21 December 2006

"So what do you think of Massive Attack?"

This question was posed to me recently after a forum waffle by a friend of mine was briefly diverted by his mentioning of this blog. The context was that of Blue Lines being an important precursor for Portishead's album Dummy. It stemmed from a third party who, after reading my recent music-themed posts here, had commented that he "didn't figure [me for] the trip-hop type" and my response: that Dummy has been, and remains, a cornerstone of my musical tastes. I did not feel I could answer the question properly at the time in the sort of throwaway response that typifies forum threads, so I'll answer it here instead.

In its simplest form the answer is plain: I love Massive Attack dearly, one of my favourite groups without a doubt. Despite Dummy being the album that kicked off my interest in the Bristol sound (it must be noted here that members of both Massive Attack and Portishead, and Tricky, have all previously expressed dislike for the term "trip-hop", and my own inclination is to avoid genre-typing; I do use the term on occasion as it has a more defined meaning in common parlance), it is Massive Attack that became my staple choice of listening material when revisiting the sound. However it took the release of Mezzanine for them to really register with me. Sure, I'd heard Blue Lines and Protection and liked them but they did not initially tap into my psyche in the way Mezzanine did on its release. April 20, 1998 - I was 17, coming up to my A level exams, and moving to university in Bristol in autumn assuming I didn't fuck up (never a realistic possibility).

Since Mezzanine I can only think of Thea Gilmore's Rules For Jokers that has had similar impact on me and my musical appreciation, but before it? Nothing. Dummy, Radiohead's The Bends and Whatever and Ever, Amen by Ben Folds Five had all made an indelible mark that continues to provide inspiration for my musical tastes, but none of them hit me like Mezzanine did or sparked an immediate rush of purchases. Mezzanine swept into my consciousness like nothing before: I remember brooding with Angel, being blown away by the gorgeous sound of Teardrop, fiercely disliking Inertia Creeps (these days I love that tune), and generally loving the sinister sounds that dominated the album. I played the CD constantly. I picked up both earlier albums - though I may have owned one or both beforehand - and listened to them in excess, too. Then, just after I moved to Bristol, the tour dates were announced; they included 5 nights at Bristol Student's Union in December - in the week after term ended. Those tickets sold damn fast, but I got my hands on one for Friday December 18, 1998 (if I recall the date correctly).

I went with a then housemate, and we timed our arrival so as to miss most of the warm up. What followed was 2 hours or more of bliss that cemented my opinions on Mezzanine and compelled me to re-examine the earlier discs: hearing Unfinished Sympathy played live was simply mind blowing. There are so many things I dimly recall from that night, and not much I vividly recall. It was 8 years ago now; it was also the first live gig I ever attended in a closed venue (I had been to a local festival before but no actual gigs for some reason). I can picture the scene and I can recall many of the tunes played by name; but not by performance. Worse, my search-fu is bad and I haven't been able to uncover any details of the gig, like who performed what vocals when. Reason suggests that Horace Andy appeared to vocalise Angel et al. himself: no-one has a voice like him and I really cannot imagine that tracks on which he appears could be performed without him. However, who sung Unfinished Sympathy and Safe From Harm that night I couldn't say: Shara Nelson's Wikipedia entry suggests she stopped working with them after Blue Lines (obviously she did not appear as a vocalist on further recordings) and it seems unlikely she teamed up again for live dates several years on. If anyone does know who performed as a vocalist on that tour, I would love to know. As I said - my search-fu is weak!

I've always considered Protection to be the weakest of the Massive Attack albums, but their weakest is way above the strongest of most. The title track, Karmacoma and the two instrumentals are all sublime, as is Spying Glass, and the rest are simply very good (Better Things aside; I still feel that track is far too similar to Protection itself to appear on the same album). In fact, in many ways it is more consistent than Blue Lines being, as it is, without anything to match the sublime high of Unfinished Sympathy. Perhaps crucially to my perception of it Protection also lacks the rawness I sense in their debut and the sheer dark innovation of Mezzanine. To my ears it sits between the two musically every bit as much as it does chronologically.

Massive Attack is a name that has applied, at least in part, to many different people. Indeed it is even a name that was (temporarily) changed under political and media pressure before they had even established themselves when the violent connotations of the "Attack" were perceived as unwelcome during the Gulf War. But whichever people have been behind "Massive Attack" at any given stage, one thing is as constant as the name which it is produced under: the quality music. For some that stops with Mezzanine, after which one of the original members decided the sound was heading away from what he was wanted. The fourth album, 100th Window was recorded with only one of the original core trio, but whilst I found it disappointing on first listening I have since come round to its charms and foibles and the continuation of the sinister sound aired so wonderfully on Mezzanine.

I have had my finger far from the pulse, musically speaking, since then. I did not know until this week that the incarnation of Massive Attack that applies to Robert Del Naja (3D) and Neil Davidge (who worked on Mezzanine with the original trio) have produced two film soundtracks since they released 100th Window. I bought Collected for the track Live With Me before I realised there was a second, 2-disc, version with a second unreleased track, some of the tracks from the soundtracks and a DVD layer with all their videos (I have the previous DVD release of their videos). I found out only yesterday that there is a fifth studio album due for release early next year, on which it appears Grant Marshall (aka Daddy G) will once again be working - even if at distance from 3D.

All of this makes me very happy, even though I cannot actually afford to make all the purchases it leaves me wanting to make!

I'll end on the note that, even 15 years on, the sound that shot Massive Attack into recognition is a sound that remains relevant and current. The edgier undertones that spin images of social deprivation and inequalities are still audible in the tracks and the darker side of life this portrays is every bit as real in 2006 as it was in 1991 - if not more so. Massive Attack captured the zeitgeist with Blue Lines but made it last.

They remain, in whatever guise you take the name to represent, one of the most important groups recording in modern Britain; they remain amongst my favourites. I suspect that future work will not hit the heights of the past - but for me any artist would struggle to live up to their back catalogue. I have every confidence that wherever and however my life goes from here, the music of Massive Attack will continue to figure in my list of enjoyments as highly and as deservedly as it has to date.

As an addendum this article I found today is a good one. I might disagree with the author on Future Proof (and even then, my keenness for it might be something to do with my geekier side and my use of it on a soundtrack for a roleplaying campaign I ran), but otherwise I think he covers salient points, and well.

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