Saturday, February 20, 2010

Massive Attack's Heligoland

Let me dispense with the usual build up and say something about this album that you’ve probably guessed already, given the history of this band: Massive Attack’s Heligoland is a very good album. It’s typically sinister and serious, built from a mix of industrial beats, sparse synths and driving bass, and the often very beautiful work of guest vocalists like Damon Albarn and Martina Topley-Bird. Fans of Massive Attack will likely not be disappointed with this, their first release in seven years.

Now we’ve got that out of the way, I want to write about why this album is very good, and not excellent. I’m not just trying to knit-pick here. I think the reasons for the limitations of Heligoland make a very interesting statement about the challenges that face as seminal a band as Massive Attack. Let me also let you know that I love this band with a passion, so I’m hardly set against them.

That being said, there are some shaky moments on this album, which show that Massive Attack are not invincible. While tracks like “Babel” and “Girl I Love You” are really compelling, The Guy Garvey guest track, “Flat of the Blade,” reveals that, even when all the ingredients are there (i.e. incredible vocalist, master beat producers, etc.), things don’t always gel when you try to force beautiful melody onto a cold, sterile backing track.

Beyond this, there is the pressure that Massive Attack now face from some other bands, who might just steal their thunder. On one side there are their peers (and friends) from the Bristol-based invention of Trip-Hop of the 90s, Portishead. Last year Portishead brought out “Third.” It drew lots of criticism at the time (although it was on Ryan's Smashing Life's shortlist for album of the year) for being too austere and unapproachable. I disagreed, but that seemed to be the consensus. Still, listening to “Heligoland” now, you wonder if any of it couldn’t have come from a previous release from some years ago. It makes me feel that, even if the Portishead release was hard to follow, it was more fresh and new than Massive Attack’s new work (Listen to RSL's recent video post of Portishead’s “Chase the Tear,” and see if you agree with me).

Then there is the pressure from newer bands. The album’s opening track, “Pray for Rain,” features Tunde Adebimpe from TV on the Radio. This is a great song, and hearing it here, at the start of the album, seems like a signal that there are bands like TOTR snapping at Massive Attack’s heels. Might Massive Attack be passing the baton to the next generation of musicians here? Isn’t TOTR’s “Dear Science” a more radical album, in a genre built on radical experimentation?

I’d still say go and buy Heligoland, and I hope you enjoy it. Massive Attack are a classic band, but perhaps this album shows, overall, that every band has their day (or decade), but none can have all of them.


Dan Lavender said...

"every band has their day (or decade), but none can have all of them. "

Except Cliff Richard!

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.