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Massive Attack – Heligoland

February 19, 2010

Massive Attack - Heligoland

When it comes to Massive Attack, my general policy is to go with my gut. I say this while understanding that their two indisputable masterworks, Blue Lines and Mezzanine, were hardly easy albums and Protection and 100th Window were sleeper successes that took years of close listening to come to grips with. All of these albums, despite their ever-shifting reputation, were albums that I decided I really liked after casting away everything I knew about Massive Attack: where they were from, what they were intending, what anyone else thought of them and how said albums compared to one another. The result of this isolated thinking are four albums that are connected by subtle elements but are otherwise quite individual.

Heligoland, Massive Attack’s sixth album and first since 2004’s soundtrack to the film Danny the Dog, has almost nothing riding on the question of its success. Massive Attack, whatever form the name may represent (in this case, the permanent 3D Del Naja and the newly rejoined Daddy G), have proved over and over again that they have nothing to prove. You don’t have to do more than just say “Blue Lines” and “Mezzanine” in any argument about who has been the most influential trip-hop artist of all time, and their catalogue carries a wealth of hidden treasures that act as a backbone to the best run of singles in recent memory, as documented on the 2006 retrospective Collected. This lack of precedence informed Danny the Dog‘s span of styles ranging from ambient interludes to shotgun hardcore techno. More than anything, Danny the Dog sounded like Massive Attack crystallized in its purest form, say what you will about its lack of clear highlights. Just about the only thing we can gain from Heligoland, besides another great album, is being able to rest easy knowing these guys are still making music.

But when listening to this album, it’s really difficult to forget the other albums which it suggests fragments of, and even harder to forget the six year gestation period. The fact is, several years of hard work should have yielded a much more focused album than this. Judging by production and album art, it seems as if 3D Del Naja got a knock on his door and found that the deadline crept up on him. Even if these songs are written well, they should definitely sound better, and most of the production work on Heligoland doesn’t hold up to the amount of talent poured into them.

There is, in fact, an almost ridiculous amount of starpower Heligoland. One of Massive Attack’s perennial draws has been their fantastic organization and execution with guest vocalists, and Heligoland rings in the likes of longtime collaborator Horace Andy, TV on the Radio Vocalist Tunde Adebimpe, Hope Sandoval of Mazzy Star, Martina Topley Bird (most well known for her work with Tricky), Guy Garvey of Elbow and Damon Albarn of Blur and Gorillaz. Other personnel includes Adrian Utley of Portishead, David Sitek of TV on the Radio and Tim Goldsworthy of UNKLE.

Even if this album didn’t have so much support, that fact would be overshadowed by the fact that 3D and Daddy G are cool dudes and it’s good to hear them making music again. This fact is most apparent on the ending “Atlas Air,” which is succinctly a Massive Attack work, with its melodically jumpy synths and building production. It definitely sounds like Massive Attack, but that’s part of the problem. It doesn’t have the element of surprise in its composition or production work, nor does anything else on this album, and that kind of unpredictability is what makes their prior releases so thrilling. The fact of the matter is, nothing on this album is really “bad,” per se. It’s not the kind of album that you skip any tracks on, but simultaneously not an album that really gets you to sit up and take notice, even at its best moments.

The opening “Pray for Rain” is a perfect example of this sonic indifference. The dark piano melody and rolling drum hits are mysterious and unfortunately totally predictable. So is the build in the song, which would have worked well if Tunde Adebimpe’s vocals weren’t given possibly the pansiest vocal treatment yet in Massive’s canon. The same can be said of a lot of the other vocal spots on the album, which would have worked much better if given more volume or reverb. Often times, vocalists like Adebimpe and Damon Albarn sound like they are wailing in the shower instead of into an abyss like Horace Andy and Liz Fraser did on Mezzanine. The type of treatment these pieces are given makes for a result where there really are no highlights. It’s a smooth listen, and that’s just the problem.

Each song has its cool moments that are unfortunately hindered by flat production. Most of the songs, in fact, are actually written pretty well. “Girl I Love You” and “Splitting the Atom” are hypnotically heavy arrangements that could have had similar gravity to tracks on Mezzanine if they were produced right, but they fall far short of that brilliance. Tunde Adebimpe and Martina Topley Bird give good enough vocal parts on their songs, but their vocals are mostly far too bare, and when they aren’t they are cheaply doubled. A few highlights shine through the clouds, particularly Hope Sandoval’s performance on “Paradise Circus,” though the song still lacks the typical Massive sense of danger. “Girl I Love You” is another track with Horace Andy on vocals, and though it nearly rips off Radiohead with its atonal horn section near the end, it is still a gripping listen. These songs are unfortunately pretty lonely.

The deluxe issue of this album only further accentuates its problems, mostly because the remixes are quite good and show how the album tracks might have sounded with more energy and urgency. Once again, it’s not that the album tracks are bad really; we simply know that Massive Attack can write, sing, sound better. We’ve seen them do that enough times now to expect that from them, and thus Heligoland feels like an underwhelming compromise. It is completely feasible that Heligoland can draw in new fans for Massive Attack, but for their longtime listeners, it is sure to disappoint despite providing a few highlights, and it is Massive Attack’s worst album by a large margin.

Massive Attack

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One comment

  1. Ooooh, you REALLY didn’t like it, haha.
    “Compromise” was a really fantastic word for this album, and I think after 100th Window, I was just glad to see the guys back together again. It’s certainly no Blue Lines or Mezzanine. Great review.



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