Massive Attack makes the kind of music that sounds great when you’re alone. Referencing dub reggae, backpack hip-hop, post-punk, rave culture, and R&B without sounding like any of them, it plays on paranoia and longing—often in the same song. Though the group emerged from the club and rave world, their work is much more subtle and vocal-driven than most “dance” music. They’re a dance act that expects you to stand still and listen. They sound their best on headphones.
It’s surprising, then, that the group has been largely dormant during the iPod era, when headphones have become ubiquitous. But that’s beginning to change. In February they released Heligoland, their first non-soundtrack album since 2003. It serves as a reunion of sorts, as it marks the return of founding member Grant (Daddy G) Marshall, who skipped the sessions for the band’s last outing, 100th Window. The group is promoting the album with their first North American tour in four years, including a two-night stint at New York’s Terminal 5 in May.
While not really a “comeback” record, Heligoland comes at a time when Massive Attack needs to reestablish itself. What’s interesting is that they’ve chosen to do so by bringing in a number of new collaborators and guests. While they’ve always operated as a kind of collective—outside of co-founder Robert (3D) Del Naja, the only person to appear on all five of their studio albums is permanent “guest” vocalist Horace Andy—this is the most guest-heavy album of their career. The sheer number of voices—eight, if you include Del Naja and Grant, across a mere ten tracks—prompted British music magazine NME to wonder if the band was going through an “identity crisis.”
For a couple of years in the early and mid-90s, Massive Attack represented a particular kind of urban cool—cerebral and subtle, yet dark and sexy. As the decade wore on, bands that sounded a lot like them began popping up everywhere. It started with acts from their native Bristol, England, including Portishead and their onetime collaborator Tricky, but soon a range of artists from Beth Orton to Björk to Moby to Gorillaz began to incorporate elements of their basic sound. Even established stars like David Bowie worked with the group. It reached a point where, like the Velvet Underground or the Ramones, they became known as much for their “influence” as their own music.
Massive Attack has always been musically restless, always inclined to push against dominant musical trends as well as their fans’ expectations. Their debut, Blue Lines, was released in 1991, the same year Nirvana’s Nevermind redefined “underground” music to mean guitar-driven rock. Their second LP, Protection, though loved today, departed so sharply from Blue Lines that their fans’ outcry necessitated a dub remix of the entire album (entitled No Protection) by Mad Professor. Cofounder Andrew (Mushroom) Vowles disliked the more rock-oriented direction of their biggest commercial success, Mezzanine, and left the group soon after its release. And everyone complained about the moody 100th Window—which was made by Del Naja by himself, without any input from Marshall, who took the album off to spend time with his family.
In the subsequent layoff, due in part to the group’s constant soundtrack work for films like Danny the Dog, their once-omnipresent influence has faded, as artists like Justice, LCD Soundsystem, and even Kanye West have looked instead to Massive Attack’s more traditionally danceable contemporaries Daft Punk for inspiration. Though Massive Attack’s albums don’t sound dated by any means, the group’s work sounds more of its time now—more “90s.”
Which is why it’s a surprise that their recent single, “Splitting The Atom,” sounds more like Blue Lines than anything they’ve released since. The first voice we hear belongs to Marshall—which screams “reunion.” He and Del Naja split vocal duties on the song, with Horace Andy occasionally supplementing their raps with haunted, almost disembodied singing. It’s hard not to think of “Five Man Army” in particular, a Blue Lines highlight which used all three in a very similar way. The single also catches Blue Lines’ detached cool, dialing back the clattering electronics to focus on the beat and vocals.
But “Splitting the Atom” is too compelling to be considered a rehash. And its references to bank bailouts and the economic crisis sound mature and intellectual, instead of pretentious and forced, a feat most other acts probably couldn’t pull off. It’s not that the band is hiding inside its own legacy; it’s just that for the first time they’re embracing it.
Blue Lines is one of the most innovative records of the last 20 years, but it was also a very intimate piece. Unlike, say, My Bloody Valentine—whose most notable album, Loveless, was released the same year as Blue Lines—Massive Attack’s music is easy to ignore out in public, if you’re so inclined. Even today it’s not unusual to hear them playing in a coffee shop, or a certain kind of retail outlet—precisely because it doesn’t distract people from shopping.
But on close listen, Blue Lines was—is—hypnotic. When people talk about Massive Attack’s impact on music, they’re usually thinking of that album. In retrospect it seems obvious—slowing down electronica as a way of engaging the listener’s mind. But in 1991, when hip-hop’s rising stars were the confrontational L.A. rappers NWA and most electronic music was content just to make you move, the idea of cerebral dance music was downright revolutionary.
One of Blue Lines’s breakout stars was Tricky, who collaborated on several tracks. Like all three of Massive Attack’s founders, Tricky got his start in a Bristol DJ collective called the Wild Bunch, meaning he played a key role in Massive Attack’s formative years. He also contributed to two songs on Protection, including “Karmacoma,” which remains a Massive Attack live staple more than fifteen years later. There were rumors that Tricky would be appearing on Heligoland, but those proved unfounded. However, he is “represented” here by his onetime musical partner Martina Topley-Bird, who performs on two tracks. The first, “Babel,” is actually reminiscent of some of the songs on Protection. The next, “Psyche,” seems slight at first blush, an acoustic guitar ballad masquerading as a Massive Attack song. But Topley-Bird sings it with a certain playfulness that eventually won me over.
Topley-Bird is a fantastic singer—she can sound lovely, detached, and intimidating all at once. It’s not hard to think, though, that she and the group are capable of accomplishing more together. Fortunately, she is touring with the band, singing some of their older material. It’s hard not to be excited at the prospect of a singer this talented matched with a song like the 1998 classic “Teardrop.”
Massive Attack is also being joined on the road by its longest-serving collaborator, reggae legend Horace Andy, who anchors the new album’s best track, “Girl I Love You.” Smooth and mellow, though streaked with emotion, Andy’s voice has always been able to make love songs sound menacing and menacing songs sound lovely. This is evidenced most clearly on Mezzanine—where he makes the ballad “Angel” sound downright terrifying and the paranoid “Man Next Door” downright beautiful. “Girl I Love You” is in the same vein—its driving bass and discordant horn section seem designed to make the listener alternately dance or run in fear, while Andy sings as if his heart is about to break. It’s a love song for a horror-movie soundtrack.
Another Heligoland track, “Paradise Circus,” feels like an effort to rewrite the disappointing 100th Window. That 2003 outing remains the one true misfire from the group’s cannon, putting too much emphasis on atmosphere at the expense of songs and beats. All the elements of that album are present on “Paradise Circus”—a slow, almost relaxed beat, piano, strings that sometimes seem organic and sometimes digital, minimal bass (for Massive Attack), and an absence of dub or hip-hop influences. Even vocalist Hope Sandoval seems to have been chosen for her similarity to Sinéad O’Connor, who appeared on 100th Window. This time around, though, the formula works. And the group coaxes a performance out of Sandoval that is more nuanced than anything she’s done since her days in Mazzy Star. The song is an absolute stunner.
Other tracks on Heligoland expand on Massive Attack’s legacy by asserting the group’s continued influence. TV On The Radio’s Tunde Adebimpe sings the disc’s leadoff track, “Pray for Rain”—which manages to sound very much like a TV On The Radio song, while remaining recognizably the work of Massive Attack. I’d never linked the bands’ sounds before, but now their ties seem unmistakable—which was probably the point. It helps that the song is also quite good. Damon Albarn’s number, meanwhile, also echoes his day job in Gorillaz, though it’s hard not to think the song might have fared better with an assist by that group’s stable of collaborating rappers (where are you, De La Soul?).
After Blue Lines, it seemed like Massive Attack was intentionally reinventing themselves on every release, in an effort to avoid being pigeonholed. Like many influential musicians, they didn’t want to get lost amid the deluge of similarly down-tempo acts that emerged in their wake. When people started calling them a “trip hop” band in the mid-90s, they loudly rejected the label and made the guitar-driven Mezzanine. That contrarian streak seems gone now. But that doesn’t make Heligoland a retread. Instead, it’s an overview of what one particular group does well. It’s actually a very mature, professional work. And it sounds great on headphones.
ContributorGuy Patrick Cunningham
Guy Patrick Cunningham is a writer and editor living in Brooklyn.