16 March 2010

Massive Attack: Heligoland (Virgin)

Massive Attack hails from the same hometown as Portishead, and they seem to suffer from the same problem. They hit around the same time (early to mid 90s) with a fresh new sound that got a really unfortunate tag (“trip hop”), despite how different they sounded from each other. They also both disappeared from the music scene for a while. Portishead vanished completely after touring for their 2nd album in the late 90s, only to emerge in 2008 with their 3rd record, a beguiling slab of psychedelic paranoia that all but completely ditched the hip hop roots of their previous material. Massive Attack kept on for a longer while, but new material has been scarce since the lukewarm reception of their last proper album, 100th Window, in 2003. It was somewhat an extension of the dark territory forged by its predecessor breakthrough Mezzanine, but lacked the impact to carry it as far.

So what about now? Many years have passed, and, like Portishead, Massive Attack has changed their sound yet again. Robert Del Naja a.k.a. 3D is still the driving creative force, but he’s re-enlisted original partner Daddy G with songwriting on several tracks (other founder Andrew Vowles did not rejoin). Most notable is the roster of guest vocalists, something that also characterized the last couple of albums. The primary chanteuse of Heligoland is ironically Martina Topley-Bird, who first made waves as Tricky’s partner in crime on his debut album Maxinquaye. On that record, she was singing lyrics written by Tricky for songs that he performed on Massive Attack’s album Protection, back when they all still considered each other part of the same Wild Bunch collective. So here she’s come full circle, not only appearing on the album singing lead on several songs but also touring with them as their main vocalist on stage. Reggae veteran Horace Andy joins the ranks again to appear on a few tracks as well, but there are a couple other surprises in store. Tunde Adebimpe from TV On The Radio handles vocals on the opening track while Hope Sandoval, best known as the singer of Mazzy Star, appears on a couple others. Brit-rock enthusiasts will also be happy to hear contributions from Damon Albarn (Blue, Gorillaz) and Guy Garvey (Elbow). Sometimes a guest list that runneth over can be an album’s demise, but these songs are consistent and strong and grounded with a well-considered foundation. Vocalists are free to run in the direction of their respective choice, but the songs remain true to Massive Attack’s vision.

The most immediate distinction between this album and previous efforts is that it feels far less sampled or synthesized. Of course there is still a certain amount of that (probably more than meets the ears), but the extensive use of acoustic drum sounds and piano removes these even further from the so-called “trip hop” genre that the group has always been loosely assigned. The lead single from the album, “Splitting the Atom,” was a curious choice in my opinion, because it’s one of my least favorite songs on here. I suppose if nothing else this album falls prey to the same problem as 100th Window where there are not necessarily clear singles. There are standout tracks, but nothing so hook-driven as to be an obvious contender for mainstream recognition. “Psyche” and “Paradise Circus” are a wallop of a double-feature in the center of the album, though, by far my favorite tracks, all tension and melancholy. “Pray For Rain” is also a powerful one, pushing toward 7 minutes with a consistently strong vocal from Adebimpe. Even a track such as “Flat Of The Blade” which features Garvey, which starts off a bit awkward, evolves into something surprising and impressive with its full brass section arrangements.

This is what I’d call a sleeper success – it has tinges of greatness but nothing so strong as to make it really pounce. Still, it’s another strong entry into Massive Attack’s ongoing repertoire of solid music. They have sidestepped genre cliches with something that will likely hold up against the test of time, although time will only truly tell.

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