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”.