22
Jan 14

PRODIGY – “Breathe”

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#751, 23rd November 1996

Breathe_Prodigy The Prodigy’s success was built on two things: Liam Howlett’s remarkable feel for how to carve a collection of exciting sounds into a track, and the group’s increasing attraction to aggro of a particularly surly, lairy, kind. As long as the two develop in step, the results can be brutally thrilling. Once he loses his touch craft-wise – for me, either during or after this album – the lad’s mag roughness gets very tiresome very fast.

On “Breathe”, the tension between the two sides of the band is at its most productive. “Firestarter” was sharp and well-cut, but there was a brightness to it as well:Keith Flint’s gleeful Lydonisms were a counterpoint to the tune’s gleaming edges. On “Breathe” he should be in his element – this sounds how the “Firestarter” video looked, subterranean, murky and hostile.

Each of the sounds on “Breathe” is beautifully shaped and designed to scare you. The tense robot twang of the opening riff; the shrapnel bursts of drums; the rapid, rolling darkness of the bass, it’s all aiming to leave you keyed up and ready for violence. Two noises in particular build that tension, but also call back to tracks from a few years earlier. The siren crescendo that slides along the edge of “Breathe” sometimes sounds like a straight lift from Sabres Of Paradise’s hypnotic “The Theme”, from ram-raider movie Shopping. And the best sound of “Breathe” – the slicing percussion riff that sounds like the whip of a thin steel blade – reminds me of J.Saul Kane’s Depth Charge project, full of kung-fu samples and dusty threat. “Breathe” is taking its cues from the recent past, and from records which were avowedly cinematic – if it’s not quite that mid-90s conceit, music for an imaginary film, it’s certainly placing its menace and violence as film violence. This is dance music as grindhouse soundtrack.

So the question then is: does this finely crafted, tremendously atmospheric track need two guys yelling goofy shit over the top of it? Unlike with “Firestarter”, I didn’t spend months of my life playing videogames to the instrumental mix, so I can’t imagine “Breathe” without Keith and Maxim Reality. And the excitement definitely stays up when they’re doing stuff, but the atmosphere leeches away a bit for me. This isn’t at all Maxim Reality’s fault – his desperate “Inhale – inhale – you’re the victim!” and sinister “Breathe with me!” double down on the tension the track has already earned. Keith is more of a goon. He gets the memorable hook – “Come – play – my – GYEEAAME!” – but he’s scribbling over too much of the track. “Psychosomatic addict insane!” is a lovely consonant-pile up, but we’re getting Keith in berserker mode when the music promised the precision deadliness of kung fu. Of such reversals of expectation is pop greatness made, but it’s why I find “Breathe” – for all its gorgeous threat – a lot more exhausting than “Firestarter”.

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Comments

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  1. 26
    Steve Mannion on 23 Jan 2014 #

    Isn’t Keith yelling “Come play my game” rather than “Don’t…”? Somehow he also makes ‘play’ sound like ‘buy’. An actual Prodigy video game seems like something that should’ve happened (polygonal Keith breaking into Wipeout-vehicles GTA-style and using them to mow down The Man and his reptiloid army in time to Liam’s bonus beats).

  2. 27
    Tom on 23 Jan 2014 #

    It feels like about 50% of videogames since this are Prodigy videogames.

  3. 28
    tm on 23 Jan 2014 #

    It’s not ‘Don’t Play My Game’ it’s ‘Come Play My Game’ which is far more menacing I reckon. Got loads to say about this track, The Prodigy and what was going on with me at the time which I’ll try to post after a day of decorating!

  4. 29
    Tom on 23 Jan 2014 #

    Sorry, yes, I’m the worst at quoting lyrics properly – corrected in the post now.

  5. 30
    To Mewing! (@tomewing) on 23 Jan 2014 #

    Oh yeah, morning repost for the Popular entry on “Breathe” with Scary Keith and Scary Maxim doing their scary thing. http://t.co/5xKaxuqBn2

  6. 31
    Alex on 23 Jan 2014 #

    When The Fat Of The Land came out, it seemed to be the one record that people at school loved. Whether you were a rocker, a dance fan, an indie kid or a popster, you had that album. And why wouldn’t you? It’s a classic.

    Evidence of this: somebody actually stole my copy.

    I’m not entirely convinced British music was lapsing into conservatism in 1996-97 as much as is now claimed. I remember it quite differently

    Yes, this idea is basically 20/20 hindsight. That, and the way the people who claimed to hate Britpop the most didn’t seem to listen to anything else, the better to stoke up their hatred.

    ‘Out of Space’ (a massive 10 for me had it reached #1!) seems to be the most-known Prodigy track to the current generation – it’s the one I’ve heard the most in clubs over the last few years

    I’ve mentioned this before, but Jamie xx played “No Good/Start The Dance” at the XOYO 1st birthday a few years back. we did.

    It’s also true that both Fat of the Land and Jilted were games music…great for a turning dogfight with the mutants.

  7. 32
    Doctor Casino on 23 Jan 2014 #

    “Bake sale! Bake saaaaaaale!”

    The US didn’t have, to my memory, the big gap between “Firestarter” and “Breathe” – they got their big push with the album and I remember both getting moderate airplay more or less around the same moment. Of the two I think “Breathe” is richer if less fun or more boring. To my ears the vocals, especially Maxim’s, are essential for it not just becoming a repetitive slog, but I feel this way about lots of electronic music and I recognize it as a rock/popist position. I was getting into Wu-Tang around this time too and I imagine that the craft of creepy soundscapes was a huge part of the appeal of this for me.

    Interestingly, it’s the percussion that most exhausts me on it now. The moment where it cuts back to this much more elementary mix with the strummy guitar and the little arpeggiating electronic prangle bonging around – now that’s nifty, and takes me back to the moment much more clearly than the rest.

  8. 33
    23 Daves on 23 Jan 2014 #

    #21 …and astonishingly, it took me years to realise that despite owning both records. I just utterly failed to make the connection, whereas normally I’m anal enough to spot insignificant little samples all over the place.

    I would suggest that “I’m A Man” has actually aged a lot more gracefully than “Breathe”, certainly if the response I’ve seen present-day audiences give to DJs playing the tracks is anything to go by. “Breathe” really does seem to have been sidelined in most people’s minds as the less interesting brother to “Firestarter”, whereas “I’m A Man” still stokes an enormous dancefloor response (and not without reason- it’s wonderful).

    But while we’re on the topic of the status of “Breathe” within the Prodigy’s back-catalogue, I’m sure I remember it selling half a million copies in the UK and sticking around in the charts for some considerable time. It certainly wasn’t completely a fanbase propelled hit like the Chemical Brothers effort from a couple of months before – I just think that it’s become a bit sidelined in the years since. 7 out of 10 does feel about right. It’s good, but it’s certainly not scaling the heights they’re capable of.

  9. 34
    wichitalineman on 23 Jan 2014 #

    “I’m not entirely convinced British music was lapsing into conservatism in 1996-97 as much as is now claimed. I remember it quite differently…”

    It isn’t an entirely revisionist stance. Breathe couldn’t be called conservative (except in relation to its predecessor), but there were A LOT of Top 10 regulars who won’t be bothering Popular from 1996-98 that fit the bill. Bands that had once seemed like fun heading for trad rock tedium (Supergrass, Charlatans), and third-wave Britpop coat-tail acts like Space and Catatonia… Cast had ten Top 20 hits in this period, lest we forget. There were good records around, and a surprisingly high number have made it as Popular entries already, but so much else was thoroughly deflating.

  10. 35
    Tom on 23 Jan 2014 #

    A play through the NOW albums of 96 is an educational (and often dispiriting) experience. Despite us covering many terrible records the charts were actually functioning pretty efficiently in terms of ‘get the most interesting stuff to #1′: lots of sludge swilling around below.

  11. 36
    Steve Mannion on 23 Jan 2014 #

    My recollection is more…charitable due to the general impact on the charts by music that I’d been hearing ‘out’ at discos and club nights both just before and during University (plus all the trip-hoppy stuff). But then a lot of people tend to be more charitable to dance pap than the pap of other genres esp. anything under the Britpop albatross.

  12. 37
    AMZ1981 on 23 Jan 2014 #

    The week Breathe topped the charts saw new entries at one and two; still a relative rarity at the time. The record that lost out was What’s Love Got To Do With It by Warren G and Adina Howard and it would have been interesting to see Tom’s rating (for me it’s typical of the lazy hip hop that would dominate the charts over the next few years). Also Breathe prevented the Fugees making it a hat trick and one place behind was Mark Owen making a disastrous tilt at a solo career – disastrous because his solo work has picked up a cult following over the years but even his fans don’t rate his first single and he didn’t quite have the commercial clout to compete in the Christmas market.

  13. 38
    Steve Mannion on 23 Jan 2014 #

    swanstep@20 How did Kylie’s ‘Breathe’ do in Oz 18 months on from this? It was probably her lowest point here sales-wise.

    Also ‘Breathe’-ing heavily around this time – Blameless (#27 in March ’96) and Def Leppard with ‘Breathe A Sigh’ (#43, Nov ’96). Can’t recall either though.

  14. 39
    iconoclast on 23 Jan 2014 #

    Another collection of noises cleverly deployed to hide the absence of an actual song. This is just about OK in the instrumental bits, but when the singing starts it’s actively unpleasant. While that may have been the point, it’s not at all frightening, either, just tiresome and predictable. Less fun than R****n and J****e. TWO.

  15. 40
    Billy Hicks on 23 Jan 2014 #

    Regarding the single edit, there is indeed one running at a much more precise four minutes – it was on the CD single and my iTunes edit of choice.

    No mention yet for what I think might well be the band’s nadir, the almost completely forgotten ‘Baby’s Got A Temper’ from 2002 which was a one-off between albums and now seemingly disowned by the group, not appearing on their greatest hits and Liam Howlett did a whole interview saying how unhappy he was with it. It’s really pretty dire and comes across as a desperate attempt to do another Firestarter/Breathe (even sampling the Firestarter riff at one point) but coming across as ridiculously forced and irritating.

  16. 41
    Tom on 23 Jan 2014 #

    Thats the Rohypnol one, right? That is indeed every possible way in which the Prodigy could be shit compressed into one record.

  17. 42
    hardtogethits on 23 Jan 2014 #

    #24. How does an act end up putting non-singles versions of tracks onto a Singles album? I don’t know how often it happens, but I know a couple of examples and the idea that it happens at all is irksome. Has anyone round these parts been in a band that’s released a singles album? How much input can the artist have / is the artist expected to have, etc?

  18. 43
    Lazarus on 23 Jan 2014 #

    #40 The four minute single edit is easily found if you look on Youtube, which is where I had to go to remind myself of it, having probably not heard it in the interim. This is OK – I think I prefer it to Firestarter and I especially like the drumming – but it was also clearly aimed at people much younger than myself. 6.

  19. 44
    swanstep on 24 Jan 2014 #

    @SteveMannion, 38. Kylie’s Breathe didn’t chart in NZ but did get to #23 in Aust.. Of course, I don’t know what sort of airplay Bush’s ‘Machinehead’ received down under in ’96. Probably relatively little compared to the US where I was (although, checking now, Bush had albums high in the charts for most of the year in NZ….hmmm). Anyhow, rarely has a band been so aversive to me – all their radio hits obsessively focused on just a few bellowed words, often the title, ‘Swallowed’, ‘Glycerine’… You wanted these items struck from the pop lexicon rather than hear these songs again. Happily, such drastic action wasn’t required after the pop gods realized that if they only gave him Gwen Stefani, Gavin Rossdale would go away forever. Sorted.

  20. 45
    Doctor Casino on 24 Jan 2014 #

    Ughhh – “Baby’s Got A Temper” was getting some kind of promotional push during a six-week stay in the UK in the summer of 2002. Saw much more than I would have liked of that video. At the time it seemed just impossibly distant from their glory days – hard to grok that 1996 to 2002 is rather less time than between 2002 and now.

  21. 46
    Cumbrian on 24 Jan 2014 #

    #40: Yeah, I caught up with the single edit last night on Youtube, after failing to find it on Spotify previously. I think I slightly ruined Breathe for myself by over-exposure to the longer cut though. I still found it a bit wearisome by the end. It’s very dense and quite a tiring listen, regardless of whether you get bored of the structure of it, I think.

    Youtube might have to be the go-to avenue for some of the stuff that’s coming up. Thinking about what Tom said about long versions of singles upthread, you’d think that the videos would be more likely cut to the single edits, so they’re likely to be the thing that people heard on the radio when the songs were climbing/descending the charts.

  22. 47
    Rory on 24 Jan 2014 #

    The opening of “Breathe” is masterful. Within a few seconds we’re in a science-fictional scene of menacing cyborgs: music for Daleks, music for the Terminator, music for Darth Vader as daunting as the Imperial March from The Empire Strikes Back. A few seconds later, the drums kick in, and The Prodigy invent The Propellerheads, whose expansion on this sound would be used to great effect in the soundtrack of The Matrix. And then comes the slash of the whip, rounding us up like cattle; and underneath it all, that fibrillating bassline, maintaining the tension throughout the track. I can’t fault the soundscape of “Breathe”; it’s one of the most effective musical collages in pop.

    The lyrics maintain that sense of menace, even if I didn’t always understand all of them (it’s only this thread that has let me hear it as “come play my game”, rather than “don’t die boy die”, and “addict insane” never quite registered). I should really say, then, that the delivery of the lyrics is what contributed to the mood of the track for me, although “inhale, exhale” is a fantastic hook. Music for Daleks, indeed.

    Noting the track’s sense of menace is different from saying it was frightening, because it wasn’t; by the mid-90s we knew full well that most pop/rock menace was an act. We’d lived through Alice Cooper, heavy metal, punk and the rest, and even if not all of us loved it all, we were all by now familiar with the tricks. The truly frightening figures of pop, as recent revelations have shown, hid their menace rather than flaunted it. But just as there’s always been an audience for horror movies, none of whom believe that Bruce Campbell’s hand was actually possessed in Evil Dead II, there’s going to be an audience for musical menace.

    As an Australian I always thought of this as the more popular track of The Fat of the Land, the almost-number-one that “Firestarter” wasn’t. But as with the Chemical Brothers, I was late to this party. “Breathe” was everywhere in Australia in 1997, spending 34 weeks in the charts from December ’96, but I didn’t pick up the Prodigy’s albums until early ’99. I remember the Fat of the Land posters competing for my attention and cash in ’97 with a certain Oasis album, and betting wrong (although at least I had Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space to console me); and in 1998 I was too busy travelling and finding work to listen to much new music.

    Never mind: once I did pick up The Fat of the Land I recognised it immediately as one of the key albums of the decade, a relentless rush of thrilling sounds let down only by its closing track, “Fuel My Fire”. If they’d found a better song to follow “Climbatize” (their equivalent of Pink Floyd’s “One of These Days”), or even closed with that instead, I’d consider it almost flawless. Even tracks like “Diesel Power” and “Funky Shit” work beautifully in the context of the album, though I doubt either would have done much as singles. And of course the album opens with a track even more thrilling than the two we’ve seen here. I’ve never seen its video (and by the sound of it don’t want to), but “Smack My Bitch Up” is aural crack, as compelling an opening as the pilot of Breaking Bad.

    So for me, The Fat of the Land is as far from a shark-jumping album as it gets. I don’t mind their earlier albums, although they each have stretches I find skippable. “Baby’s Got a Temper” was a massive disappointment, and Always Outnumbered, Never Outgunned and Invaders Must Die didn’t do much to recover the situation. With the 2002 single in particular, the Prodigy seemed to be flailing around for relevance, their sound and themes a terrible fit for the post-9/11 mood. But in the late 1990s, they made perfect sense, even to a 30-something power-pop/alt-rock listener as far from urban England as you could get.

    I’ve gone back and forth on what score to give this, struggling with the anchoring effect of Tom’s 7 and a reader average the same, knowing that I can’t honestly say that it’s “difficult to imagine anyone else not enjoying it”, and thinking that I surely shouldn’t repeat my score for their earlier single. But how can I do otherwise? 10.

  23. 48
    Rory on 24 Jan 2014 #

    Minor query re entry title: if this is “Prodigy – Breathe”, why is it “The Prodigy – Firestarter”, when both single covers (and TFOTL) feature the same “The”-free logo? There’s an argument for having the “The” on both, as the band used it on their 1991-95 releases and from 2005 onwards, but from 1996 to 2004 their single and album covers omitted it.

  24. 49
    Ed on 24 Jan 2014 #

    @48 I had thought the “The” was intended to avoid confusion with Prodigy from Mobb Deep – possibly after a word from his lawyers – but the dates are wrong.

    In fact, between 1996 and 2004 is when people would have been most likely to mix them up.

    Were they trying to show they were a “proper band”, like Buzzcocks and Talking Heads? When The Prodigy first appeared, people always used to think it was just Liam. Which, in fact, it probably was.

  25. 50
    Nanaya on 28 Jan 2014 #

    This was MASSIVE with most of the goths I hung with at the time, oddly more so than “Firestarter” (like almost everyone else, it seems, I preferred that). I suspect mainly cos you could play it between Marilyn Manson and Frontline Assembly & it worked just fine for a rivethead-lite dancefloor, though for my money something like “Poison” is far superior. I’m basically with Tom at #11, the decreasing Prodge returns are frustrating and by the time I got the actual Fat Of The Land album, the only thing I was really pleased about (tho I quite liked SMBU) was the presence of an L7 cover, though that was *also* from a disappointing album (prescient?); I listened to it sporadically at best.

    In fairness, contrary to many assumptions, I’ve never really done metal much; grunge & riot grrl were exceptions at least in part because the best offerings did tend to have poppier sensibilities. Pure racket for its own sake was rarely my thing, so that might be why The Prodigy Mk III left me a bit cold when everyone round me was enthusing, I suppose.

  26. 51
    Steve Mannion on 28 Jan 2014 #

    My favourites on The Fat Of The Land were and remain Diesel Power, Mindfields and Climbatise. Mindfields had been slated for a single release of its own to tie in with the release of the album but this was canned for some reason meaning an unusual 12 month gap between the release of two tracks from the same album.

    The three years between the second and third albums seemed like an aeon (the seven between the 3rd and 4th albums mattered less in this context) and I couldn’t stand the delay despite fearing that I’d be a bit disappointed with the results. The oldest track on TFOTL was probably Funky Shit which had been performed live since at least early 1995 (and excitingly televised during Channel 4′s coverage of Glastonbury that year).

    The big surprise was the album going straight in at #1 on the Billboard chart – the long wait had led to a perfect crest-ride with the ‘Electronica’ trend in the US – effectively and curiously another British Invasion of their mainstream. I’m usually not a fan of what gets labelled as ‘EDM’ now (tho as a name it’s hardly worse than ‘IDM’) but I do like that it incorporates a wider pool of nationalities (although maybe not in a way that translates on record). The ironing was that the Prodigy and the Chemical Brothers did indeed tend to represent the rockier end of the scene’s spectrum and that was surely the biggest reason for their crossover success in the US.

    Electronica seemed almost entirely comprised of British acts plus Nevada’s Crystal Method and ignored the ADM (Actual Dance Music arf) of US house and techno (plus ça change) but its satellites included probably my favourite attempt at a subgenre name ever ILLBIENT (a largely West Coast scene led by labels such as Asphodel and Liquid Sky) and was swiftly followed by the smaller French invasion led by everyone’s favourite multi-Grammy-winning robots.

  27. 52
    Tom on 28 Jan 2014 #

    Illbient was DJ Spooky, right? (& doubtless some others). He talked a good – or at least interesting – game, but I found the records excruciating. Perhaps I was wrong.

  28. 53
    tm on 29 Jan 2014 #

    Rory @ 47, you forgot Aliens! If that whipcrack sound recalls any single scifi horror image, it’s the swish of the alien’s tail as it attacks. And the acoustic guitar (!) bit in the mid8 surely the perfect soundtrack to the calm before the storm bit in the reactor?

  29. 54
    Rory on 29 Jan 2014 #

    So I did! You’re right, it’s very Alien/s. And I love the acoustic guitar bit too.

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