Wednesday, January 04, 2012

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. Here's a brief rundown of the group's studio works:

Arguably the ne plus ultra of their oeuvre, 'Blue Lines' rightfully 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 and regular collaborator 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, hardcore rock purists. Basically turning the paranoia level up to 11 and letting it seethe there until the meters exploded in shards of fear, panic and loathing, 'Mezzanine' can boast of at least three indisputable classics: the highly foreboding, bass-heavy 'Angel' (the band has reaped a plethora of royalties from its licensed 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 similarly natured 'Kid A'. The sterile, frosty sonic-lab ambiences of 'What Your Soul Sings' and 'Special Cases' are enhanced by suitably aloof vocalisations by rock rebel Sinéad O'Connor, while 'Butterfly Caught' is psychological claustrophobia personified, droning with mutated breakbeats and overlaid with threatening rap interjections.

This long-simmering-in-the-studio fifth album eschews the brutally frigid soundscapes of '100th Window' for a more organically structured, but no less threatening sounding aesthetic that triumphantly recaps all the highpoints of the group's oeuvre. Opener 'Pray for Rain' is suitably ominous and edgy, awash with rolling-thunder piano chords, while 'Splitting the Atom' is gloriously mutated reggaeton filtered through a Kraftwerkian lens. Erstwhile Blur frontman Damon Albarn delivers a tetchy performance on the creeping, creepy 'Saturday Come Slow', the mockingly buoyant 'Paradise Circus' is awash with tinkly music-box melodies and interjected with hand-clap samples, and the industrial-tinged, menacing future-soul number 'Girl I Love You' is anything but the conventional love song that its title would suggest.


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