Spotlight: Massive Attack, 15 Years On

Massive Attack

Massive Attack

Hard to believe, but true: Massive Attack, Bristol’s self-defining urban blues collective, have been with us for over 15 years. With its constituent parts all approaching their fifth decade, the Wild Bunch are possibly no longer so wild. And with only Robert Del Naja (3D) clocking in regular hours at the day-job, it has to be added that no longer qualify as much of a bunch. Neither of these alter the fact that a fifth album proper – Weather Underground – is due within the year. Or more pertinently that March 2006 sees the release of Collected, the inevitable milestone of greatest bits, kind-of-hits and an extra CD of mixes ‘n’ the like.

As the earth continues to spin on its axis, musicOMH takes advantage of this uncharacteristic display of retrospection and offers its own words on the most massive werks of Messrs. 3D, G, and Mushroom. However, should the cosy glow of the past prove too welcome, be advised that when all is said and done, inertia will creep…

Eschewing chronological order, Massive Attack’s Collected is a surprisingly seamless work. Though moving ruthlessly forward has been Robert Del Naja’s firm edict since Unfinished Sympathy caught everyone off-guard with its breathtaking distillation of dance-era smarts, Afro-American soul salvation, European cinematics and a distinctly British paranoia, Collected’s shifting dynamics harbour something akin to a singular vision. That this vision is roughly the work of three increasingly disparate individuals is even more remarkable.

In the beginning there was rhythm. Bristol had never been exactly the centre of the world when it came to music. However, in the late ’70s and early ’80s post-punk, the birthplace of Cary Grant did see the limited rise of The Pop Group. Once Pop Group mainman Mark Stewart announced that We Are All Prostitutes, mixing an incendiary amount of dub reggae, punkish white noise with a strictly marxist politick, seeds were sown that would lead to the melting pot sound and sensibilities of Smith & Mighty, Portishead, DJ Krust, and of course, the Wild Bunch.

Never a ‘sound’ in the Jamaican tradition of home-made speaker-systems with a rabble-rousing MC, the Wild Bunch were a loose group of DJ’s and ‘faces’ that gathered around Clifton’s Dug Out Club circa 1987, around the same time as something loosely termed ‘dance music’ was about to begin its decade-or-so dominance of pop.

“Indeed, it wasn’t long before somebody added the 1 + 1 of this combination and reached the 3 of ‘trip-hop’, a label that Del Naja and co. are still trying to shake off”

Initially consisting of future super-producer Nellee Hooper, the ill-fated Claude Williams (AKA Willie Wee), and the towering figure of Daddy G (Grant Marshall), the Wild Bunch soon caught others in their gravitational pull. Robert Del Naja and Andrew Vowles (Mushroom) would eventually join and leave forming Massive Attack. On the way, Del Naja’s roommate Adrian Thaws become a noncommittal member of the group.

Something of a disciple of Mark Stewart, Thaws first surfaced as an MC. Even way before he failed to provide enough lyrics for the band’s second album Protection, his erratic behaviour had earned him the permanent monicker of Tricky Kid, quickly truncated to plain ol’ Tricky by the time first album Blue Lines hit the pressing plants.

Areas of Bristol were as racially mixed as parts of London, Birmingham and Manchester. For the second and third-generation Afro-Caribbean population that coalesced around areas like Bristol’s St. Paul, London’s Notting Hill, and Birmingham’s Lozells Road, Reggae had been king.

Though there was no direct impact on the breaks-led hip-hop movement that grew out of New York’s Bronx, Reggae’s centrality of the role of the DeeJay and producer shared a common thread with the this new, vibrant technological sound. Also, the primacy of the beat, though much more urgent in hip-hop, had been central to Jamaican music since the days of Ska and Rocksteady. Both styles were integral to the emergent Massive Attack sound, particularly when spiced with a not inconsiderate amount of marijuana haze.

Indeed, it wasn’t long before somebody added the 1 + 1 of this combination and reached the 3 of ‘trip-hop’, a label that Del Naja and co. are still trying to shake off.

“It’s no exaggeration to place Unfinished Sympathy in the same classic strata as Marvin Gaye’s I Heard It Through The Grapevine, the O’Jays Backstabbers, or a party-pack of Chic singles”

The ’90s dance decade had really begun in earnest when M/A/R/R/S‘ Pump Up The Volume hit number in 1987. It wasn’t long after that London’s Soul II Soul briefly achieved something many had thought improbable, – taking an identifiably British black sound overground on both sides of the Atlantic.

But Jazzie B’s funki-dreads (or ‘designer dreads’ to their detractors) soon found their patented, hammer-like Soul II Soul beat so thoroughly mined by imitators, that all that was left for posterity was a few branded t-shirts left outside charity shops. However, notice had been served that British music with a ‘blacker’ sound could take on American’s deep traditions and beat them at their own game. Massive Attack’s debut UK chart hit Unfinished Sympathy underlined that and more.

Blocky synths, not a million miles away from the Pet Shop Boys landmark West End Girls, scaled up and down with giddy, panicky force – implying a sweeping drama of, well, cinematic proportions. Indeed, the now-parallel lines of film music and a certain kind of epic pop that followed – see also Portishead, Lamb, David Holmes, AIM – could arguably have found their root here such was the persuasive immediacy of the record.

In turn, propelled by the phased, insistent, unyielding Bob James double-time shuffle beat, Shara Nelson‘s pleading, imploring account of a damaged relationship implies a interpretative subtext way beyond what a formal reading of what lyric, arrangement and chord structure could ever hope to delineate.

Its no exaggeration to place Unfinished Sympathy in the same classic strata as Marvin Gaye‘s I Heard It Through The Grapevine, the O’Jays’ Backstabbers, or a party-pack of Chic singles for recordings that despite their delicious visceral upsurge, are stacked-high with a lifetime’s worth of bitterness and foreboding. Not bad for a wild bunch of Bristolians still the best side of 25.

“However, the gilded layers of Protection said much for craft as an antonym for improvisation, and remains one of the shining achievements for British music of the ’90s”

Unfinished Sympathy would codify what was to come from Massive Attack over the next 15 years, but its sequenced strings and cross-textured rhythms had little in common with the stoned soul picnic of Blue Lines.

Though sharing the sense of palpable dread of Unfinished Sympathy, Safe From Harm’s lock-tight Billy Cobham loop, floating free in a ocean of reverb, owed a clear debt to the ever-fertile isle of Jamaica. Whether recruiting Horace Andy to reprise his evergreen Skylarking, or the spacey, spare Five Man Army, Blue Lines’ debt to dub is implicit in every narrative bass-line and smoky rap.

For a time Massive Attack were not only massive in their appeal, but just Massive in name. Censored lest any sensitive souls interpret the trio’s intention to glorify in episode one of the Gulf War, the band reluctantly agreed to shorten their name. Rumours that the band’s plans to call themselves Massive Starvation after international sanctions were imposed in the war’s aftermath have since been scotched.

Regardless, it was back on the attack by the time of 1994’s Protection. Never musicians in the conventional sense, the new record would be the result of meticulous studio work. Entirely different in feel and mood to Blue Lines, the band themselves have raised doubts about its quality. However, the gilded layers of Protection said much for craft as an antonym for improvisation, and remains one of the shining achievements for British music of the ’90s.

With Wild Bunch founder member Nellee Hooper on production duties with master-mixer Mark ‘Spike’ Stent, Protection’s symmetrical structure once again contained Horace Andy and Tricky, but there were some entirely new additions that diversified the Massive sound ever further.

Familiar to postgraduate bedsitters everywhere, Tracey Thorn and Ben Watt’s Everything But The Girl already had a firm following. With James Brown’s The Payback stretched to breaking-point tension, Massive Attack gave the duo star billing on the album’s titular opener, and a new afterhours market of post-clubbers opened up to them.

With ear never far from the ground, the group recruited Nicolette, who’s Now Is Early album contained the post-hardcore / early jungle record Waking Up and the off-kilter No Government as released by club favourites Shut Up And Dance. As Thorn and Watt had been an integral part of Protection and Better Things, so Nicolette’s ethereal co-compositions Sly and Three extended the album’s symmetrical structure, a circle squared by Tricky’s hand in Karmacoma and Euro Child, before he found the exit door.

“(Liz) Fraser and silent fourth-member Horace Andy lent flesh-tones to Mezzanine’s monochromatic moods of fear and loathing.”

But perhaps the most important inclusion amongst Protection’s co-credits would be the presence of Scottish jazz / classical composer Craig Armstrong. Armstrong’s studiedly pristine contributions to instrumentals Weather Storm and Heat Miser would point most accurately to the future of Massive Attack.

Armstrong played a large part in the band’s Virgin-subsidised Melankolic label, but his subtle addition of classical elements would magnify into something approaching monolithic in the hands of Del Naja and producer Neil Davidge in 1998’s much-anticipated Mezzanine album.

During the four-year gap in release schedules, the trio netted a slew of celebrity endorsements. Never one to refuse a ride on a passing bandwagon, Madonna recruited the band to contribute to a cover of Marvin Gaye’s I Want You. Massive Attack’s international profile had never been higher.

Mezzanine’s shift from the undertow of R ‘n’ B quickly alienated Andrew Vowles, and Davidge stepped in. Though the album’s icy textures overlaid with the white noise of Angelo Bruschini’s fuzz-toned guitar gained critical plaudits, Mezzanine – possibly purposefully – took the band away from the utility of upscale dinner parties.

Del Naja has since spoken of the band’s need to highlight (or is that lowlight?) the melancholic aspect of popular song, but new tracks like the slightly-mannered dislocation of Inertia Creeps spoke of something beyond the pleasurable frisson of sadness that has been part of the palette of pop since Cole Porter and beyond. Now Mezzanine’s dense atmospherics aimed for some existential void somewhere between Joy Division and then-yet-to-be-fully-pardoned progressive rock, like Del Naja’s oft-quoted admiration for Mike Oldfield‘s Tubular Bells.

Mezzanine’s surprise turn came in the form of Cocteau Twin Liz Fraser, who’s siren-song rubber-stamped 4AD’s alternative pathway to 80’s pop. Fraser and silent fourth-member Horace Andy lent flesh-tones to Mezzanine’s monochromatic moods of fear and loathing.

Though party material it certainly wasn’t, tracks like the towering, dub-laden Angel and the steadily unfolding layers of Teardrop – forever allied with its unforgettable womb-with-a-view video – were ample pickings for film and TV editors looking to add a soupcon of edge, anticipation, and most of all, street credo when white-eyed close-ups, swift cut-to’s and methodish thespianism were just not enough.

“To some, 100th Window’s barbed wire sound disappointed, some dismissing its similar viscosity as a repeat tour of Mezzanine’s less accessible territories”

With Grant Marshall off on extended paternity leave, 2003’s 100th Window was virtually the work of Del Naja alone. To some, 100th Window’s barbed wire sound disappointed, some dismissing its similar viscosity as a repeat tour of Mezzanine’s less accessible territories.

As part of Collected’s mosaic of moments, 100th Window’s pick of tracks are less shadowed than on that album’s dark night of the soul. Butterfly Caught’s taut arabesque, suffused with Del Naja’s pitch-perfect evocation of the track’s sombre tension, was also, like elsewhere on the album, arabic in styling.

Sinead O’Connor provided 100th Window’s now-requisite ethereality – as captured here on the floating What Your Soul Sings. But another Del Naja showcase – Future Proof – has its heart set firmly in the cause of weightless dissonance and strikes the only bum note in the whole collection.

Using ideas from collaborative studio sessions with members of Spiritualized‘s Lupine Howl, Del Naja also drew on Charles Jennings and Lori Fena’s book about internet security. On the eve of a selection of live shows to promote the record, Del Naja found himself the victim of the bitterest of ironies, when he was arrested in connection with child pornography charges, all charges eventually dropped.

A figure who’s relative fame lends him a certain authority, Del Naja has been more than vocal in criticising western policies towards the middle east, and believes that he was a perfect target of an increasingly controlling home security.

Perhaps its no coincidence that Massive Attack’s next album, Weather Underground, is also the name of a 2003 documentary about the Weathermen, a group of 60’s militant protestors radicalised by America’s involvement in the ‘police action’ of Vietnam.

Regardless, the Terry Callier-led current single Live With Me is something of a revelation. Folk-soul legend Callier is mixed way-out in front, the soaring strings shifting tempo and mood with breathless authority. A plea for reconciliation and understanding, Live With Me can also be interpreted on many levels.

In fact, it sounds just like…Massive Attack.

buy Massive Attack MP3s or CDs
Spotify Massive Attack on Spotify

More on Massive Attack
Massive Attack – Heligoland
Massive Attack @ Royal Festival Hall, London
Massive Attack @ Brixton Academy, London
Spotlight: Massive Attack, 15 Years On
Massive Attack – Danny The Dog OST