Massive Attack

Blue Lines

Blue Lines (Wild Bunch ’91) Rating: A-
Emerging from the loose Bristol collective called the Wild Bunch, Massive Attack (core members: Robert “3D” Del Naja, Grantley “Daddy G” Marshall, and Andrew “Mushroom” Vowles) are that rare group who can lay claim to having invented a genre. The deep, ominously throbbing bass, murky late night atmosphere, and Shara Nelson’s soulful, commanding vocals instantly introduced the new concept on the superb, sinuous “Safe From Harm,” while Horace Andy’s wonderfully weird reggae-ish vocals and Tricky’s mumbled British raps (along with the band members’ raps) add diversity and the “hop” to what came to be known as “trip-hop.” This is dance music but of a mysterious, thoughtful nature that reaches its zenith on “Unfinished Symphony,” a brilliant symphony of sadness on which Nelson desperately pleads “how can you have a day without the night?” There are similarly somber sentiments elsewhere: on “Lately,” Nelson asks “where did we go wrong?,” while Andy allows that “there’s a hole in my soul” on the lovely “Hymn of the Big Wheel.” However, Blue Lines also exudes a more positive energy on the singable soft soul of “Be Thankful For What You’ve Got,” a William DeVaughn cover exquisitely sung by Tony Bryan (love those sumptuous harmonies as well), while Andy memorably puts down all wannabe studs (“some men don’t feel secure unless they have a woman on each arm, they have to play the field to prove they have charm…but I believe in one love”) on “One Love.” There’s a lighter, more relaxed mood to this album than what later leaders of the form (Portishead, Tricky, and Massive Attack themselves on Mezzanine) would practice, and it’s almost impossible to judge this album’s pioneering mix of soul, samplers, rap, dub reggae, and dance music without acknowledging its lasting importance and immense influence on other artists (this despite the album selling in modest amounts, at least in the U.S.). Not convinced? Then simply listen to the backing "vocal hooks" provided by Andy on "Five Man Army" and Nelson on "Daydreaming", and then try to think of a popular rap song today that doesn't use such a "sweetening" device. Alas, Blue Lines' music holds up very well today even when placed outside of any historical context, though perhaps its groovy charms are just a tad too tasteful and laid-back for its own good (this may be “dance music” but you can't actually dance to it!). Still, though Blue Lines falls short of being a masterpiece - it's basically a mood album, after all - it nevertheless was a landmark ‘90s album that has several truly terrific tracks and is rightfully regarded as a modern day classic.

Protection (Virgin ’94) Rating: B
Something of a sophomore slump, Protection lacks both the freshness and innovative overall impact of Blue Lines, though it does have head bobbin' grooves galore and soundscapes that aren't lacking in creativity. Only "Karmacoma" and "Eurochild," both of which feature Tricky and 3D on the mic, does Massive Attack deliver the eerie, ominous vibe they're known for; though the album is still moody, its tone is brighter and its songs are less substantial than those on Blue Lines or Mezzanine. On the plus side, Protection features standout vocal performances from new additions Tracy Thorn and Nicolette, starting with the lovely if over-long title track, which isn't too far removed from Thorn's main gig, Everything But The Girl. As always, Thorn sings beautifully in her sad, mournful way, and despite the beats in the background this is "easy listening" music. So is her other song, "Better Things," though it isn't as good (it is good, though, in part due to its lush production), while Nicolette's strange, difficult-to-describe vocals enhance "Three" and "Sly," two of the album's more interesting songs. Alas, Horace Andy's contributions, including the solid but unremarkable "Spying Glass" and an out-of-place, live cover of The Doors' "Light My Fire," can't compete with his songs on Blue Lines, while the two almost-ambient sounding instrumental collaborations with composer/pianist Craig Armstrong are pretty enough but in a bland and ultimately boring way. In case you think I'm being overly harsh, let me point out that Massive Attack still has a cool sound, and that these ten long-ish, repetitive songs are perfectly pleasant for the most part. But there's no classics on the level of "Safe From Harm" or “Unfinished Symphony” here, nor is there a commanding vocal performance a la Shara Nelson (who went on to an unsuccessful solo career) anywhere. These songs sound good, but they're not especially involving or memorable (the majority of Blue Lines was more than just background music); fortunately, the band's next studio album would be all but impossible to ignore.

Mezzanine (Virgin '98) Rating: A
Man, is that beetle on the cover creepy or what? The music on Mezzanine matches it, too. For example, my dog Frasier is very happy go lucky, but I put this on one time and he was positively spooked by it. Of course, this being Massive Attack, the album has lovely female vocals and a seductive beauty going for it as well, but it's certainly the band's darkest, most disturbing album to date. Some of these songs ("Angel," "Inertia Creeps," "Dissolved Girl," "Group Four") even rock at times, though others ("Exchange," "Black Milk") offer relaxing soundscapes that allow you to catch your breath. It's quite an impressive mix overall, though the first side is far superior to the second (the first four tracks are phenomenal) and the album is somewhat weighed down by its overly long 63 minute length (the pointless reprise of "(Exchange)" being the most obvious example of excess). Still, though the album's dense, claustrophobic sound (propelled by an endlessly inventive production) demands repeat listens, Mezzanine is easily one of the finest albums in the "trip-hop" subgenre. "Angel" begins the album with arguably the band's best song ever, led by churning guitars that create an awesome mood of menace and a haunting cameo from usual contributor Horace Andy. Another serious contender for “best Massive Attack song” is "Teardrop," which is greatly enhanced by the vocals of former Cocteau Twin Liz Fraser, whose otherworldly voice is a perfect fit for Massive Attack's masterful mood music (she sings ”Black Milk” and “Group Four” as well). In addition to Fraser's fantastic vocal, “Teardrop” features a groovy Middle Eastern vibe, and the also-awesome "Inertial Creeps" contains more swirling Middle Eastern atmospherics; that is, until a hard beat takes over along with a whispered 3D rap and edgy electronics. Other standout tracks include "Risingson," which has more manipulated 3D vocals along with its dreamy "dream on" vocal hook, and "Dissolved Girl," another alternately loud and pretty song; plus, when Sarah Jay sings "need a little love to ease the pain" it's hard not to want to comfort her. Elsewhere, Andy (who reminds me of Bad Brains' H.R.) is given another song ("Man Next Door") that's worthy of that wonderfully weird voice of his, and the band show their impeccable taste by sampling The Velvet Underground, Isaac Hayes, Led Zeppelin, and even The Cure. Like I implied before, the album has its flaws; for example, impressive though it undeniably is, led again by Fraser's fluttery vocals and more soft-to-loud dynamics, "Group Four" doesn't really need to be 8+ minutes long, does it? Still, despite its minor flaws Mezzanine is a consistently creative and often fascinating album whose supremely sensuous yet deeply unsettling mood music may very well haunt your dreams; one look at its cover art will make sure of that!

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