22
Jan 14

PRODIGY – “Breathe”

Popular • 3,021 views

#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. 1
    To Mewing! (@tomewing) on 22 Jan 2014 #

    “Psychosomatic addict insane!” Prodigy get all daaark on Popular http://t.co/5xKaxuqBn2

  2. 2
    Kat but logged out innit on 22 Jan 2014 #

    WOPWOPWOP CHIIIING!

  3. 3
    lonepilgrim on 22 Jan 2014 #

    I remember the single, album and band being a big hit with the pupils I was teaching at this time – for them it must have sounded new and exciting but to me it seemed a reheated version of past rebellions, including their own previous number 1. Listening now I can appreciate the craft in the use of samples and dynamics but it’s a bit like appreciating the woodwork in a fairground haunted house.

  4. 4
    thefatgit on 22 Jan 2014 #

    As an unlikely comparison, the give & go, in & out, inhale & exhale trope is remarkably similar to the chorus of Kate Bush’s similarly titled “Breathing”. Obviously, you couldn’t find two different songs, but the difference is unimportant. The sense of paranoia is the same. With Kate, she’s sealed in her bubble, but still convinced the outside contamination is seeping in and slowly killing her. With Prodigy, the paranoia is their inability to escape their own filthy world they’ve created for themselves. All that’s left is to give in and revel in their grimy kingdom and succumb to the inevitable onset of disease and ruin.

    The apocalyptic “Breathing” was entirely apposite in the shadow of The Bomb. “Breathe”, however points to an unnamed fear. Something much more harder to put you finger on. If there’s no threat of a bomb to wipe us out, then what? Edwina’s eggs? John’s beefburgers? And if wasn’t the food scares, it was the more nebulous threat of climate change. Of course all this is skewed Daily Mail-style unfocused fear, but fear nonetheless. What can you do when fear is at its lowest ebb, but to invent some?

    This of course has nothing to do with Liam or Keith or Maxim. Their fear was probably little more than the effects of a moody pill or a weed whitey. But “Breathe” tapped into something. Compared to the other #1s of 1996, it seems out of place. The Tory government of the day was mired in sleaze and sat arrogantly complacent in power. When I think back to those final months before New Labour, I find myself recalling “Breathe” as the appropriate soundtrack to it all.

  5. 5
    Rory on 22 Jan 2014 #

    EX-HALE

  6. 6
    Chelovek na lune on 22 Jan 2014 #

    Too obviously”Firestarter Part 2″ for its own good: but still (from my rural exile), this very urban-sounding music (in the sense, solely, of referring to cities, and concrete-dominated parts of, above all) was extraordinarily intimidating and attention-seeking, demanding a warped parody of “respect” with menaces.

    The space in “Breathe” that (the vocal version of) “Firestarter” lacks, the slowing-down and restarting, makes, to these ears, both the lyrical and musical assaults here that much more effective than those of the earlier single. “Firestarter” at times seems to be a bit – for show. Here there is no show, no pretence of being “a troublemaker” (while maybe, in fact, being more mouth than trousers), only unrelieved brutality, menace, and squalour, too. The menacing sneers here are wonderful. And somehow more powerful, less adolescent than those in the earlier number. Great apocalyptic metal-dance. “You’re the victim”. And don’t you know it.

    9

  7. 7
    mapman132 on 22 Jan 2014 #

    Bit of a palate cleanser after R&J….

    A decent record, but doesn’t quite scream out “hit” to me the way “Firestarter” did. This feels more subdued, almost more of an album track. My gut feel initially was that this was one of those coattails #1′s that seemed increasingly prevalent in the UK starting around this time. A quick look at Wikipedia shows my gut feel to be quite wrong, as “Breathe” hit #1 in at least 5-6 other countries as well as the overall Eurochart. Most surprising to me was its #2 placement in Australia where “Firestarter” reached a measly #22…

    So, my above analysis is probably biased by “Breathe”s weak performance in America where it got overshadowed by “Firestarter” and “Smack My Bitch Up” (remember in the US, this only there was only about a six month span between these three releases in 1997). It got some radio and video play but not a lot.

    6/10 from me.

  8. 8
    Brendan F on 22 Jan 2014 #

    It didn’t excite me in the same way as Firestarter did. It all seemed quite familiar in a way, whereas Firestarter had come out of nowhere – even compared to Prodigy’s earlier songs.

  9. 9
    Fivelongdays on 22 Jan 2014 #

    The Prodigy had started the fire, so how could they keep it going? The answer is this – to make a record that sounds as menacing as Firestarter is thrilling and, to my mind, is even better. A record that repudiates the cliches of dance – the only way they’ll set you free is if they break into your prison – and gives everyone something to be scared of. This is the final part of the ‘Dance Music Doesn’t Have To Be Shit’ trilogy of 1996, and it’s the best part. Hard to choose a best bit, but Maxim – sidelined on the previous single – warning? invitation? threat? promise? of ‘Breathe with me’ starts the record off perfectly, and the track never stops delivering. By now, we were all playing their game.

    10,

    The footnote to this, though, is probably the real story. 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.

    And, for what it’s worth, after TFOTL came out, they released a single that was even better than this – Smack My Bitch Up is utterly glorious, bashing you round the head from the I-can’t-believe-it’s-not-PCP-by-the-Bunnied-Welsh-Band intro all the way through the opening call to arms, through the warbly-singing-doesn’t-have-to-be-shit bit, to the WONDERFUL moment when that ends and – SMACK MY BITCH UP! – the main track returns. A pure 10.

    (Yes, I know I’ve spent more time talking about SMBU than Breathe, but hey-ho).

  10. 10
    anto on 22 Jan 2014 #

    I always much preferred this to ‘Firestarter’ (and certainly think it was better than the follow-up with the ugly title). There’s something aberrant about a single like ‘Breathe’ going all the way to number one. I’m glad the review picked out the sound which has always put me in mind of a glass whiplash pranging an anvil (it has to be a glass whiplash, mind). Also I kind of like the way Maxim and Keith Flint play up their roles. The whole thing correalated with one of the better music videos of the time.
    It’s jumping ahead a little but 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 and if anything there was a brief period when out-there sounds were very much favoured. I’ll point to ‘Breathe’ as one such example, and what the heck – I think of this as Liam Howlett’s finest moment.

  11. 11
    Tom on 22 Jan 2014 #

    My macro take on the Prodigy (did I go into this on the FS thread?), which probably colours my mark and my impression of Breathe, is that they had been getting worse with every album, and Fat Of The Land is no exception. The Prodigy Experience was glorious – one of the best, possibly THE best rave album – delirious and rammed with ideas, hooks, teenage chutzpah and a sense of auteurism in a genre which hadn’t had much of one (and didn’t need it, except probably did for LP length exercises): it’s the A Hard Day’s Night of rave, in other words. Jilted Generation was harder-edged with a couple of brilliant singles but their blokey posturing was starting to creep in and the much-vaunted drugs trilogy was a bit of a chore. “Firestarter” was a sudden and unexpected return to form, still aggressive but with a clean, sexy pop edge. But “Breathe” actually set the tone for the album. There are a couple of wonderful tracks on FOTL – I forget the name of the really building, brooding one that’s my favourite – but I barely played it compared to the others. The last straw wasn’t “Smack My Bitch Up” – a well-put-together track spoiled by a schoolboyish sample choice (though its use in Charlie’s Angels (of which more much later on Popular) is terrific) but its tedious ‘PC-baiting’ video and its shitty twist. Yeah, OK, I thought, this is the game they’ve promised, and I’m out. Nothing they’ve done since has proved me wrong.

  12. 12
    enitharmon on 22 Jan 2014 #

    Not got anything to say about this, just checking to see if my picture is working.

    Ah, so it is!

  13. 13
    Tom on 22 Jan 2014 #

    Hi Rosie!!

    (I need to get a Gravatar sorted out, it’s what all the cool commenters are doing.)

  14. 14
    Brendan F on 23 Jan 2014 #

    I only got round to buying Jilted Generation. I tend to prefer their earlier songs so that album seemed quite subdued by the standards of Out of Space or Charly. Not sure why I never got round to buying FOTL. I guess The Chemicals were able to satisfy my dance itch along with my favourite dance album Leftism.

  15. 15
    thefatgit on 23 Jan 2014 #

    #11 “the brooding one” I think is called “Mindfield”. I have some lasting love for the track Crispian Mills guested on.

  16. 16
    Kinitawowi on 23 Jan 2014 #

    So Firestarter and Breathe were the big angry singles, but being totally divorced from most of clubland my knowledge of the Prodigy came from one of those 100% Dance compilations my sister acquired from somewhere, and neither of those two could hold a candle to No Good or Out Of Space. Couple that with later exposure to the album tracks while at Uni and broadly speaking, I’m with Tom at #11; it’s Mindfields and Climbatize that stick with me, not Firestarter and Breathe.

    4. I could stretch to a 6 for Firestarter.

  17. 17
    Alfred on 23 Jan 2014 #

    For we Tricky fans stateside who loved “Pre-Millenium Tension” and the Nearly God project but heard how wave upon meticulous wave he’d boxed himself in musically, “Breathe” was a thrill — a breath, if you will.

  18. 18
    Billy Hicks on 23 Jan 2014 #

    Nope, same thoughts as with Firestarter for me – a cartoon cut-out version of a band who for the first few years of their existence absolutely ruled and then lost their way with FotL. Experience is early 90s rave heaven, Jilted Generation is a mid-90s masterpiece, Fat of the Land is for Radio 1 listeners and angsty teenagers thinking they’re cool. 5 or 6.

    Saying that, Always Outnumbered Never Outgunned is a mess and Invaders Must Die is definitely their best since Jilted but still basically a Pendulum tribute album – a group who followed a similar path with ‘Hold Your Colour’ perhaps the best dance album of the noughties, then steadily getting worse, blander and poppier with every follow-up. We won’t see them here as they only peaked at #4 with one of their worst singles.

    It seems however, and to my delight, that ‘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. The band also use it as their set closer when 15 years ago it would have surely been this or Firestarter.

  19. 19
    Billy Hicks on 23 Jan 2014 #

    …saying all that, Smack My Bitch Up is as good as anything they did for their first two albums I think. That and ‘Omen’ are their two best post-1995 singles.

  20. 20
    swanstep on 23 Jan 2014 #

    A negligible single from a US perspective, possibly because in 1996, (horrible, past-their-sell-by-date, pseudo-grunge band) Bush’s single ‘Machinehead’ with its galling exhortation to ‘Breathe In Breathe Out…’ was still all over modern-rock radio and MTV. An immediate channel-changer for me, I feel like (at least in the US) ‘Machinehead’ probably killed off breathing-imagery in pop for at least half a decade (hell, Q-Tip’s monster ‘Breathe and Stop’ couldn’t do better than #70 in the charts in 2000 – Bush’s fault, I’m sure of it :)).

    Anyhow, I find ‘Breathe’ a little less impressive, a little less exciting, than ‘Firestarter’ – it starts and then it stops without ever really building or going anywhere or even leaving much of an impression (although “Don’t – play – my – GYEEAAME!” makes me want to put on Aphex’s ‘Come To Daddy’: “Iyeeeeee – want – your – SOOUULLL!”). Still, it’s fun to see this (even not completely successful) aggressive stuff at the top of the charts – the “‘Dance Music Doesn’t Have To Be Shit’ trilogy” as Fivelongdays@#9 puts it:
    6

  21. 21
    hectorthebat on 23 Jan 2014 #

    Sample watch: The “play my game” hook is from ‘I’m a Man’ by The Spencer Davis Group. The sword effect is from ‘Da Mystery of Chessboxin’ by Wu-Tang Clan. The drums are from ‘Johnny the Fox Meets Jimmy the Weed’ by Thin Lizzy.

  22. 22
    Tom on 23 Jan 2014 #

    “Come To Daddy” – of course! Yes, CTD was definitely the snob’s horrorcore electronica track of choice in 1997 (though a lot of that is cos of its astounding video). “Girl/Boy Song” was this year though, and one of the best 1996 singles.

  23. 23
    Cumbrian on 23 Jan 2014 #

    Is there a single edit of this? When I listened to it, I only found versions (on Spotify) from the album at 5 or 6 minutes long* and I suspect this profoundly changed my view on this record – because by the end I was getting a little bit bored. All the best bits, the hooks and standout samples (the Wu Tang sword clashes in particular) are introduced early in the piece, so by the end I definitely got the sense that this had blown everything in the first 3 minutes or so. A bit shorter and I might have a different opinion – maybe I should search around on Youtube.

    * I am going to look bloody stupid if the album version is the single version and it just felt to me like it was going on forever, without me actually checking the time stamp. Though maybe that does say something about how I feel about it.

    Since we’re done with The Prodigy (I think), there are some other things that have been pointed out by Billy and Tom that I’d agree with. Omen is excellent – feels like a great clash between Experience era and FOTL era Prodigy and hopefully shows that Liam Howlett has still got it in him to produce another great record. Other than that, I’d also agree with Tom that their output got worse, at first slowly but then at gathering pace, from the first album onwards. “Always Outnumbered, Never Outgunned” in particular seems both like a greater waste of a fantastic sloganeering title than “Chinese Democracy” (seems a perfect fit for The Prodigy’s image – I can imagine The Clash producing a record similarly titled to fit in with their mythos – but married to The Prodigy’s record, the title feels like the most important thing about it) and a bigger let down from a massive 90s album than…well, we’ll get to that, d’you know what I mean?

  24. 24
    Tom on 23 Jan 2014 #

    Wikipedia says there’s a single edit, and I bought it and from memory agree, but the LP version is the one that made it onto their singles collection. Shorter is almost always better, obviously – we’re entering a phase of pointlessly extended #1s, actually, it becomes a real problem in 1997.

  25. 25
    Cumbrian on 23 Jan 2014 #

    Cheers. It must be that the single edit is on the video, you’d think. Maybe I should be going to Youtube more than Spotify to listen to some of the upcoming #1s.

    It’s not just singles either. We’re definitely also in the era of albums being as long as there is space on a CD. This is also mostly for the worse, in my opinion. Off the top of my head, only Spiritualized’s Ladies and Gentlemen… justified going on for 70 minutes.

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