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

  1. 1
    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.

  2. 2
    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.

  3. 3
    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?

  4. 4
    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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