Now that Massive Attack are down to two members (Daddy G and 3D) and are some years removed from their last masterwork, the question is this: should they even bother calling their collective output “Massive Attack” anymore? Couldn’t they just as easily come up with some new name, thus removing the burden of expectations associated with the name Massive Attack? No one expects them to be at the vanguard of invention of yet another creatively fertile genre, as they were with trip-hop. One landscape-changing movement is enough in a lifetime. Furthermore, the years of lame trip-hop wannabes have thankfully passed. Looking at the current state of electronica, it’s hard to miss Massive Attack’s influence in acts as diverse and inspired as Burial and The XX. Can’t they just be happy with what they have eventually wrought?
Then again, there exists a very good counter-argument, and it is Portishead’s Third (Jesus Christ, have you listened to that thing lately? It’s aging magnificently). In 2008, Portishead more than proved that a pioneering trip-hop band can all but disappear for a decade, then return with maybe the murkiest, most innovative, and frankly, most bad-ass album of their careers. Sure, Massive Attack has been working this past decade with increasingly diminishing returns, but Third should offer a little hope for optimistic fans. Maybe Massive Attack won’t beat Blue Lines or Mezzanine their next time out (or even match it), but I’ll settle for coming within spitting distance.
Well, I’ve quit holding my breath. Heligoland is here, and it’s plastered with guest vocalists, producers and instrumentalists, which is rarely a good sign. It’s the sort of move that suggests a creatively barren musician trying to suck the mojo out of a group of energetic younglings. But, hey! The eternally quavering Horace Andy’s back, and he’s still doing that thing where he echoes the last syllable in each sentence four or five times! That’s comforting, at least.
But let’s start with what Heligoland is not. It is not Blue Lines, nor Protection, nor Mezzanine. In fact, Heligoland is nowhere near as cohesive as Mezzanine, an album that began in hell and kept digging downward (save for the occasional serene reprieves that came in the form of “Teardrop” or “Exchange”). That’s just the price you pay for loading down the album with guest vocalists. It’s hard to establish a coherent narrative with so many different voices appearing, half of which disappear after their initial visit.
More disappointingly, Heligoland frequently presumes the listener’s mood. In the past, Massive Attack made more of an effort to draw their audience into their dark universe (“Angel” all but ensured that you followed it into the abyss). Here, Daddy G and 3D seem to take for granted the idea that their listeners are expecting shadowy mood music. “Pray For Rain” is an interesting song, particularly during a bridge that makes good use of guest vocalist Tunde Adebimpe’s hypnotic falsetto, but it’s middling and ineffective as an opening track.
Thankfully, “Pray For Rain” isn’t a terribly good indicator of the quality of the work that follows, portending, as it does, an album that will be a serious drag.
Heligoland takes a few songs to find it’s footing, but when it’s on, it reminds listeners of the best days of Massive Attack. “Psyche”, built on a clipped sample of arpeggiated guitar, provides Martina Topley-Bird with the necessary framework to explore a winningly rambling melody. And it segues brilliantly into “Flat of the Blade” featuring Elbow’s Guy Garvey. This is where Heligoland really makes a case for itself being released under the Massive Attack brand. “Flat of the Blade” is the runaway best moment on the album, a paranoid, sinister cauldron of burbling electronics, and Garvey proves himself more than up to the challenge of constructing a legitimate melody out of this industrial shroud.
The two songs that follow (“Paradise Circus”, and “Rush Minute”) are pleasant, though hardly revelatory (“Rush Minute” in particular feels like a self-conscious attempt to recall the haunting atmospherics of Mezzanine). Then “Saturday Come Slow” shows up, featuring beautifully spare guitar work from Portishead’s Adrian Utley and alternately tender and mysterious vocals from Damon Albarn. This is what it’s going to be like to a Massive Attack fan in the 21st century; it’s going to require some sifting. The fact that we shouldn’t expect any more stone-cold masterpieces is a bummer, but there will always be some fantastic work butting up against their less inspired material, and that is reassuring.