Seven years after their last album, Massive Attack return to find a musical landscape very much touched by their influence. Following on from Portishead’s sinisterly brilliant comeback last year, and the mutation of trip-hop to dubstep (indeed, the genre’s brightest star, Burial, is to remix several tracks from Heligoland), all the signs are that Robert “3D” Del Naja and Grant “Daddy G” Marshall remain as vital as they’ve ever been.
It’s borne out by the list of guest names littering the sleeve of Heligoland. They’ve always found talented people to work with, but a cast list including Guy Garvey, Damon Albarn and Hope Sandoval is almost guaranteed to have any music fan worth their salt salivating.
Musically the elements that define them remain – the scattered beats, the eerie, claustrophobic atmosphere, a slightly sleepy, almost trippy feel – but the songs here are their most consistent in years. It’s a far cry from the listless mess which made 100th Window such a disappointment.
Opening track Pray For Rain is simply magnificent, a slow, brooding masterpiece featuring Tunde Adebimpe from TV On The Radio‘s distinctively downbeat vocals. The looped guitar riffs and subtle drum patterns give an almost post-apocalyptical feel to the song, until at about the four minute mark, a beautifully sweet instrumental breaks through the darkness.
Elsewhere, Guy Garvey makes for a surprisingly perfect fit for 3D and Daddy G. Weird electronic gurgles underscore his trademark wistful vocals on Flat Of The Blade as he turns in a much more menacing performance than Elbow watchers are used to, especially when he mournfully laments about the “things that I’ve seen will chase me to the grave”.
There’s also the traditional appearance by reggae star Horace Andy, firstly on the slight, skanking Splitting The Atom, where his affecting falsetto meshes perfectly with Daddy G and 3D’s drawling raps. Lyrically, there’s nods to the current financial climate (“the bankers have bailed, the mighty retreat”) and its skeletal minimalism fits in perfectly with the slightly despondent atmosphere.
Andy also takes lead vocals on Girl I Love You, musically a sequel to Mezzanine’s Angel. But, as ever with Massive Attack, they really touch the heights of brilliance when paired with angelic sounding female singers. Martina Topley-Bird, 16 years after her work on Tricky‘s pioneering Maxinquaye, takes centre-stage on the slightly lightweight Psyche – she’s much more effective on the brilliant Babel, its skittery, eerie backbeats providing a great contrast with her honey-sweet vocals.
Best of all is Paradise Circus, which is, quite simply, one of the loveliest things they’ve ever recorded. Hope Sandoval, of the woefully underrated Mazzy Star, provides vocals over a euphoric piano and – yes, really – handclaps. It’s a much needed burst of sunshine in an otherwise gloomy album, and comes close to rivalling Unfinished Sympathy as one of their finest songs.
In this company, Damon Albarn’s guest appearance on Saturday Come Slow is almost a disappointment – retreading the marvellous work he did on The Good The Bad & The Queen but with less impact. Besides, the creeping dread of Atlas Air proves that Massive Attack don’t always need guest vocalists as 3D takes the lead on an epic club anthem which builds to a thunderous climax.
Heligoland doesn’t touch the perfection of Blue Lines, but few albums do. It is though a return to form from one of the real pioneering bands of our age.