Monday, 1 February 2010

Album review: Heligoland - Massive Attack (Virgin)

My last brush with Massive Attack was in 2006 when they played the ghastly O2 Wireless Festival in Hyde Park. They headlined that night, following the psychadelic carnival of Flaming Lips - a band who had no shame in covering Bohemian Rhapsody during their set and somehow pulling it off. By comparison the 3D led Massive were bleak. Dense guitar led songs with monotinous vocals dominated while random numbers were projected off the sides of the stage. Enjoyable it wasn't and there was a real sense that the band (collective?) had finally lost its way with the departure of Daddy G and the recently released and poorly recieved 100th Window album.

It was with some trepidation and a certain degree of indifference therefore that I approached their latest offering. There is nothing worse than a band you truly believed in delivering below par material which in some way damages their legend. Let us not forget that Massive Attack's legend is greater than most - delivering Blue Lines - perhaps the definitive album of 90's multicultural Britain and a number of subsequent albums which, while not redefining modern soul music, have at least sustained it.

Opening track Pray for Rain strikes me as an odd choice as a statement of intent. Sung by TV on the Radio's Tunde Adebimpe it is subtle and understated and lacks the impact of say Safe from Harm or Angel which opened previous long players. Having said that, at its heart is a lovely pop song and its dubby bass and jungle drums bring to mind Karmacoma which can't be such a bad thing.

Less good is Splitting the Atom, a duet between 3D and Daddy G. Its nice enough but doesn't really go anywhere. Unfortunately this is true of a number of the 3D led tunes on the album and for me the tracks with guest turns (with the exception of Martina Topley Bird's two underwhelming contributions) far outshadow the likes of Rush Minute and Atlas Air.

The Horace Andy contribution Girl I love you has a fantastic throbbing bass and would have made a good opener - it lacks the magestic sweep of say Angel but its post punky guitars could well make it a live favourite.

Its the new collaborations though which are the real highlights. Elbow's Guy Garvey sounds like a demented loner on Flat of the Blade. 'Things I've seen will chase me to the grave. I'm not good in a crowd. I've got skills I can't speak of' he mourns. The production on this track (and indeed the album as a whole) is excellent with abstract electronic beats giving way to Garvy's insane ramblings. Bettter still, and for me the stand out track on the album is Paradise Circus sung by Hope Sandoval from Mazzy Star. The obvious reference point is Mezzanin'e Teardrop but Sandovel brings enough to the track to make it her own and the strings at its outro are truly moving. Damon Albarn's contribution is more playful and wouldn't be out of place on the most recent Blur Album Think Tank. 'Do you love me' he sings - somewhat ironic given his somewhat divisive reputation.

Some of Massive Attack's best work is on Heligoland - individual tracks will stand up to repeated listenings on Ipod shuffle - and the beats, as always, have far more depth and texture than typical 'downbeat' acts. Having said that, the album as a whole feels somewhat disjointed. The guest turns make it feel more like an Unkle album than a Massive attack one and I can't help but feel that the sequencing of the tracks could be better. Heligoland doesn't see Massive reinventing their sound and is unlikely to win them new fans but with the return of Daddy G's soulful input (and wonderful cover art) they will keep their existing fans happy and in many ways that represents a step forward in itself.

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