Massive Attack – Heligoland (Album Review)
Artist: Massive Attack
Released: 8th February 2010
After a typically long break, the Bristol collective are back with new album Heligoland. We think it was worth the wait…
So what do we already know about Massive Attack? They are notoriously slow workers, have a penchant for recreational drugs, made some of the most era-defining music of the ‘90s etc. Well now, after a long wait, there’s new material to discuss.
Stripped down to just two core members (producer/vocalists Robert “3D” Del Naja and Grant Marshall), Massive Attack once again employ a host of competent guest singers to voice Heligoland, the group’s first album since the paranoid dirge of 2003’s 100th Window. Frequent collaborator Neil Davidge (who worked with the band on Mezzanine) again handles co-production.
Opening track Pray For Rain sees TV On The Radio’s Tunde Adebimpe slide effortlessly over rolling drums and menacing piano, an understated vocal that doesn’t suffer from its exposed position in the mix. Adebimpe sets a standard that is well met by the guest vocalists that follow, a list that includes long-time collaborators Martina Topley Bird and Horace Andy, alongside Damon Albarn, Hope Sandoval, and Elbow’s Guy Garvey.
Reggae legend Andy is back on form, adding his spooky, wavering falsetto to Girl I Love You, a track driven by a rumbling bass line reminiscent of Mezzanine’s Angel. He also contributes to Splitting The Atom, which was made available as a download and EP of last year. The only time Del Naja and Marshall trade verses on the same track, the gloom-laden Splitting The Atom is a loping skank that both pleases and disturbs. Andy’s delicately sung chorus evokes the reassuring wisdom of the older man, imploring “it’s easy, don’t let it go, don’t lose it”. The paranoia often found dripping from the group’s lyrics is back (“it’s getting colder outside your rented space, they shadow box and they paper chase”), offset by a healthy dose of political observation (“the jobless return, the bankers have bailed”).
Of the new collaborators, Albarn’s voice is perhaps the most natural fit to the Massive Attack sound. Saturday Come Slow finds the ex-Blur man in an introspective mood; his voice sounding like it might shatter into a thousand fragments as he pleads the song’s title phrase over subtle guitar work from Portishead’s Adrian Utley. Albarn also claims keys and synth credits on the album, recorded during sessions referred to by the group as very structured and intense. Albarn allegedly did not want to be “dragged in to a Bristol time-warp for two years”.
Flat Of The Blade, with a decent performance from Guy Garvey, is a good example of the instigator becoming the inspired; the track would not have sounded out of place in an Amnesiac-era Radiohead set. Other highlights include the Topley Bird-vocalised Psyche, a hypnotic guitar riff supporting some of the album’s most obscure lyrics, and Paradise Circus with former Mazzy Star singer Hope Sandoval. The group’s affinity with this track in particular is obvious from the attention it receives on the Heligoland Remixes EP, also available with the Deluxe Edition of the album.
Heligoland is not a huge departure from the ‘classic’ Massive Attack sound of the ‘90s, with a sufficient amount of contemporary tweaks and touches to bring it up-to-date, and it is this that is the overriding factor of the album’s success.
A pleasing start to a promising year of releases.
Damon Albarn quote from interview with Robert Del Naja on BBC 6 Music News, 25/01/10: