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Massive Attack


[Virgin ; 1998]

By ; April 8, 2011 

Purchase at: Insound (Vinyl) | Amazon (MP3 & CD) | iTunes | MOG

Very few artists thoroughly change the way in which they make music, and of those that do, not many are successful. And yet Massive Attack, the band that put Bristol on the map as a musical tour-de-force, did something incredible with Mezzanine, their third studio album. They changed from being a chilled-out rap, or ‘trip-hop’, syndicate into a dark, electronic group. Their new music was vicious as hell and sounded like a band with more than one chip on their shoulders. Clearly, some bad shit was going down in Bristol during this time.

Let’s back-track. Blue Lines was a startlingly original album released in 1991. It sounded like nothing else at the time; channelling British social observations through a hip-hop style, with a whole bunch – The Wild Bunch, no less – of talented rappers, including Robert Del Naja, Grant Marshall and Andy Vowles, working together from the underground. This was the sophisticated side of hip-hop, and one track in particular, “Unfinished Sympathy,” went down as being a classic English tune. Following the sleek and sexy Blue Lines, Massive Attack went down a more chill-out root with Protection in 1994. The music was still gorgeously seductive, but more ambitious in scope. Some liked the greater levels of production over Blue Lines, whilst others preferred the début. What was clear, however, was that Massive Attack had made a sound all of their own.

Then all went quiet. People began to wonder what the next Massive Attack album would sound like. There were theories that there would never be another Massive Attack release, especially due to the growing disagreements between the key members over what direction the group should go in. Finally, the twisted beast known as Mezzanine hit the shelves in 1998, and everything changed. This did not sound like the same band at all. All those hip-hop and chill-out sounds were almost entirely absent, replaced by an utterly dark sound. Take a glance at the cover of the LP: a beetle of some kind scurrying about. That is exactly the feeling that Mezzanine gave off at the time; the feeling of humanity being tiny, meaningless insects in the grand scheme of things, confused and isolated. And to this day, Mezzanine still invokes the same sense of paranoia and of tension.

“Angel” is one of the main reasons for this. As an album opener, “Angel” did two things to signal in the arrival of Massive Attack’s masterpiece. Firstly, those dark beats and vicious guitars instantly informed the listener that the old Massive Attack sound was dead. Secondly, “Angel” showed the competently dark, twisted side of Massive Attack: arguably the sound that they had always been destined to fill. Horace Andy had always been present in Massive Attack’s studio releases, but rarely has his presence been so note-worthy. His melodic voice remains throughout the album’s entirety; the perfect cadence to complement the ghostly music.

“Teardrop,” though, is the one that everyone knows from Mezzanine, aided undoubtedly by its presence within the introduction of the popular show, House. Like “Unfinished Sympathy” before it, “Teardrop” has a simple melody behind it, and a wondrous female vocalist at the forefront. On Blue Lines it was Shara Nelson; now it was Elizabeth Frasier of Cocteau Twins’ turn. Although the Twins would never have released something quite like “Teardrop,” Frasier’s ethereal vocals are truly haunting and beautiful, and slot into the Massive Attack canon flawlessly. When those Gregorian-chants overlap with her own vocals near the song’s climax, hearts will skip a beat.

It’s testament to the multi-faceted abilities of Massive Attack that they could group together a wide array of vocalists and come out top every time: “Inertia Creeps” was the heavy, beat-laden monster that continued to swell in animosity and tension throughout, exchanging vocals between Del Naja and Marshall. “Dissolved Girl,” on the other hand, featured a lovely vocalist named Sarah Jay, who sang as if a vulnerable lover. The point is that all of the tracks worked beautifully, standing well by themselves as well as in the context of the album. Of course, the entire LP ran as one coherent whole, submerging the listener in dark, often ambient noises. Nevertheless, although the best experience was from the patient listener who would digest the entire journey from start to finish, rewards also awaited the casual listeners who would merely pick up on the singles.

But that would discredit such gems as “Black Milk,” a sample-led semi-instrumental, which played out like a sexual advance in music-form. The real gem of the album for me, however, was “Mezzanine,” the title track. Everything about this track, from the dark synthesisers, the whispered, breathy vocals, the heavy beats and the thick, oozing bass-line epitomised the album. Listening to the track makes the recipient feel dirty in all the best kind of ways; literally making the listener feel as if they are being swarmed by insects and shadows. If ever there was a song to be played whilst walking down a dark back-alley at 3am, one had to look no further than “Mezzanine.”

Massive Attack have since remained captivated by the spectral world that they created with Mezzanine. Many listeners quite rightly suggested that 2003’s 100th Window was a spiritual successor to Mezzanine, especially when listening to tracks such as “Butterfly Caught.” Similarly, Heligoland did little to reinvent the Massive Attack sound, suggesting that the group are quite content to remain where they are. And although this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it does sort of lead to inevitable disappointment.

Massive Attack will never exceed what they did with Mezzanine if they remain in the musical territory that they are currently in, and it is unlikely at this stage in the game that they will be making a dramatic shift with their sound again any time soon. Which is a pity, because although there may be subsequent albums that sound like Mezzanine, the sad truth of the matter is that it is, quite simply, impossible to mimic what is essentially perfection. Emulation of a tried-and-tested formula can be successful, but it is difficult to admire. For now, we’ll have to remain content that Massive Attack did, once upon time, create utterly absorbing, thoroughly morose music that was as engaging as it was sinister; a marvel to behold.

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