer/clown Keith Flint.
Howlett was also smart to realize that as conspicuous as Flint’s deranged sneer is, it’s not a voice you’d want to endure for an entire album. So other tracks feature sampled hip-hop shout-outs and Hindu chants, as well as live voices supplied by rapper Keith Thornton (of Dr. Octagon) and Kula Shaker’s Crispian Mills (”Narayan,” a trippy stew that too closely recalls the Chemical Brothers’ ”Setting Sun”). Flint is still the most distinctive of the bunch, and the cavalcade of voices make the album feel like a compilation rather than a cohesive group project. But what unifies The Fat of the Land is the consistent way it subverts the form: This is dance music not about release but aggression, making it ideal party music for the end of the century.
Techno knob twiddlers aren’t the only enterprising musicians in the U.K. Even those rooted in rock traditions — pop hooks, guitars, neurotic lead singers — are moving toward a grandeur not heard since the days of art rock. Oasis’ upcoming album Be Here Now is said to include songs as long as ”Stairway to Heaven.” They’ve already been beaten to the punch by Radiohead, whose new single, ”Paranoid Android,” runs over six minutes long. With its celestial call-and-response vocal passages, dynamically varied sections, and Thom Yorke’s high-voiced bleat, this torturously long and winding ode wants to be nothing less than the ”Bohemian Rhapsody” of the ’90s. B