Massive Attack – Mezzanine

It always surprises me somewhat that Massive Attack‘s third album Mezzanine seems to be their best known, and quite possibly also their best selling release. It’s also rather shocking that it celebrates its twentieth anniversary this week.

Horace Andy was always a mainstay of Massive Attack albums, and we don’t have to wait long for his appearance here, as he leads the vocals on Angel. This was the third of the singles from this album, and was pretty much their smallest hit to date, but it’s a good opening track. The mood is clearly much darker than it had been on Protection (1994), but that’s no bad thing.

Risingson had appeared as the surprise comeback single in late 1997, and while perhaps a little unmemorable, it’s easily as good as the opening track, with a similarly all-pervading darkness that gives it a very unusual feel.

But not every track is this gloomy – for TeardropElizabeth Fraser turns up to deliver the vocal, giving it a bit more of a cheery feel than its neighbours. It’s melodic and less spacious than we might be used to from Massive Attack, but no less brilliant. It’s also probably one of their best known tracks after Unfinished Sympathy, as well as being their biggest hit single, although it only just scraped into the top ten at number ten.

The key here, intentional or otherwise, seems to be to try to get all the singles out of the way at the start, and so the fourth track is also the fourth single, Inertia Creeps, released as a non-charting single in late 1998. This definitely represents a return to the darker sounds of earlier.

Exchange is an odd, almost jazzy piece that slows the mood down, but it’s a pleasant piece, but Dissolved Girl doesn’t entirely work. Maybe it’s just because the first few tracks were so different and groundbreaking, but this just feels like a bit of a filler at best.

Still, things pick up again with Man Next Door, with Horace Andy on vocals again. When Massive Attack are good, they’re exceptional, and this is a fine demonstration of that. It’s slow, and full of reverb and atmosphere. By this stage, you’re either deeply seduced by the dark mood of the album, or starting to notice a bit of repetition, as Elizabeth Fraser turns up again to deliver the vocal on the pleasantly trippy Black Milk.

Title track Mezzanine has little new to offer – in the context of the album it helps build the atmosphere, but it’s nothing special. Group Four stands out a little more, but most of these latter tracks are unlikely to be remembered by most listeners. Finally, we get (Exchange), a vocal version of the earlier instrumental, and Massive Attack‘s best-known album finally comes to an end.

This album marks a definite transition between Protection and the follow-up 100th Window, but it does seem difficult now to understand quite why it’s so well known compared to its predecessors. Perhaps it all comes down to Teardrop. Or perhaps I’m missing something obvious here – it’s far from a bad album, but it surely can’t be their finest hour?

You can still find this album at all major retailers.

Massive Attack – 100th Window

Released fifteen years ago this week, 100th Window was Massive Attack‘s fourth album, released five years after Mezzanine. With increasingly long pauses between each release, Daddy G stepped aside for this album and left Robert “3D” del Naja to record it pretty much on his own, with the help of a lot of guests and co-producer Neil Davidge.

It opens with Future Proof, a dark but engaging return to form with 3D delivering the vocals. You could definitely hope for something more pop-flavoured, but not really for anything much better than this. Then, of all people, Sinéad O’Connor appears to deliver the dull second track What Your Soul Sings.

Horace Andy, long a mainstay of Massive Attack releases, turns up for the pleasant but entirely forgettable Everywhen. The tracks here are long – there’s nothing shorter than five minutes on the entire release – and they’re mostly pretty grungy and dark. There’s a certain apocalyptic beauty to this album, but somehow it doesn’t quite feel like Massive Attack. Even when Horace Andy is delivering the vocals.

Next is Special Cases, another collaboration with Sinéad O’Connor. This was the lead single, and is considerably more engaging than the earlier collaboration, although still far from either act’s finest work. Then the second single follows straight after, Butterfly Caught, which is a 3D solo effort, and is pretty good as well (although some of the remixes on the single livened it up and elevated it somewhat). For the first time in a few tracks, the deep atmosphere and lyrical work really seem to come together particularly well.

Sinéad O’Connor is back next, this time for A Prayer for England, which unfortunately comes across as a rather dreary track. It’s a shame given the moving subject matter – it’s about children killed in England during the troubles – but somehow as a song I’m not convinced that it quite works.

Then comes Small Time Shot Away, which adds Damon Albarn as “2D” on backing vocals, although I’m not sure you would ever notice if you didn’t know that. Nothing special here either, unfortunately. As with the rest of the album, it’s fine as background music, but it would never change and inspire the world in the way that Blue LinesProtection, or Mezzanine did.

Horace Andy returns for Name Taken, another of the stronger tracks on here. When this album works well, the deeply atmospheric backing and abstract vocals come together to form a pleasant track. It’s not – let’s be blunt – something that was ever going to get to the top of the charts, but I don’t think that’s what del Naja was really aiming for here.

The album did, actually – perhaps surprisingly, but Special Cases was a respectable hit, charting at number 15 in the UK, and probably with a significant boost from their previous reputation, the first Massive Attack album in five years shot to the top of the charts, giving them their second number one. But whereas all its predecessors have long since reached double platinum status, this one only went gold.

Finally we get Antistar, perhaps one of the liveliest tracks on here, with a rippling arpeggio that turns up half way through. It’s still dark, but it’s a touch more uplifting than most of its neighbours. The good news is that while your music player might tell you this track is just shy of twenty minutes long, it isn’t – it’s about eight minutes, and then there’s a bit of silence before an almost intolerably dreary hidden track that closes the album out, although that does last ten minutes by itself.

So is 100th Window worth tracking down? Well yes – it’s a good album. Just don’t go into it expecting your world to be changed in the way it was when you listened to any of their earlier efforts, and you might just be pleasantly surprised. This is a single-minded, somewhat depressed and introspective Massive Attack, but they still have plenty to say for themselves.

You can still find 100th Window at all major music retailers, including here.

Massive Attack – Collected

With a new Massive Attack album on the horizon and their compilation Collected celebrating its tenth anniversary this week, now seems an ideal time to look back at the first phase in the career of Bristol’s most legendary group.

Now with a history of nearly thirty years behind them, they had already been releasing albums for fifteen years by the time this compilation appeared, making it a solid and comprehensive collection of their singles from 1991 to 2006. It’s also very difficult to fault.

It opens with the exceptional Safe from Harm, their third or fourth single back in 1991, featuring a magnificent vocal from Shara Nelson. Although less successful in most markets than Unfinished Sympathy, it provided the group with their only US Dance hit, and is an entirely appropriate way to open this compilation.

The baton is passed smoothly to the brilliantly dark Karmacoma, this time with Tricky on vocals, the third single from the Protection album in 1995. There are those who would fault a non-linear compilation album, but if it’s compiled well, a clear narrative and listening experience can flow, and that’s definitely true here, as we move on to 1998’s deeply moving Angel, from their most successful album Mezzanine, with long-time collaborator Horace Andy.

Although it’s from the same album, this is a perfect counterpart to Teardrop, with Elizabeth Fraser‘s moving vocal. Always an exceptional vocalist, she is in her element here, delivering a curious but tactile lyric against the trippy electronic backing. Then comes Inertia Creeps, the final single from the same album, before Tracey Thorn turns up for one of her finest hours, the title track from 1994’s Protection, in its full seven minute glory.

This mixes across to our first taste of 2003’s 100th Window, the non-chart release Butterfly Caught. This was Massive Attack‘s darkest album to date, and this single is hardly joyful, but it has a grimy beauty which definitely allows it to earn its place here.

Definitely overdue by this stage is the iconic Unfinished Sympathy, and the only slight disappointment here is that they elected to include the album version – exceptional, but it’s already been on an album, whereas Nellee Hooper‘s single version is every bit as good, if not better, and has not. But it’s difficult to complain when the music is this good – their breakthrough hit from 1991, it definitely deserved considerably more attention than it ever got.

All that remains now is to pick up the leftovers – some of them substantial hits when they originally appeared, but mostly now better remembered as album tracks. Risingson is another gloriously dark piece, and then What Your Soul Sings with Sinéad O’Connor as the guest vocalist, which I’m pretty sure wasn’t actually a single, but fits rather nicely here nonetheless, followed by Future Proof and Five Man Army, which definitely weren’t singles.

Compilations rarely include particularly memorable packaging, and so this one is unusual – the double disc package is presented in a nice softback book, and the second disc, a collection of b-sides and rarities including the brilliant single False Flags, also turns out to be a DualDisc – flip it over, and you also get a DVD of all the videos.

There may be some surprising inclusions towards the end, and one particularly notable choice of version which you can question, but there’s nothing particular missing from here. Sinéad O’Connor‘s other guest vocal on Special Cases, which was also actually the only hit single from 100th Window is the only notable omission. Perhaps early singles Any Love or Daydreaming should have been on here, and personally I’d have loved to hear early EP track Home of the Whale again, but these are really very minor quibbles.

The last two tracks are Sly, which you had probably never noticed was in fact the first single from 1994’s Protection album, and then the exceptional Live with Me, with Terry Callier giving the group the best vocal performance of their entire career. If you’re ever unsure of how to close your compilation album, you should start taking notes from Massive Attack.

A triple disc version of Collected, with all the same material described above, is still available here.

Massive Attack – Protection

For a lot of people, Massive Attack‘s debut Blue Lines (1991) seems to be their definitive album, but for me I think it’s their second, Protection (1994). I’m not sure why – perhaps because it was the album that relaunched Everything But The Girl‘s career, or because the singles were so good. Perhaps because of the nutty No Protection dub remix album, or maybe just because I was there at the time.

Whatever the reasons, Protection, to me, is a very good album indeed. It opens with the title track, in its full eight minute glory. Tracey Thorn‘s vocal and lyrics, always surprisingly powerful, are the perfect complement to Massive Attack‘s enormous backing.

Tricky turns up next, sounding amazing on Karmacoma. If you’re not nodding your head along to this, there has to be something wrong with you. There’s something very confident about their delivery this time around – it’s not as naïve as Blue Lines might have been, but they still sound amazing.

The next guest vocalist is Nicolette, for the third track Three, which although somehow rather impenetrable is also very enjoyable – if nothing else, it helps hold the mood of the album until Weather Storm, a lovely instrumental of the kind that Röyksopp would be trying to recreate a few years down the line.

Returning collaborator Horace Andy turns up next for Spying Glass, probably the most dub tempered track on the album up to now. It closes Side A, and there hasn’t been a single clunker on this half of the collection, which is pretty impressive.

Side B, slightly unusually, is made up of a second collaboration with each of the same artists. Tracey Thorn returns for the lovely Better Things, which could easily fit on any Everything But The Girl album. And Tricky‘s return, on the lively Eurochild, is brilliantly dark and haunting.

Then comes the lead single, which was unpredictably Sly, featuring Nicolette again. Somehow it’s one of the more forgettable tracks on the album despite also being absolutely great – perhaps it just gets a little overshadowed on here by its neighbours.

The penultimate track is the chilling instrumental Heat Miser, with its enormous bass part, and would really close the album perfectly – except for the live cover of Light My Fire which turns up at the end. This has never quite made sense to me – I can see how it would be a live favourite, and Horace Andy is typically brilliant on it, but what a strange way to close an album!

Either way, Protection is a brilliant second album from Massive Attack, and for me it was with this rather than its more popular follow-up Mezzanine (1998) that they ensured their place in history. The collaborations are perfect; the mix of tracks exceptional; and the whole product great – in spite of the slightly strange closing track.

You can still find Protection at all major retailers.

1 Giant Leap – 1 Giant Leap

For me, the surprise hit of 2002 was 1 Giant Leap‘s debut album. Without warning, Jamie Catto, formerly of Faithless, and Duncan Bridgeman disappeared and travelled around the world, working variously with established western artists, stars of what I hesitatingly call “world music,” and less well known names, mixing together their vocals, instrumentation, atmosphere, and also (on the DVD, for this was also a “video album”) the visuals.

Being a mix of sounds from all over the world, it contains instruments and vocal styles that are almost totally alien to me, so I won’t try and describe the sound too much. But Dunya Salam, which opens the album, is gloriously atmospheric, with a deep synth sound, acoustic stylings, and what, if I had to guess, I would assume was a vocal from west Africa (having checked, Baaba Maal is indeed from Senegal).

The second track was also the first single, the brilliant My Culture, featuring vocals from Catto’s former band mate Maxi Jazz, and also Robbie Williams. The lyrics – particularly those delivered by Maxi Jazz – are typically expressive and evocative. With all the bits put together it somehow didn’t work too amazingly as a four minute pop song, but within the context of the album it works brilliantly.

“Only silence remains,” says the sample at the start of my favourite track The Way You Dream. The eastern stylings of the introduction gradually build over a few minutes into something very powerful. Without warning, it’s then Michael Stipe of R.E.M. who turns up to deliver the lead vocal.

I’m not sure I ever really appreciated quite how good a vocalist Stipe is, and he’s in extremely good company on this album. Also performing on this track, for example, is Asha Bhosle, as in Brimful of Asha, the 1997 hit from Cornershop. And the many other things which I should feel ashamed for not knowing her for.

If I had one criticism, it’s that all the geographical cross-mixing can make the album can feel a little disjointed in places. In the context of the “one world” theme of the album, the jump to Ma’ Africa is entirely logical, but the African gospel-style vocals of The Mahotella Queens could come as a bit of a surprise if you weren’t expecting it.

Next up is the second single, the slightly more complete but less catchy Braided Hair, with vocals from Speech and Neneh Cherry from off of the 1990s, which leads into the Maori sound of Ta Moko, with its incredibly moving spoken word introduction. Before you know it this has seamlessly passed the baton onto Bushes to kick off the second half of the album, and Baaba Maal is back with us again.

This is an album which definitely works best listened to in one go, without ever using the skip button, and while everyone will find quieter moments within it, the seventy minutes of music comes together to form something quite exceptional.

Bushes is possibly the darkest track on the album, with sudden unexpected industrial samples and moments of feedback, but in no way is it out of place. Passion, with its tropical conch-shell style percussion and a vocal from Michael Franti is excellent too, as it builds into a huge percussive crescendo. Daphne is tucked away a little unfair towards the end where you might forget it, but is great too.

Of the later tracks, All Alone (On Eilean Shona) is my personal favourite. Eilean Shona, the tiny tidal island on a Scottish loch, with its population of two somehow seems an entirely apt place to set this song. The vocals are fantastic, and the rather unexpected African vocal which turns up half way through does nothing to detract from the deep Celtic atmosphere. We are all of the same tribe, no matter what our background.

Racing Away features a welcome lead vocal appearance from the fantastic Horace Andy, and then already we’re onto the final track Ghosts. The vocal this time is performed by Eddi Reader, and finally, softly, gently, the album comes to a close in beautiful fashion, evoking the ghosts that haunt all of us. Sorry, I’m not sure why I suddenly went all philosophical there.

If, like me, you enjoy a bit of “world music” mixed with electronics, you’re going to get a lot out of this album. There’s really very little to criticise on here – every track brings something, even if it just adds to the general atmosphere.

Incidentally, the review above is for the album, because over a decade later I still haven’t got round to buying the video version yet – if I ever do, you will be able to read about it here.

You can find 1 Giant Leap at all major retailers as a CD or DVD. We previously reviewed the second album What About Me? here.

Massive Attack – Blue Lines (2012 Mix / Master)

How is it possible that Blue Lines could be 21 years old already? Well, it isn’t – it’s 23 now – but even so. One of the most important albums of the 1990s, and it’s already old enough to do all the things that adults get to do.

To celebrate its coming of age, a reissue was produced – a new remastered and remixed version which perhaps isn’t entirely necessary – I don’t remember there being anything particularly wrong with the original recording. It does sound amazing, admittedly, but it’s difficult to remember the previous version sounding bad.

The packaging this time around feels like a bit of a letdown. There’s a nice card slipcase, which makes opening the package up quite exciting, but there’s no booklet whatsoever, and the credits have been inexplicably hidden behind the black CD housing so that you can’t actually read them. I suppose it’s nicely minimal though.

The track listing is exactly the same as it ever was – and what is there to say? From the opening lines of single Safe from Harm it’s dark, and thick with dreamy atmosphere and its incredible vocals from Shara Nelson, through to the lovely One Love, the first of many collaborations with Horace Andy.

Looking back, it’s quite incredible that Massive Attack should have put out such a perfect debut. By the time the album was unleashed, they just had a handful of singles to their name, and no real indications of what they might be capable of. Now of course, with Protection and Mezzanine behind them, we know they find it difficult not to be amazing, but then it must have come as a bit of a shock.

Blue Lines is the title track, and is perhaps actually the weakest track on the album, which isn’t saying a huge amount – it’s still quite exceptional. Then the exceptional Be Thankful for What You’ve Got, with vocals from Tony Bryan.

What the first album brings you is a whole lot of Tricky, such as on Five Man Army, which makes for a rather special experience – when you think of just how many legends you’re listening to simultaneously, it’s really a rather humbling experience.

Then Unfinished Sympathy kicks off. Maybe you’ve listened to it a few too many times, or maybe you don’t like the fact that it was such a huge hit single. But if you’re able to remain open minded, this is one of the finest songs ever recorded – Shara Nelson‘s brilliant vocal alongside the beautiful string samples and slightly trippy drum sounds. On this version of the album it positively shimmers.

Later tracks Daydreaming and Lately are similarly perfect – it would be impossible to be critical of more than one or two tracks on here. And finally, before you know it, you’re onto the album closer Hymn of the Big Wheel. Like all the best albums, Blue Lines is concise – it doesn’t mess around – there are just nine tracks, but every one of them comes together to build something quite perfect.

Ultimately, this updated mix and master of Blue Lines may be unnecessary – I honestly can’t ever remember having thought the original needed cleaning up – but it does sound amazing, and if nothing else it’s a worthwhile reminder that this is an album which deserves to be picked up every few months.

It’s a shame there wasn’t room somewhere to fit on Nellee Hooper‘s moving single version of Unfinished Sympathy or the beautiful b-side Home of the Whale – although neither should have ever been on the album, they would have graced a bonus disc rather nicely. But that’s just a minor niggle.

You can find the 2012 mix / master of Blue Lines through all major retailers.