Bring the Noise
Massive Attack resurfaces with new LP.
By Michael McCall
MAY 26, 1998: Massive Attack has earned a reputation as one of the most inventive, forward-thinking groups of the decade. On its first two albums, the English electronic trio helped forge the so-called "trip-hop" sound, blending American hip-hop, Jamaican dub, and European ambient music to create a distinctive, seductive style.
After a wait of several years, Massive Attack finally returns with a new album, Mezzanine. The collection isn't as captivating as 1994's Protection or 1991's Blue Lines, but the sound remains fresh and fascinating, exploring a world of isolation and paranoia. These days, the band's nocturnal music no longer trades on the edgy eroticism of their earlier work. With the addition of guitars, rougher rhythms, and shifting sonic textures, the sound has grown discomforting and full of dread; the dreamy beauty of the past has been replaced by chaos and anxiety.
Undoubtedly, Massive Attack's studio auteurs--Grant "Daddy G" Marshall, Robert "3-D" del Naja, and Andrew "Mushroom" Vowles--have taken a cue from a former collaborator, Tricky, whose recent solo albums infuse the molasses rhythms of trip-hop with unsettling noises, aggressive beats, and a dark, threatening demeanor.
Tricky's voice, a deep mumble of anxious urges and pent-up lust, proved an invaluable contribution to previous Massive Attack albums. That's one of the reasons why Mezzanine doesn't quite build on the promise of Protection. No matter how he tries, 3-D can't achieve the simmering authority of the man Massive Attack deemed "Tricky Kid." In addition, the new album's female guest vocalist, Elizabeth Fraser of the Cocteau Twins, doesn't cut through the group's thumping electronic collages with the same sultry cool of Everything But the Girl's Tracy Thorn, who contributed to the earlier albums.
But Massive Attack has always had a revolving lineup of contributors. And even in their earliest days, they managed to keep their vision intact as various collaborators came and went. The group's roots extend back to the mid-'80s, when a tight-knit clan of co-conspirators dubbed themselves The Wild Bunch. Along with the three future members of Massive Attack, the collective included producer Nellee Hooper, singer Neneh Cherry, and Studio One reggae master Horace Andy, all of whom had a hand in some of the best English soul music of the '80s.
Hooper produced the breakthrough pop-soul work of Soul II Soul, whose airy rhythms and tuneful mix of reggae and R&B formed a predecessor to the darker, more eroticized musings of the trip-hop movement. Even more noteworthy was the popular emergence of Cherry, whose outstanding 1989 album, Raw Like Sushi, combined hip-hop beats with pop smarts.
Members of Massive Attack appeared on Cherry's album, but by then the trio had already begun to establish their own musical identity. In 1986, their blissed-out cover of the Burt Bacharach/Hal David song "The Look of Love" introduced Massive Attack's languid, sexually suggestive rhythms. But it was 1991's Blue Lines that placed the three musicians at the forefront of a new musical movement. With vocals by Tricky and Horace Andy, the album brought a strong Jamaican influence to the trio's hypnotic, deep-blue fog.
Blue Lines was influential, but the follow-up, Protection, remains Massive Attack's pinnacle achievement. The musical equivalent of Lauren Bacall's heavy-lidded gaze, the songs came across as sensual yet charged with potency. Who else but Massive Attack could take the eerie piano progression of "Tubular Bells," best known as the theme from The Exorcist, and turn it into an instrumental ripe with wet, heavy-breathing eroticism?
Elsewhere, Protection evocatively wove the voices of Tricky, Andy, and Thorn into bass-heavy atmospherics with mesmerizing results. The album ended with a cover of The Doors' Light My Fire, which the group managed to transform into something of its own. With its heavy dub rhythms and with Andy rapping in his island patois, the new version conveyed the swagger and sexual danger that Jim Morrison originally intended.
As good as Protection was, the band certainly couldn't repeat itself. In the four years since the record's release, Massive Attack has seen its signature sound aped endlessly by other artists. A few acolytes have molded their own distinctive sound from the band's innovations: Portishead, Morcheeba, Bjork, Roni Size, and even Madonna have found worthwhile inspiration in the liquid, dub-based grooves of Massive Attack. But most imitators have foundered with second-rate creations that come across as dull rather than otherworldly.
Meanwhile, Massive Attack keeps advancing. On Mezzanine, the rhythms still slither and grope, but the arrangements now clang with a metallic, technological malevolence. This newfound penchant for noise doesn't mean that the band is copping the bug-eyed nihilism of Prodigy. Instead, Massive Attack use guitars and rock-blocking beats sparingly, as sonic textures rather than as an ever-present gimmick.
Still, Massive Attack may be hoping that their angrier sound will help them draw attention in America--the only country where record buyers remain indifferent to the trio's enchanting music. Movie directors and soundtrack compilers certainly know who they are: The band has contributed music to Batman Returns, The Jackal, 187, and Welcome to Sarajevo.
But the group's live shows, which have been notoriously uneven, may hold them back. So might their lack of drive: They have a reputation for working at such a leisurely pace that the English press has tagged them as lazy and indolent. A missed chance to work with Madonna a couple of years ago certainly didn't help their image: After being flown to Los Angeles to participate on the star's Bedroom Stories album, the trio, who have publicly bragged about their predilection for daily marijuana use, kept oversleeping and missing appointments with the singer.
But Mezzanine suggests that Massive Attack is newly energized. "Risingson," for example, shows how the band has grown: The otherworldly backdrop remains, but the group augments it with deft rock guitars and classical orchestration. Similarly, on "Exchange," they blend rhythm instruments and sweeping symphonic dynamics with the smoothness of a '70s Philly Soul production. "Black Milk," meanwhile, offers the best showcase of Fraser's collaborations with the trio. Even if the singer's wispy voice doesn't convey the yearning emotion of Tracey Thorn's, the song is still quite beautiful, buoyed by an inventive arrangement.
On the title cut, Fraser purrs, "Why don't you close your eyes and reinvent me?" Massive Attack has indeed reinvented its dream world once again, choosing on Mezzanine to emphasize uneasy nightmares over libidinous desires. This time, maybe America will take notice.
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