Top positive review
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Simply amazing... but their least accessible record
on 21 January 2004
Of all Massive Attack's releases, this is the one that took the longest for me to really appreciate. On first listening, nearly a year ago now, I was of the opinion, like many other fans and critics, that the absence of Daddy G and Mushroom laid open 'holes' in the music. The songwriting, I thought, was without the soulful, melodic beauty of Blue Lines or Mezzanine. It lacked the introspective, claustrophobic soul of Protection. The beats and production certainly were not imbued with the same dark, powerful and challenging sound that placed Mezzanine among the best records of the 1990s.
So after however many more listens I've given the album, what leads me to give it five stars?
I discovered the subtlety of the emotional (if not political) content of the songs. The melodies themselves are (mostly) more fragile, more subtle than those on Mezzanine, and Del Naja does not tie their flow tightly to the beats. He allows the two to become more separate and flow around and between each other. Silence, possibly the most neglected element in modern popular music, is used to fantastic effect to create the still, reflective mood.
The real brilliance of the music comes in the way this fragility is slowly shattered by quietly menacing riffs and skittering percussion. 100th Window's dark interior has been wrapped up in it's quiet beauty, unlike Mezzanine, where more obvious dark menace was juxtaposed with ethereal beauty. Perhaps the album art is symbolic of the music - the fragile, emotional, human glass shattered by a bullet and all captured in slow motion, freeze-frame.
Inevitably with music as eerily 'chill out' as this - music full of spaces that are only momentarily filled - the album has no 'classic tracks' like 'Unfinished Sympathy', 'Karmacoma', 'Angel' or 'Teardrop', perhaps part of the reason for its lack of critical success. Rather it is memorable for the way it plays on your emotions, and for sounding so incredibly organic yet shattered and frozen.
'Future Proof' begins with a rotating synth riff that never seems to settle into a groove, keeping the song on edge throughout. Guitar licks echo around it until the low vocals come in along with a fractured beat, '...absent friends...empty pockets...they think it's soul...' The song builds to probably the most restrained, quiet fury ever put on record. Testament to Del Naja's innovation that at the climax of the track he introduces quivering ambient drones underneath the layers of guitar.
'Special Cases' floats O'Connor's haunting, powerfully wrought vocals over a brooding bass riff. There is a strange string melody that repeats over and over again ominously and is gradually mixed with wordless vocals. It slowly gets inside your head and makes everything very still, until all the layers of the song come away suddenly leaving only reverb and rotting string bass. (Incidentally, this was initially one of my least favourite tracks)
Other highlights are the pounding beats lost in the grooveless soundscape of 'Butterfly Caught', and the minute detail of 'Small Time Shot Away'.
The album is possibly more deeply layered than any of Massive Attack's earlier work. It may be wrapped up in similar clothing to 1998's Mezzanine, but its is a much darker, earthier and emotionally rich core.