Friday, May 04, 2007

The Mastery of Massive Attack

Bristol collective Massive Attack effectively ripped out the guts of the burgeoning British R&B-soul-reggae-hip-hop hybrid scene of the late 1980s and early 1990s, dragged them to their dingy mad-scientist laboratory, forcibly turned them inside out and added all manner of strange chemicals to the mix, resulting in something texturally deeper and decidedly more sinister.

Widely credited as singularly creating the much-maligned trip-hop strain, the Massive Attack sound is also uniquely contradictory. Categorised under dance but eminently undanceable, relying heavily on synth programming and drum machines, but surprisingly and supremely soulful, Massive Attack was one of the most innovative outfits to ever emerge, a genuine musical revolution in the highly confusing, shellshocked landscape of the late 20th and early 21st century. A brief rundown of the group's stellar works is in order:

Arguably the ne plus ultra of their oeuvre, "Blue Lines" evoked the appropriate responses of awe and respect upon its initial release. The impossibly epic "Unfinished Sympathy" (bolstered considerably by Shara Nelson's strident yet measured diva performance) remains the indisputable highlight, but other tracks like the effortless rap vocal gauntlet "Five Man Army", the quietly menacing urban nocturne "Safe from Harm" (again with Nelson on board) and the spacey environmental anthem "Hymn of the Big Wheel" (featuring reggaeton veteran Horace Andy) are also dynamic examples of the group's nascent artistry.

A more laid-back affair that smoothes out the rougher edges of its predecessor for a more polished, accessible finish: thankfully, this makes for a no less compelling listen. The melancholic yet cinematic title track (featuring Everything But the Girl's Tracey Thorn) is a brilliant study in urban desolation and private emotional psychosis, while "Karmacoma" takes a sharp left turn into dub-reggae (which would be even more fully realised on "No Protection", the Mad Professor's full-length, ghostly dark-side version). "Spying Glass" (Andy's showcase here) introduces a healthy dose of paranoia to the proceedings, while "Sly" makes wonderful use of enigmatic chanteuse Nicolette's sensual, neo-Billie Holiday vocals to construct an appropriate 21st-century torch song.

Adopting a more organic and earthier approach on this third masterpiece translates into a darker and murkier effort that managed to win the group the attention and admiration of otherwise conservative, sneering rock fans. Basically turning the paranoia level up to 11 and letting it simmer there until the meters exploded in shards of fear, panic and loathing, "Mezzanine" can boast of at least three classic numbers: the highly ominous, bass-heavy "Angel" (the band has reaped a plethora of royalties from its licnsed usage in a variety of media); the densely nocturnal, dread-inducing "Risingson", a malignant and venomous rap duel; and the gossamer, lighter-than-ether lullaby "Teardrop" (with the incomparable Cocteau Twins' Elizabeth Fraser helping out on vocals), which managed to evoke an otherworldly sense of dislocation.

100th WINDOW (2003)
Perhaps relying a bit too much on Pro Tools technology and analogue modelling workstations, "100th Window" still manages to stand out by virtue of its glacial beatscapes, which at times rival the icy, apprehensive aesthetic conjured by Radiohead's "Kid A". The sterile, frosty sonic-lab ambiences of "What Your Soul Sings" and "Special Cases" are enhanced by suitably aloof presentations by rock rebel Sinead O'Connor, while "Butterfly Caught" is psychological claustrophobia personified, droning with mutated breakbeats and overlaid with threatening rap interjections.


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