Posted by: Nick Walters | April 5, 2010

Massive Attack: Heligoland

Make Is Vast Cat

I’m one of those people who loved 100th Window, so that is where this review is coming from. That said, all the Massive Attack albums are so different that comparisons are rather pointless. Massive Attack are more of a collective of musicians than a band with a never-changing line-up so each album sounds vastly different to the last depending on who is in the band and who the guest vocalists are. So trying to pin down the best MA album is like trying to bottle smoke. Is Mezzanine better than Blue Lines? In some ways yes (the awesome production, the guitars) in some ways, no (it lacks a certain joy present in songs like Be Thankful off Blue Lines). Is Protection better than 100th Window? Again in depends on what you want from an MA album. I find myself playing Protection a lot, especially in these early weeks of Spring, but I consider 100th Window the superior album. I cannot listen, however, to 100th Window too often, or as background music whilst writing, as it is such an all-consuming experience that it demands your whole attention – as does Mezzanine. That’s not saying Protection is mere background music, though – it just has a different vibe.

And so to Heligoland. In comparison to its predecessor, it has a much lighter vibe – at least on first acquaintance. On first listen some of the songs sound barely there, the mood seems restrained, the tunes elusive. But gradually, it grows, until the full beauty of the album is revealed.

It opens in low-key style with Pray For Rain, all muted synths, hesitant piano riff and rolling drums, and vocals by TV On The Radio‘s Tunde Adebimpe. The interesting lyrics seem to describe a Third World country ruined by drought and war whose inhabitants’ “necks crane as they turn to pray for rain” and whose “eyes change as they learn to see through flame.” When the rain eventually comes “drops on rocks fall fast and fleeting / hearts and minds commence to beating / vision walls fall all receding”.  So it could also be about enlightenment, emancipation. There’s a wondrous bit in the middle when the tune suddenly changes, the vocals soar and it’s like the sun coming out – but eventually the main tune resumes, and the song ends with a plaintive cry of “rain!”, suggesting that freedom and enlightenment are still sought. It’s a fantastic song, though not immediate (like most of the album), and one of the best things MA have ever done.

Bedlam is up next, with vocals from Martina Topley-Bird whose highly idiosyncratic stylings suit MA down to the ground. This features incredibly complex-sounding drum programming, drainpipe basslines, dolorous synths and is a skippy, almost 2-step beat. Problem is, it goes on for about a minute too long and by the end all you’re hearing is the production. Splitting the Atom follows, with vocals from Robert del Naja, Horace Andy and – for the only time on the record, Grant Marshall, who sounds as miserable as fuck. This suits the song, which is a dour, comatose reggae plod, dull on first listen but it rapidly becomes hypnotic, and the beats are deep and satisfying. Horace Andy sings on the next track, Girl I Love You, which features the trademark bubbling MA bassline and some fantastic blaring horns. Psyche follows with the second and last contribution from Topley-Bird. An odd one this, doesn’t sound anything like MA have ever done before, it’s more like Philip Glass meets the Blue Aeroplanes (talking of whom, shame Angelo Bruschini wasn’t on board this time round to provide guitar wonder – but as Heligoland is OK as it is, perhaps he just wasn’t needed).  The lyrics – “I’m looking for you in the woods tonight”, “gain the wolf, gain the wolf” remind me of Being Human!

Then come two tracks which form the heart of the album. Flat of the Blade is one of the weirdest things MA have ever done; all minimalist electro-farts and odd time-signatures, and vocals from Elbow‘s Guy Garvey – which I was dreading, but his weird, almost falsetto vocals work really well on this track. The lyrics are strange, all about alienation and protection: “I’m no good in a crowd, I have skills I can’t speak of, things I have seen will chase me to the grave” , and I’m sure at one point Garvey sings: “Rivet by rivet I’ll build for my family a bulletproof moon.” Horns feature again, towards the end of the track, to immense effect, and the whole thing is curiously moving and sad. Fantastic. Then comes Paradise Circus with vocals by Hope Sandoval of Mazzy Star (a band I’ve always loved). This is a very simple, very effective song, and is incredibly, indescribably beautiful.

The album then moves back to 100th Window territory with Rush Minute. Robotic percussion, that drainpipe bass again, and muted vocals by del Naja tell a story (I think) of addiction, “I wanna be clean but I gotta get high”, “you bring pain ‘cos you got game”, the tune has an underlying, restrained, dour menace. Nice. Saturday Come Slow is next, and is the only mis-step; the tune is none too memorable, and Damon Albarn seems somehow out of place – maybe because he’s too familiar from Blur and Gorillaz, or maybe because this would have been an opportune track for us to hear more vocals from Grant Marshall. Whatever, it doesn’t ruin the album. The closing track, the seven-minute-plus Atlas Air, is excellent, a piece of propulsive, whirling electronica with a recurring almost Oriental sounding synth riff. It harks back somewhat, as Rush Minute did, to 100th Window, but is somehow more euphoric, almost gleefully brutal. A fine end to a fine album.

Overall, then, Heligoland possesses the laid-back vibe (sorry to keep using that word, but somehow it fits) of Protection AND the intensity of 100th window, combined with its own stripped-down, restrained, almost ascetic atmosphere. Whilst 100th Window was marred by a couple of weak tracks (Special Cases and the dire A Prayer For England… nothing to do with Sinead O’Connor, I just find the songs unremarkable) which make for an uneven listening experience, Heligoland is more consistent in the quality of its tracks (there are no fillers according to these ears, well maybe Saturday Come Slow).

That said, it doesn’t contain anything as blisteringly awesome as Future Proof or as brutally beautiful as Butterfly Caught. There is no Unfinished Sympathy or Teardrop here, either. This has frustrated some critics who accuse MA of having lost their spark but to me the band are, in the face of massive (sorry) expectation, continuing to forge their own sound in quiet disregard of what others may want of them or perceive them to be, in a manner reminiscent of – in ethos, not musical style – the way Mark E. Smith runs The Fall. Heligoland is the sound of Massive Attack in 2010, take it or leave it. And I will certainly take it.

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