Archive for the ‘Trip Hop’ Category

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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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Massive Attack – Splitting the Atom [Music Video]

February 3, 2010

Pitchfork has posted the music video for the new Massive Attack song, “Splitting the Atom.”

In short, it does what a lot of other great music videos do; it slowly creeps up on you and wows you. Besides being a really impressive technical achievement for director Edouard Salier, it is a feat of atmosphere and mood, gelling with the song to make a complete, fully rewarding product. As for “Splitting the Atom” as a song, it’s a strange victory. It clearly contains a dizzying weight similar to the last time Massive had Daddy G around, that is, Mezzanine. The song itself is pretty simple and digestible compared to prior Massive Attack singles, but it creeps, crawling under your skin with what sounds like Animal Collective source sampling for the synth melody, some sweeping strings and a reliably excellent guest spot from Horace Andy. Daddy G and 3D Del Naja also do a good job on their vocal spots, further emphasizing the fact that good Massive Attack singles are collaborative works. As a whole, it kind of makes my expectations for the new album, Heligoland, go in two different directions. One one hand, I do like the single a lot and it makes me excited for the full album. But I’m a bit worried that the whole album may sound like a streamlined version of Mezzanine. However, I would argue that Massive Attack haven’t made a bad album yet. The closest they have come is 2003’s 100th Window, which was, despite its flaws, a sleeper success. In any case, Heligoland will be released on Tuesday February 9th, so get ready.

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Off This Century – My Favorite Albums of 2000-2009

December 25, 2009
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1. Portishead – Third

January 1, 2009

Portishead - Third

In a year where many notable works were about making great melodies with simple tools, Portishead are all about the opposite – that is, meticulously crafting complex atmospheres and destroying them brutally. Everything from the start of Portishead’s first album in ten years is an utter knock out, and something unlike listeners have ever heard before in the band’s already groundbreaking pop discography. However, almost nothing on Third is poppy, except the greatest pop song of the year, The Rip. And yet we also have what seems to be the ultimate anti-pop, the dark matter crashing of drum machines on Machine Gun. But we also have a gentle folk ballad, Deep Water. In fact, nothing on Third sounds like anything else on Third. The only indication that the songs were even made on the same planet are the still central vocals of Beth Gibbons, which sound like finely aged wine after a decade of relative inactivity. She still hits home runs every at bat, both vocally and lyrically. The second song Hunter initially sounds like the mystical clairvoyance of a crystal ball, until electric guitar rips the curtains apart and Gibbons smoothly asserts “I stand on the edge of a broken sky, and I will come down, don’t know why.” Her delivery is crucial; it is as uncertain as it is asserted, which makes little to no sense in theory, but in practice Third is one of the finest vocal performances heard in years because Gibbons makes the subject of her vocals, heartfelt explanations of social rejection and confusion which she has honed for years, into something completely tangible and utterly scary. But Portishead is a band of more than one talent, and would be lost without the backing music of Geoff Barrow and Adrian Utley. The dynamic duo craft the band’s most harrowing set of tunes yet, leading off with noir jams that break off suddenly, terrifying organs over cataclysmic waltzes from hell, ever-changing rhythms and jarring atmospherics. The spirit of the album is the dynamics, which will continue to shock, surprise, and haunt until the next Portishead record, and interviews tell us that may not be as far off as one would gather from the bands previous hiatus. However, Third is a house of cards that listeners could be content hearing built up and burned down for decades. It is a horrifyingly heavy album, not in the hardcore Finnish death metal way, but in the classic heavy metal way, or the way in which one feels while extremely sick and when the nauseous world seems to bear down onto the tiniest of breaking points. By the end of the album’s closer, Threads, one might actually believe that the world and everything in it is coming to an end. Of all the hyped reunions of the past few years, Portishead are just about the only to not only match but surpass the hype and their previous work with a monumental album.

Portishead

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Portishead – Portishead

September 12, 2007

With Dummy, Portishead cemented their niche in the world of trip hop, and honestly had no obligations to carry out afterwards. Dummy was a fantastic album, good enough that even if the group had stopped there and made it a one time deal, the album would not have faded into obscurity. In any case, Portishead’s early end has always felt slightly unrealized. Portishead only made two studio albums, one live album, and a few stray singles, b-sides, and rarities. It takes a very special band to be this appreciated with so little for fans to go on.

The self titled album has always been the overlooked one. Dummy was clearly the better album, and considering the band only really had two albums, that makes Portishead the bands worst album. This curse of relativity is unfortunate. The truth is, it’s a great record that appeals to fans way more than direct connection with the masses through the radio.

In comparison to Dummy, Portishead is darker and more adventurous. It is more elaborately produced, detailed, and complex. While Dummy had some more tender moments (the sublime It Could Be Sweet and the jazzy Sour Times), Portishead is a blistering, difficult album that pulls no punches. In that way it is a logical step forward from Dummy, but it lacks some of it’s simplistic charm. Then again, listening to a follow up to an album as iconic and popular as Dummy entails some unfair expectations. This album was never supposed to be a direct sequel. It has it’s own identity. While it may be lacking in comparison, it stands pretty strong on it’s own.

Or at the very least it expands on Portishead’s repertoire in a way that gives the short lived group more form. The opening song, Cowboys, pins the albums style, to a certain extent. Beth Gibbon’s voice is now more jazzy, regal, and brave. The music that accompanies it is significantly darker and more big sounding. What accompanies the signature heavy beats and well placed scratching are more disjointed and disturbing melodies. Even when Gibbons is belting out some of her more positive lyrics, the music is disturbing and perverse enough to warp the end result.

This switch from melancholy to disturbing is interesting, even compelling. Being partial to the fact that this really isn’t supposed to be Dummy 2 doesn’t hide the fact that the albums most interesting and compelling moments occur when the music gets vulnerable. Mourning Air makes use of cold, chilling cymbals and subtle horns. This is surely almost as breaking as Roads, which is a pretty great accomplishment. Undenied is also a slower, more touching venture, which somehow manages to feel somewhat warm with it’s loneliness. That meaty bass thumping always does the trick. The closing Western Eyes is a really shockingly vulnerable way to end Portishead’s last album. After gently introducing a piano melody and one of Gibbon’s most beautiful performances, a jazzed little piano roll is the quaint, subtly biting end to the album. These songs make a little more sense, and give the album clarity.

But no less important are the muscular, more big sounding songs that are distinct to the album. Cowboys is a fantastic opener, and is only complemented by the skilled use of strings and horns on All Mine. Seven Months is actually a fit of anger, in a sexy sort of way, and is about as liberating as Portishead gets.

While Dummy might be the focal point of Portishead’s short lived career, it is really a shame to stop there when such a good album is up for grabs for further listening. On one hand, the bands self titled sophomore album has some uninspired moments, specifically Half Day Closing and Only You, two easy picks for worst Portishead songs. The flipside is that there are many songs here that stand very tall and give the band more depth. It is a little more difficult, but it yields great rewards upon further exploration. Despite the fact that it is miles behind it’s predecessor, this is an album that is worth attention for reasons other than the fact that Portishead had very little material for people to feast on.