Just the name itself suggests waves of dubby synths, deep basslines, martial yet half-asleep beats and croony vocals. Sure, they helped define a genre for the 90s, that lame "trip hop" tag so many claimed to be part of and so few deserved, producing much groundbreaking music, especially in the shape of their debut "Blue Lines" (1991), which helped set DJ culture into the mainstream, and "Mezzanine" (1998) that added heavy, howling guitars in the mix to a mostly stunning effect.
So, what's to expect from this, their 5th album proper in a mere twenty years career ? Well, as many other reviewers noted, a bit of the same and something different at once. First striking thing is the actual sound of the whole record. Some pointed out a supposed return to the coldness of "Mezzanine", but that's not at all what I hear here. If "100th Window", their 2003 effort, was a letdown to many fans, being more of a 3D solo effort than a collective work, in fact it furthered the post-punk hint "Mezzanine" suggested, replacing the loud guitar shriek with icy electro beats. The results were, to say the least, mixed, but at least it was still seeking forward, sonically speaking. On "Heligoland", by contrast, everything is understated, from the drum patterns to the shy basslines, from a quiet organ part in the background to voices you feel are more dreamt than actually performed. That's a record that almost begs forgiveness for existing at all, rather than punching its pride in your face, which is why it probably won't get among die-hard fans (let alone the mainstream) the same praise as their giddy peaks mentioned above.
Take, for example, languid opener "Pray For Rain", magnified by TV On The Radio's Tunde Adebimpe ; on previous records, songs like "Safe From Harm", "Angel", "Protection" and even "Future Proof" were kicking proceedings in panache and style, but here you get a moody lament over a tense rolling drumbeat that keeps things tight but never to the point of explosion. If there's a revolution this time around (and as far as I know nobody pointed this out yet), that's precisely the fact that, for once, Massive Attack seem to have opted for a rather organic simplicity instead of creating the beat monster everyone expected (especially in the wake of the awesome "United Snakes" released in 2006 as the flip to "False Flags", and that could have been a welcome addition here).
Yet for all simple it appears, "Heligoland" is a much thought of record, being neither minimal nor easy, it's just that the main body of work hides behind the curtains. As always, the vocalists guestlist must have been quite helpful too : the two Martina Topley-Bird contributions, on the false calmdown "Psyche" and the tense "Babel" shine on, while, oddly, the exquisitely lightweight "Paradise Circus" - an obvious choice for the single - could have been an outtake from that singer's great LP, "Blue God"... except that it's performed (almost haunted, more like) by ex-Mazzy Star diva Hope Sandoval. Also, while not being a big Elbow fan to be frank, I have to give an accolade to their frontman Guy Garvey, who provides his wonderful, almost atonal falsetto on "Flat Of The Blade", making that difficult seemingly weird song sound like an early Peter Gabriel lost gem. Overall the record is less diverse but more consistent than other Massive LPs ; like another reviewer rightly pointed out, there's no real standout tracks yet there's no filler either (I still can't figure out, though, why Damon Albarn has been casted for the relatively dull "Saturday Come Slow", apart from his obvious friendship with the band).
Still, for all great those guests' performances are (and it has to be noted that for each one of them, the backing tracks seem to have been made up especially this time more than ever), it's from 3D himself and regular partner Horace Andy that the best comes again here ; at first together with Daddy G. on the narcotic anthem "Splitting The Atom", then the latter delivers on "Girl I Love You", which despite what its unworthy title might suggest, is a broody reggae-rock hybrid, driven by an epileptic bassline, while, like on "100th Window", the former gets to sound alarmingly worried and warmly seductive at the same time. At that, "Rush Minute" and "Atlas Air" are arguably the best things here, almost towers of song reaching the same heights the frightening "Antistar" did as the closer on the much maligned predecessor to this album.
So overall, "Heligoland" might not be as groundbreaking as the stuff Massive Attack are most known for, but it showcases a collective (with the back of Daddy G, largely absent from the previous decade's output) daring to experiment in his own field, which will be fair enough for some, and disappointing for others. But believe me, a bit like their underrated "Protection" (1994), that beast of a sensitive record (their best effort in my opinion, still), this really, almost physically, GROWS on you.