Massive Attack used to excel at taking really disparate, exciting sounds and weaving them into a tapestry of overwhelming despair, over which they spun woozy vocal melodies sung either by themselves (Daddy G, 3D) or by intriguingly chosen guest vocalists. On their finest work to date, Mezzanine, while never totally abandoning their early interest in reggae and soul, the (then) trio departed unexpectedly from laid-back, dinner party tempos, favouring an almost punishingly unhappy mood and tone. Electrical noise, squelchy bass synth and distant, distorted synths were the order of the day, along with that heavy metal guitar that cuts through “Angel”. Importantly, these crazily challenging sonics were forged onto equally sophisticated and dependable song structures – in particular, the climactic “Group Four” segued through several movements, never losing sight of its drive and mystery. Mezzanine was a knockout masterpiece; one of my undoubted albums of the decade.
Seven years on from their last effort (and it represented quite an effort to get through 100th Window), Massive Attack return as a duo, with Heligoland. Say it differently and you get “hell ego land”, possibly. Equally tenuous, sad to say, is the premise that the band have lost none of their touch, because this album is undoubtedly a disappointment. In place of the group’s formerly deft touch with textures and sonic themes, here, they seem to content to drop just one exciting sound per track, drag them out for longer than is necessary, and expect the rest to follow. It doesn’t – at its worst, Heligoland is criminally repetitive, with interesting ideas that go nowhere. “Psyche” sounds like a half-baked sketch of an instrumental backing, albeit with a notably pretty vocal performance from Martina Topley-Bird; not even a brief orchestral swell can save “Flat Of The Blade” from its interminable, ugly and atonal electronic whirrings.
On the album’s more successful tracks, Del Naja and Marshall venture further with their collection of synth presets and little chunks of melody, instead of riding along contentedly on repetitive grooves. “Girl I Love You”, for instance, is unafraid to suddenly pick up in pace, take on a gloriously filtered brass arrangement, or meld into a dissonant cloud of noise. Another highlight is “Paradise Circus”, which ebbs in on intricate bells, vibes and the softest of beats, before shifting direction, twice, replacing this arrangement with dubby bass, and then a surprisingly stirring orchestra. True, little of this progression includes a return to Daddy G-provided “blackness”, but with such thin pickings, we can hardly complain. You’re just left wishing the rest of the album was similarly risk-taking.
The other big problem affecting much of Heligoland lies in its vocals. In their earlier career, Massive Attack made careful and assiduous choices when inviting in guest singers. Shara Nelson on “Unfinished Sympathy” was an inspired move, as was the sprinkling on Liz Fraser on Mezzanine. On Heligoland, by contrast, the ageing big guns are slathered all over. You have to wait till track three to hear 3D and Daddy G for the first time; in total, they make just three vocal contributions to the whole record. That would be just about acceptable, if their replacements’ performances were particularly meaningful.
All too often, however, the individuals roped in sound either past-their-prime (does anyone really think about Hope Sandoval anymore? or Topley-Bird, for that matter?) or deeply uncaring – witness Elbow’s Guy Garvey sounding extremely disinterested on “Flat Of The Blade”. I can excuse Daddy G from being absent from 100th Window – he was on paternity leave at the time – but here, even though he has returned to the fold, his solitary vocal mark rests at a few dope-heavy lines on “Splitting The Atom”, unfortunately chained to a funhouse organ chord progression that is spun out over five minutes. Horace Andy‘s contributions are more stirring, but, in the absence of a serviceable tune, they frequently crumble into insignificance.
On the closing track, “Atlas Air”, you can tell Massive Attack are aiming for the kind of multi-section epic that was once christened “Group Four”. That they almost achieve such heights, but fall short, is an undesired shame. We all knew Massive Attack were outrageously talented producers: what we wanted was clear evidence that they were also gifted songwriters (Lord knows their outside production work has been despairingly infrequent). On Heligoland, their craft bears the undeniable mark of rustiness and laziness, to the extent that many tracks that seem superficially lovely (well of course they sound lush, given the knob-twiddling fingers involved) end up being enhanced considerably when played alongside their video treatments. What’s new on Heligoland? An unoriginal dependence on orchestral arrangements, and a surprising and crushingly saddening lack of invention and songwriting sparkle.
Pick ‘n’ mix: Girl I Love You, Paradise Circus, Saturday Comes Slow.