Massive Attack are a seminal group of musical innovators whose early work detonated the Bristol music scene of the early 90's and unwittingly gave birth to "trip-hop". The group formed in 1987 around their influential and legendary Dug Out club and Jamaican-style soundsystem, playing a blend of hip hop, new wave reggae, early house and techno which shaped their acclaimed 1991 debut, Blue Lines
, their third album released in 1998 proved to be a creative and commercial peak selling in excess of three million albums.
Four years after the release of their best of album Collected and seven years since their last studio album 100th Window, Massive Attack return with their fifth studio album. Heligoland features original band members Daddy G and 3D, long time cohort Horace Andy and guest vocals from Damon Albarn, Hope Sandoval, Martina Topley-Bird, Guy Garvey and Tunde Adebimpe.
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Startling as this may be to thirtysomethings who grew up in prescribed awe of Massive Attack, but a whole new generation has arisen in the 12 years since their last pivotal album, Mezzanine, a generation to whom the Bristol duo are at best peripheral. So while an army of griping fans and sniping critics will argue that Heligoland doesn’t match their early triumphs, or break as much new ground, there will be younger listeners who hear it as something entirely new and recognise it for the gloomily, beguiling beauty it is.
Well, perhaps not entirely new. There are echoes throughout – of Radiohead, Portishead, even the crunching drums and soaring strings of Timbaland – which might make you think Massive Attack have finally become derivative, until you remember that they actually invented these strange, spooked sounds 20 years ago, only to see them plundered since. They’ve added new sonic flourishes – fidgety TV on the Radio guitars, some skittering Warp Records beats – but the emperors are mostly wearing their old clothes, though more stylishly than in years.
Another minor point: Heligoland could well be Massive Attack’s most consistent album. There are no songs as dazzlingly, blindingly perfect as Unfinished Sympathy, or Teardrop (although the gorgeous, satiny melancholy of Paradise Circus comes desperately close), but nor are there as many lesser tracks hiding in their shadows. The folksy, flimsy Psyche is forgettable, but every other song works its way stealthily and irrevocably under your skin, with that trademark combination of understatement and sonic richness.
Just listen to the gothic magnificence of the opening Pray For Rain, with its death-rattle percussion, mournful organ and mesmeric Tunde Adebimpe vocal, or the creeping, narcotic groove of the closing Atlas Air. In between there are songs as sleepily, dreamily rambling as Splitting the Atom (a return to the ghostly vocal interplay and dubby terrain of Risingson) or as pared down and single-minded as Rush Minute, with its relentlessly lapping waves of bubbling bass and rippling guitars.
Massive Attack spent their first 12 years as breathtaking pioneers, while 99.9% of their rivals might manage ten minutes of such inspiration. They may never be as original again, but as long as they make albums as rich, textured and seductive as Heligoland they will remain one of our most fascinating, extraordinary bands. --Jaime Gill
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