Saturday, February 20, 2010

Heligoland - Massive Attack


Massive Attack
Virgin Records.

SCQ Rating: 84%

After what convoluted combination of trends, worldwide success and ill-timing do musicians no longer receive objective treatment, do artistic merits no longer take centre-stage? I mean, there must be a formula at work behind Massive Attack’s falling-out with critics and the hipster public – 100th Window notwithstanding – to justify Heligoland’s skeptical reception. Was it the selling-out that landed ‘Angel’ in every turn-of-century movie and ‘Teardrop’ in every primetime TV series, back before selling-out was customary? Or did people just give up on LP5 after so many letdowns – those subpar stop-gap releases like Danny the Dog OST and Collected, the unfulfilled promises for Weather Underground that began in, what, 2005? No one-off or shelved project can rival the greatest proof that a critical trigger against Massive Attack exists: that beneath all the indifferent reactions, Heligoland is an enviable accomplishment.

Of these critics, the most bewildering are easily those who insist that Heligoland sounds nothing like Massive Attack. Even without Horace Andy melting each lyric with his soulful quiver, nobody could sell ‘I Love You Girl’’s menacing bass and dark electronics without citing Mezzanine first. Same goes for the highlight ‘Paradise Circus’, which finds that same overcast ‘Teardrop’ magic by stepping into bass-heavy, bedroom-ready rhythms. All this said while keeping in mind, of course, that Massive Attack have crafted a patient career around the idea of not sounding like themselves, so it’s funny to me that those offended by Heligoland are commonly the same people craving for Blue Lines II. Yes, this long-awaited LP is by far their moodiest but, unlike 100th Window’s synthetic layers, Heligoland unloads a multitude of organic, flesh-and-blood surprises. From a blissfully harmonious bridge of dreamy vocals that colour the middle-eight of ‘Prayer For Rain’ (featuring TV On the Radio’s Tunde Adebimpe) to the emotive, minor-key dirge of ‘Saturday Come Slow’ (with Damon Albarn), Massive Attack maintain their role as curators to some of today’s best vocalists while pushing their own brooding trademarks to new environments. Even the two Del Naja vocal-turns show tangible intensity missing on previous efforts, culminating on throw-down ‘Atlas Air’ where heavy beats and be-boping synth progressions create a sinister electronic masterwork. Consider it an antithesis to ‘Unfinished Sympathy’ (yeah, deal with it!); devious, soulful and a little terrifying, Heligoland is progressive… what I thought everyone wanted from this Bristol group in the first place.

100th Window gets blamed for being everything from a cold-hearted minimal techno record to a Del Naja solo album (yeah, except with Horace Andy, and Sinead O Connor, and Neil Davidge, and… aw forget it), but what should’ve created a marketing point – Massive Attack’s first album in seven years! – instead weakens the Bristol-based outfit’s regal standing. Unlike the major-label dominated 90s, electronica isn’t starved anymore. Hell, you’ll find more disco beats, synth squiggles and analogue experimentation crawling around popular indie-rock than you could during Prodigy’s heyday, and it doesn’t help that every sleek and sultry electro act has been pillaging the M.A. handbook for the past decade. Seven years is an eternity for a scene this thriving, yet Heligoland (yes, like Portishead’s 2008 return Third) proves the collective’s worth and, occasionally, their domination of a culture they helped establish. A thrilling yet underappreciated return.


Kill-A-DJ said...

I just picked this album up last week, and though I liked it on first-listen, I found myself craving it every subsequent day and have listened to it non-stop since.
And I don't know what people are on about with regards to 100th, that one is still my favorite. Then again, maybe I'm just an asshole.


ps - I love your writing.

SCQ said...

I don't think we're the assholes, because 100th Window is awesome. I'm glad Del Naja took Massive Attack in that direction, if only for one record, to see what came of it. Heligoland benefits from it as well, somehow. I have likewise been craving it on a daily basis!

Thanks so much for the kind words, Michael - they truly mean a lot.