By David Browne
September 17, 2004 at 04:00 AM EDT

The beat goes on, and on, in that vast, ever-morphing array of styles lumped together as electronica. But even the most devout have to admit techno’s been in a funk for years, as if bummed that it failed to conquer the world after its commercial breakthrough seven years ago. How, then, to resuscitate a genre that promised the future but seems programmed in the past?

For the Prodigy, the answer lies in pretending it still is 1997. After a lengthy layoff punctuated by one forgettable single, Liam Howlett has revived the band that gave electronica one of its few hits (”Firestarter”) and few stars (Mohawked gargoyle Keith Flint). Frontman Flint is gone, but Howlett’s infatuation with maximum-overdrive big beats and fire-alarm chaos endures on Always Outnumbered, Never Outgunned; his tracks are on perpetual orange-level alert. Opting for various singers, Howlett scores with Juliette Lewis and Kool Keith, who are appropriate sonic barkers. But after such an extended hiatus, one expects more from a Prodigy album than ”Firestarter” knockoffs like ”Get Up Get Off,” which encases Twista in techno-metal sludge. It wasn’t Howlett’s fault that Flint became the voice and face of the band, upending techno’s emphasis on music and crowd over celebrity. But you still miss the demonic elf.

Fellow Londoner Dizzee Rascal speed-raps like no one else, yet the fizzy, minimalist beats and whirs that surround England’s most prominent hip-hop artist are largely electronica, reflecting the broad impact of that community on the entire U.K. music scene. His second album, Showtime, starts strong; ”Stand Up Tall” is the hardest, clubbiest track he’s ever done, and ”Graftin”’ is an eerie, postapocalyptic soundscape. Then the tracks bog down in jungle-style spaciness, much as they did on his debut, Boy in Da Corner. Rascal is an arresting rhymer (even when you can’t understand a garbled word he’s saying), and these barren videogame shoot-out beats and textures don’t do him justice.

As with their counterparts in garage rock redux, Omaha’s the Faint look to the past for inspiration — the monotonal voices, pogoing synths, and synthetic handclaps of two decades ago. But the Faint have grown beyond being the mere genre revivalists they were on 2001’s Danse Macabre. On their fourth album, Wet From Birth, they’re writing zippy songs about crushes (”Desperate Guys”) and the joyful anticipation of reuniting with a girlfriend (”Southern Belles in London Sing”), sprinkling them with zesty strings and punked-out guitars. Singer Todd Baechle and his bandmates may be young old farts, but they don’t reduce their period obsessiveness to smirky I Love the ’80s irony — not yet, anyway. Always Outnumbered, Never Outgunned: B- Showtime: C+ Wet From Birth: B+