England - Full Moon 79 - 03/18/03
Fuck the NME's New Rock Revolution - Massive Attack are the most punk rock band in this
country. And it's not just about guitars.
Back in 1991, at the height of the Gulf War Mk I, the collective of 3D, Mushroom and Daddy G,
along with friends such as Tricky, Horace Andy and Shara Nelson, released their lauded / revolutionary
/ seminal (delete according to preference) debut album, Blue Lines. Back then, its initial release
was marred by the censoring of their own name. Thanks to the UK's over-sensitivity, Blue Lines
first appeared attributed to 'Massive' - the second half of their moniker apparently deemed too
pertinent to our country's concurrent bombing of innocent civilians in the Middle East. Fast
forward 12 years, and the 'trip-hop' genre spawned in the wake of this masterpiece is dead and
buried, while the establishment's wariness of politicised, home-grown hip-hop has waned to the
extent that the Brit Awards can showcase an anti-war virtual duet between Ms Dynamite and George
So, why the outrageous claim at the top of this piece? A) Massive Attack were anti-establishment
when The Strokes were still in short trousers, and B), instead of reaping the commercially rewarding
but artistically diminishing returns of retreading Blue Lines' well-worn path, they have
taken the far less obvious route of musical progression, confounding both commercial and critical
expectations. Their quiet revolution has given way to an even quieter evolution, so in 2003 Massive
Attack look nothing like the band of 1991.
100th Window has unfairly met with critical confusion. People have admired its effort
but blatantly still hankered after Massive's trademark softly spoken rhymes, clever samples, and
their dancehall-hewn rootsiness. A quick reconnaissance of their journey to this album, however,
yields a clear and deliberate route from then to now: after the cinematic paranoia and polish of
second album Protection, Mezzanine's half-lit alienation - PiL do hip-hop filtered
through Radiohead - shifted the goalposts in the same way My Bloody Valentine's Loveless
rendered the entire 'shoegazing' movement pointless. Morcheeba never knew what hit 'em.
So now, 100th Window. Where previously the ongoing presence of Mushroom (since departed)
and Daddy G (on fatherhood sabbatical) retained in the sound final remnants of the band's Wild
Bunch sound system genesis, now the sound is stretched, tested to its limits. The familiar beats
and grooves are eschewed in favour of a perpetual bass-driven pulse. Moroccan strings and fluttering,
tetchy percussion accentuate tense, throbbing atmospherics. Roots have given way to rootlessness;
soulfulness has found its negative image.
Horace Andy - apart from 3D the only voice to grace all four Massive records - appears on three
tracks, but he sounds unrecognisable; his flighty falsetto used to sound empowering; now it's
almost bereft of spirit, disenfranchised. Sinead O'Connor, latest in an illustrious line of torch
singers employed by Massive Attack over the years - Nelson, Tracy Thorn, Liz Frazer - is also
subsumed into the music, and is never allowed to dominate her songs in the way her predecessors
were. She becomes part of the music, mirrors its moods, is enveloped by it.
It's the dominant feel of 100th Window, the way voices fail to root the songs in reality
as they used to. This is not a criticism. Songs like "Special Cases", "What Your Soul Sings" and
"Name Taken" seem to speak of an unseen power, rendering the experience confusing and alienating,
reinforcing the music's unsettling power. This mood escalates over the course of the record,
making it something you feel rather than merely hear, and reaches its apotheosis on the final
track Antistar. Here, the post-millennial post-punk vibe builds to a (relative) frenzy. The twangy
guitar and stirring strings sound off-kilter with the spasmodic beats, lending an ethereal,
ghostly quality that goes some way to defining what Massive Attack are about right now. Typically
unpredictable, just as the song seems to be about to resolve itself, it ends, suddenly.
This is an album that never settles for the easy route, and is full of contradictions. For
someone who obviously has a point to make, 3D - or Robert Del Naja to his friends - seems content
to let his lyrics drift through the ether of the music, half-heard. It is obscure and intangible,
and yet never less than insistent and compelling. It's nowhere near as immediate as its
predecessors, but you feel its influence could stretch even further. And, unlike records by some
who once pretended to the 'trip-hop' throne, it will never, ever be played at dinner parties.
Punk's not dead - long live Massive Attack.
Copyright © 2003 James Caig