"The greatest English group of the last ten years", bleated an unusually submissive NME a few weeks ago, but looking at the myths and legends that have sprung up around this Bristol dance collective - not to mention the acres of colour supplement coverage their recent return has garnered - its hard to not believe the hype. They invented trip-hop, kick-started the careers of Portishead, Tricky, Nicolette and Shara Nelson, found sympathetic new settings for old lags like Horace Andy, Tracey Thorn and Liz Fraser and launched a record label, in between fashioning two albums worth of material that have already become staples of just about every top 100 albums chart constructed since about 1995. (Except our own, tragically!) The sole area that remained unconquered was the live performance, save for a few undernourished DAT and decks shows around the time of "Protection". So, which way would their twice-postponed tour tip the balance?
First up, meet Alpha, a six-piece signed to the Massives Melankolic imprint who fashion Portishead-and-the-kitchen-sink trip-hop (what else?) swamped with cheesy-listening artificial orchestration. For much of their brief set theyre accompanied by a female singer, save for the last song when a dead ringer for the blonde Chemical Brother (Tom or Ed? I never can tell) takes the mic, and winds the Apollo into a crashing frenzy of metallic dub. My mate Jon, whos liked them for ages, thought them superb because they make exactly the same kind of music that he wants to; Id say they were more interesting than good, but respect due for making the effort.
The question exercising the minds of the faithful during the interval was, "Wholl turn up?". True to their sound system roots, the Massive have made a virtue of employing guest vocalists and rappers, at least half-a-dozen having slipped through their ranks since they formed ten years ago. Hardly expecting some quirk of scheduling to gather Shara Nelson, Tracey Thorn, Liz Fraser and Tricky under the same roof at the same time, tonight the Massive featured the ever-present triumvirate of 3D, Mushroom and Daddy G, as well as long-time companion Horace Andy ("The number one reggae singer", as Daddy G introduced him at one point) and new bug Deborah Miller, along with a small but hardcore band of anonymous muso types.
And so they swing into "Angel", the opening track of their third album "Mezzanine" (released, with audience-baiting incompetence, barely twelve hours earlier), a huge, industrial-strength amalgam of dub roots and metal polish, with a sprinkling of lines for Horace (dressed in what looked from our vantage point to be a khaki tracksuit) to croon threateningly through. Next up theres 3D and Daddy G trading lines through last years single "Risingson", and then one of the evenings many highlights, their spaced deconstruction of John Holts "Man Next Door", throughout which Andy ranges around the stage like an animal testing the limits of its tether. Even better is "Spying Glass", where the melody builds and builds to a jaw-dropping intensity: you can feel the tension.
A Liz Fraser-less "Teardrops" doesnt work, and Horace Andys good-vibes interludes woven into Daddy Gs rendition of "Euroman" sap the air of menace and foreboding that Tricky managed to achieve on the album version. But, aside from the fact that they didnt play "Protection" and the Apollos dreadful, boomtastic acoustics, is the sum total of the evenings caveats. More goodies: a euphoric float through "Hymn Of The Big Wheel", a seminal "Safe From Harm" that turns into a throbbing, stroboscopic rock monster, and a rendition of "Heat Miser" with Daddy G and Horace making bizarre sucking noises over 3Ds paranoid mumblings.
As is traditional, the best was saved for last. Yes, they did play "Unfinished Sympathy", and Deborah Miller, whod been sounding a little lost amidst the sturm und drang of the "Mezzanine" material finally gets her lungs around a song that benefits from a dollop of good, old-fashioned diva belting. The rapturous audience applause at the end of each verse summed it up, pretty much. The vocal samples from the album version may have gone AWOL, and the thin synth strings were no match for the originals heartbreaking orchestration, but this was music!
No band on earth could top that, but when the Massive have a go we were inevitably disappointed, especially when they stumbled into one of the as-yet-unheard songs located towards the end of the new album which we later worked out to be "Group 4". But, strangely, it gradually metamorphosed into a leather-clad heavy metal dub monster, half "Metallica" and half "King Tubbys Meets Rockers Uptown", wave upon wave of sound building and building, becoming more intense as they locked into a frightening, wired riff undeterred by the sound of a few thousand jaws hitting the (sticky) floor...because, although nobody in their right mind would have asked them to, Massive Attack can actually rock. Its a shocking revelation, a bit like expecting Portishead to cover the odd early Sabbath tune, but one that begins to make some kind of hazy sense when you take into account the reappraisal of their punk root that froths around the more uncompromising, darker corners of the new album. This seems to go on for, oh, weeks, before a sudden tornado of bass sweeps them away.
So thats what Massive Attack think a concert should be in 1998. A sprinkling of classic songs given even greater novelty value by the way the audience can see (or think they can see) the way theyre assembled before our very eyes, a handful of tunes that will probably be regarded as classics by the end of the year, and a hefty confounding of prejudices and expectations. The greatest English group of the next ten years? Is there really anyone to challenge them?
MASSIVE ATTACK Mezzanine (Circa)
Bets on for album of the year? Perhaps its due to the forests worth thats been written about the return of the Massive, the release of their third proper collection and their first tour as a legitimate band (see elsewhere in this issue for gobsmacked, fawning rambling on the subject thinly disguised as an impartial review), but theres little on "Mezzanine" that contradicts the impression that come December, itll be heading for the podium when the gongs that matter are being doled out.
If 1991s "Blue Lines" was an exploration and summation of their hip-hop, dub and soul roots, and "Protection" (1994) a (mostly) sweetly-voiced stock-taking exercise, "Mezzanine" is the sound of a band forging a new kind of music, steeped in their past but referential only to the future. Yes, there are heavy elements of dub, reggae and hip-hop to be found here, but theres also a far darker, more metallic sound at play here than weve heard from the Massive thus far: echoes of Joy Division, the first two Public Image Limited albums, Trickys "Pre Millennium Tension" and Primal Screams gargantuan "Echo Dek" remix project may haunt these grooves, but the overall sound is theirs and theirs alone. Perhaps conscious of the impending roadwork, "Mezzanine" also sounds deliberately written for ease of replication on stage, like no album since R.E.M.s empty vessel "Monster". These songs are stripped down and blunted, on the attack, for want of a better word.
Nowhere is this trend more apparent than on the opening track "Angel". Horace Andy only gets to croon a couple of lines before being subsumed by the maelstrom of bass that surrounds him: it sounds like a dub version of another song, a little like the fragments of vocals that pop up sporadically in the reworks of Augustus Pablo or Lee "Scratch" Perry...the difference being, of course, that the Massive wrote it like that. Brooding, paranoid and frankly scary, yet at heart a love song - few bands could pull such a trick.
Next up are the singles. "Risingson", originally released last year, is a two-handed rap by 3D and Mushroom about...well, who knows what, with a sample of The Velvet Undergrounds "I Found A Reason" in there somewhere. Spooked and threatening at the same time, its one of the many tracks on "Mezzanine" that will undoubtedly reveal more of their mystery only after prolonged listens (which is fortunate, because "Mezzanine" is the kind of slippery addictive work that demands further, concentrated study). "Teardrop", the new single, follows, the first of the albums three tracks to feature the talents of ex-Cocteau Twin Liz Fraser, the kind of career reviving coup that assisted the fortunes of Everything But The Girls Tracey Thorn last time around. Not melodically dissimilar to "Protection", here is Frasers butterfly-effect voice fluttering around simple truths like "Love, love is a verb/Love is a doing word" to stunning effect. Its one of the moments when "Mezzanine" snaps sharply into focus, and you realise why the Massive have absolutely no competition.
Another such moment is when the drum track powering "Inertia Creeps" cracks out above the sonic fog of that songs intro, powering another paranoid rap. "Exchange" is a brief interlude, the kind of organic, mellow, loungetastic instrumental that the likes of Air could only dream sweet French dreams about, before the tension pushes on again with "Dissolved Girl", a more metallic and strangely new-prog (i.e. in the same vein as "Paranoid Android", albeit without those deliberately awkward time signatures) offering featuring another new vocal collaborator, one Sarah Jay. One of the albums less terrific tracks, to be honest, but no matter, because its swiftly followed by a Horace-led cover of John Holts "Man Next Door". Exploring similar themes of distrust and suspicion as "Spying Glass" on "Protection", the Massives version is a sparse, languid thing with the drip drip drip sample from The Cures "10:15 Saturday Night" cleverly woven into it, one of the albums many highlights. Next theres the second Liz Fraser track, "Black Milk", undistinguished at time of writing, but bearing in mind the fact that theres no such thing as a bad Massive Attack tune (although their cover of "Light My Fire" skates a little too close for comfort) no doubt a grower. The third side closes with the title track, another anguished rap/rant a la "Risingson", whose lyrics evoke memories of early Gang Of Four, for some reason.
On the final side we find the monumental eight-minute "Group Four", the longest Massive track ever I think Im correct in saying, possibly their most new-prog as well, and the astonishing show closer of their recent tour...this is where the elements that theyve been toying with over the last nine tracks are drawn into a cohesive whole from which there is no escape...and memories of all the collaborators, cover versions and careers theyve launched or resuscitated are blanked out by one final, hypnotic riff and surge of bass. Finally, theres "(Exchange)", a reprise of its unparenthesised cousin, with Horace skimming and scatting over the top, before sinking beneath a minute or so of surface noise.
And thats it. More precisely, "Mezzanine" is it, the culmination of everything the Massive have been honing and perfecting for the last decade or more, from the exploration and exorcism of their influences over the course of their first two albums to the phoenix-like emergence of a new and potentially frightening style of music, where heavy metal meets soul and creates a new machine, sleeker and colder than weve known before. For once all that colour supplement coverage has been merited: like it now or learn to love it later.
MASSIVE ATTACK/DAVID HOLMES/MONKEY MAFIA Bournemouth International Centre, 12 December 1998
My second collision with the Massives punishing "Mezzanine" tour itinerary is probably best described by highlighting the few differences between this performance and their Manchester concert in April. Advance publicity suggested that the previously pregnant Liz Fraser was now in tow, which happily proved to be true, her singing on "Teardrop" and "Group Four" - both significant additions to the Massives slowly expanding canon of fabulous tunes - providing the kind of shimmering, glacial angel frosting that Deborah Millers performances at Manchester just couldnt touch. Elsewhere I logged the addition of a post-punk guitar wigout-style intro that seemed as though it would be more at home somewhere on "Unknown Pleasures" and the subtraction of Horace Andys stage-ranging prowling that once made "Spying Glass" even more sinister than it was tonight. "Unfinished Sympathy" was merely good rather than terrific - at Manchester Deborah Millers shattering soul diva singing deservedly earned applause at the end of each verse: here reaction was a degree more muted, possibly due to the fact that (according to my mate with the subscription to "Sound On Sound") the sequenced strings were one bar off kilter, resulting in a sound more pudding-bowl than powerhouse. Still, set-closer "Group Four" was as unbelievable as ever, its metallic closing riff getting faster and faster as it juggernauts towards the tsunami of bass that the Massive seem to like ending gigs with. In conclusion, no surprises and little I hadnt seen or heard before, but when youre watching one of the best bands to emerge from the cultural wasteland of post-punk Britain it would be churlish to complain. A live album (a la recent excellent releases from Portishead and Spiritualized) would round proceedings off rather neatly...if they can be bothered, of course.
A few brief words on the support: David Holmes demonstrated thirty minutes worth of enviable DJing dexterity and seamless mixing - the only way you could tell one tune from another was by the three second gaps between them...and Monkey Mafia had one cool idea, namely sampling the intro from The Doors "Soul Kitchen", but that aside seemed to sound like just about every other guitar band with decks.
MASSIVE ATTACK Eleven Promos/DVD (Virgin)
As its title baldly suggests, "Eleven Promos/DVD" is a DVD compilation of Massive Attack's promotional videos thus far. And that's just about all it is: as possibly the most minimal DVD package ever released it contains no artwork (the sole feature is a menu page that directs you to the band's website, where such frippery can be downloaded), arriving in a transparent case that betrays the identity of its contents only via a small bar-coded sticker. It helps, then, that Massive Attack have produced some of the most arresting videos in the history of the format: the bizarre "Karmacoma" clip, directed by Jonathan Glazer (who would later make the fine British gangster flick (something of a contradiction these days, I know) "Sexy Beast") is riddled with imagery copped from "The Shining", whilst the makeshift dysfunctional tower block chronicled in "Protection" also lingers in the memory. Stranger still, in view of the disc's 12 certificate, is the promo for "Be Thankful For What You've Got", which consists solely of a stripper, er, stripping. Can this really be permitted at the same level of classification as "Casper"? A friend claims to have seen a cover illustration on the internet that flagged the disc as an 18, which seems more appropriate for its content. And if the visual invention flags at times (which it does), there's further delight to be had in discovering how these versions differ from the album equivalents: the dreamy Velvet Underground sample that flits in and out of "Risingson" appears to be far more prominent here, and both "Safe From Harm" and "Be Thankful For What You've Got" seem to have grown additional trappings of not strictly necessary sonic tinsel.
You won't buy this disc unless you're a committed follower the Massive's slow-motion career, but if you do you'll find that "Eleven Promos/DVD" is exactly what it says on the tin, no more, no less. Great enough, but perhaps an opportunity missed.
MASSIVE ATTACK 100th Window (Virgin)
In the five years since their last album, the accomplished "Mezzanine", Massive Attack have lost Daddy G to fatherhood, leaving "100th Window" as the product of the final remaining member of the original triumvirate, 3D, with considerable involvement from producer Neil Davidge. So, what's left but 3D's trademark whispering? "100th Window" certainly bears all the hallmarks of the work of a man spending too long alone, shuttered away from daylight, a paranoid, alien, recoiling thing, a Hoth travelogue of an album. It's symptomatic of the general malaise shrouding "100th Window" that, in olden times, the sweet-voiced reggae gentleman Horace Andy would usually be given something distinctive to cover, frequently plucked from the man's own back catalogue. Yet here he's just used as another mouthpiece for 3D's conspiracy-theory ramblings, which seems like an opportunity for warmth wasted.
Opener "Future Proof" - an ironic title given that this is arguably the first Massive Attack album that might not be - models a kind of grumpy-Björk-with-a-hangover sound. The Reverend Mother Sinéad O Connor at least brings some kind of brandied warmth to "What Your Soul Sings", "Special Cases" and the children's crusade "A Prayer For England", her plaintive, moderated tones a suggestion of a turbulent, volcanic fire beneath the icy wastes. "Everywhen" is one of those new deal Horace songs, deeply indebted melodically to the Massive's own "Protection". On "Butterfly Caught" 3D's own vocals suggest the asthmatic wheeze of old malcontent Massive collaborator Tricky, who might have brought something a little spiky to this immaculately unruffled material. "Small Time Shot Away" invokes those Björk comparisons again, being superficially a low octane retread of her skyscraping "Hyper-Ballad". Yet halfway through its 8 minute duration some kind of barely perceptible mutation occurs - maybe not even in the music, just in the listener's head - and it shifts gradually from effort-free knock-off to a hypnotic, revolving thing.
And round about then is when the doubts start to creep in - the suggestions that there's more to "100th Window" than meets the initially critical and uncomprehending ear. Perhaps it's wrong, or at least unfair, to compare the album to previous works by the Massive collective - who were, let's not forget, responsible for probably one of the least flawed catalogues 90s popular music has to offer. 3D's suggestion that the ever-evolving, collaborative nature of the Massive massive means there's no conflict in "100th Window" taking the family name when only a third of the founders remain holds water, but maybe the album would be more likely to be judged on its own musical merits if released under his own pseudonym.
Then "Name Taken" rolls around, and the idea of subverting Horace Andy's personable persona beneath 3D's own brand of twitchy whispering possibly becomes a sly stroke of genius. (And is that another nod to "Protection" in the song's dying seconds?) The final, side-long, untitled closer also intrigues, a bass-heavy plumbing rattle that suggests Aphex Twin's "Digeridoo" being played at a distant beach rave.
Which leaves us where? With an initially disappointing, unfriendly album that may yet reveal hidden layers of meaning and merit. That it hasn't yet, admittedly only after a mere three plays, doesn't suggest that they aren't lurking deep within, awaiting discovery.
MASSIVE ATTACK/DOT ALLISON Carling Apollo, Manchester 12 April 2003
It has been a rough year so far for Massive Attack, and it's still only April. Founder member Daddy G was on paternity leave during the making of their fourth album, "100th Window", which became their first to fail to garner widespread critical adulation. Then sole remaining member 3D was arrested on child pornography charges, an event that seems to have quietly shuffled off the agenda. So the prospects seemed to be mixed for tonight's show, part of their first British tour in over three years.
But first came surprise support act Dot Allison. Having formed and propagated the impression that she was responsible for a kind of modern electro-folk, perhaps based on her guest appearance on Death In Vegas' rather fine "The Contino Sessions" album, her announcement that she and her unnamed guitarist cohort were about to play an acoustic set was something of a disappointment, especially to my hip-hop and electronica-loving companions. Unfortunately her spineless, repetitive compositions were unable to win them over, and I could hardly make out her uninspired covers of Death In Vegas' appropriately titled "Dirge" or Tim Buckley's "Song To The Siren" (well, any version of that song is doomed to failure when measured against Tim's own and This Mortal Coil's, but it was refreshing to hear even an unconvincing interpretation) over the constant stream of barbed criticism coming from my right.
At around 20:50 a digital clock mysteriously appeared above the stage, telling us that it was indeed 20:50, and shortly afterwards shadowy figures took to the stage amidst the blue searchlights and dry ice. (Never before have I seen so much dry ice used at a concert; it seemed to envelop the entire building!) The opening morse code signals of "Future Proof" crack out and 3D and the four-strong back-up squad plunge into a rendition that tightens the paranoia rack a notch or two compared to the relatively slack album version. The screen over the stage, meanwhile, assumes a state of frenetic activity from which it will rarely lapse during the evening. Apparently resembling a demented teletext service broadcasting the stuff of Thom Yorke's worst nightmares, it will spew forth global statistics on births, HIV infections, energy use and defence spending, local information about Manchester (including, in a neat twist on what occurred when I saw I Am Kloot support Turin Brakes a month earlier, the names of the city's various suburbs), news headlines, comments and code from the Massive Attack website, anti-virus definitions and the elements of the periodic table.
Next up is reggae veteran and long-time Massive collaborator Horace Andy, still resplendent in the khaki tracksuit he was wearing the last time we were all gathered here, who proceeds to glide serenely through one of his "100th Window" tunes. "Big man's in", announces 3D, and an enormous cheer greets the arrival of the presumed-AWOL Daddy G, joining 3D for a crushing, two-handed assault on "Risingson". A mysterious figure dressed in white takes the stage, again to the delight of the crowd as the realisation sweeps the hall that it is indeed Sinead O Connor swooning through a slightly wobbly but endearing "What Your Soul Sings". And, just when it seems that they've pulled out all the tricks their kit bag could possibly contain, out comes Dot Allison again, transformed into a proper rock chick by the addition of an electric guitar, deputising for an absent Liz Fraser on "Black Milk" and, delightfully, "Teardrop".
And so the spectacle goes, a constant rotation of vocalists fronting a predominately paranoia-saturated selection of tunes from "Mezzanine" and "100th Window". It's immediately noticeable how the mood softens during "Hymn Of The Big Wheel", once again dedicated by Horace to "all the conscious people in the house". "Safe From Harm" evolves into a gigantic, bloodthirsty monster as crude images of destruction flit across the screen above. "Unfinished Sympathy" is perhaps the night's highlight, sent aloft on the phenomenal lung power of the uncredited lady substituting for Shara Nelson, still fantastic despite being shorn of most of its familiar samples. The closing, Allison-assisted version of "Group 4" runs it close though, building to a metallic crescendo that even Queens Of The Stone Age in their artier moments might envy.
Any disappointments? Probably only the complete and mysterious absence of any material from my favourite Massive album, "Protection", from the setlist. Otherwise, they produced a nail-bitingly intense two hour set, possibly the tightest I've seen them perform yet; shocks and surprises all over the place, and even the sleepier moments of "100th Window" given an agreeable roughening up. In such apparently adverse times, a small, sweet triumph.
MASSIVE ATTACK Collected (Virgin/EMI)
Essentially a 15-year stock take spread over six sides of vinyl, given the glacially slow work rate common to Bristolian trip hop acts (hows that third album coming along, Portishead?) a more expansive collection than the 14 tracks assembled here would perhaps dig too deeply into the discography. What Collected lacks, unfortunately, is any kind of context: the closest youll get to sleevenotes are the succession of shout outs for the websites of Greenpeace, CND, The Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International, Control Arms and Make Trade Fair.
To be fair, though, Collected is mostly brilliant, the kind of music that needs no route map. Safe From Harms atomic burble of a bassline and Shara Nelsons molten soul vocals are whipped by nuclear winter winds; Tricky wheezes through a bad neighbourhood on Karmacoma, later recast as Overcome on his debut solo album Maxinquaye. Arguably modelling the heaviest bassline here against strong competition (and the closest the song gets to a tune), Angel is disturbingly chilly for something that, on paper, might read as a love song; its more like a hymn of utter dependence. That frostiness pervades pretty much all of the Mezzanine album and, consequently, its selections here: the stark, glacial, ice sculpture beauty of Teardrop remains unmelted by Elizabeth Frasers gurgling baby talk, and the Velvet Underground sample hangs above Risingson like spirits drifting over marshland.
At the other end of their emotional spectrum, Protection might be their most affecting, least affected moment. Synthetic percussion clatters and chatters like hearts beating, and Tracey Thorns vocal carries a gender-morphing lyric of open-armed support. As the heart and soul have been systematically leached from their albums over the years, early songs like this shine like a beacon, a place like home.
The three inclusions from the unhappy latest 100th Window, a hermetically sealed album that looked and sounded like the work of a man toiling alone, untroubled by daylight, provoke a jarring Whats that doing on here? response: time hasnt been kind to them. It seems an especially cruel programming decision to follow the antiseptic Butterfly Caught with Unfinished Sympathy: the latter may be pushing the age of consent but it remains a pitch perfect assemblage of samples, beats, strings and Shara Nelsons commanding vocals. (And, like When Doves Cry, it has no bassline.)
Five Man Army is perhaps the one track here that benefits most from reappraisal, a four-handed slow-motion relay race of verbal dexterity, casually dropping in references to Sony, Marconi, Subbuteo and visa cards, with Horace Andy fluttering around the periphery of the action like a referee. Sly frames a stately performance by neglected guest vocalist Nicolette. The only new track here is the closing Live With Me, on which Terry Callier warms up his voice with a lupine howl. Its their best song in over half a decade, given extra gravitas by a string arrangement that sounds like a scissored Barbers Adagio. Is there hope for the future? Well, maybe.
Super Furry Animals/Massive Attack/Big Leaves Cardiff International Arena 20 December 1999