There are, arguably, three types of Massive Attack fans.
The first type live and die by the group’s first three releases, ascribing purely to the gospel of Blue Lines, Protection, and Mezzanine as benchmark albums for electronic music. These fans remember the days when Tricky and Mushroom were still in the band, wearing the “Bristol sound” label on their sleeves like a badge of honor. The second type of Massive Attack fan seems to be preoccupied with the atmosphere and denseness of the group’s the post-Mezzanine material. To them, both 100th Window and the Danny The Dog soundtrack sound fresh and modern compared to the dated, dance infused music Massive Attack pioneered in the 90s.
The third type of fan absolutely LOVES “Teardrop” because it’s the theme song for House M.D., that wonderful program where Hugh Laurie insults everyone.
Whether or not the creative team of Robert Del Naja (3D) and Grant Marshall (Daddy G) are aware of how their music divides their listeners is irrelevant. What is certain, however, is that Massive Attack’s latest release, Heligoland, seems to unknowingly cater to a different type of listener altogether: One that sees Massive Attack’s sound as a process of evolution, as progress and reflection. As listeners delve into the sparsely arranged, guest-star crowded, and brooding atmospheres of Heligoland, it’s clear that Massive Attack aren’t necessarily concerned with being pioneers anymore.
Instead, it seems they are more fascinated with analyzing what goes into their sound, examining the musical building blocks they use and warping them to their limits.
In many ways, Heligoland is a record that exudes a deconstructive mind set. Themes of loss and decay are not only apparent in the group’s lyrical matter, but in how the album’s sounds mesh together. Whether it’s the delicate xylophone prance of “Paradise Circus” or the glitchy doodling and sequenced cymbal work of “Flat Of The Blade,” the sounds on Heligoland are rougher and more human than the group’s past offerings. For better or worse, Massive Attack doesn’t always build to richly layered crescendos this time around. Instead, they opt for arrangements that gradually twist and turn on themselves, where beats unexpectedly flutter and fade like tides as opposed to smashing and thumping with resonance.
It’s a record that pulls apart the Massive Attack’s sound to where (for the first time since the 90s) they actually have organic elements creeping out of the mix. In essence, it makes Heligoland as unpredictable, and as tense, as their best material.
The full extent of that vision becomes clearer on the E.P. teased “Splitting The Atom.” With strident keys, swelling strings, and dreamy vocal performances from Horace Andy, Daddy G, and 3D, “Splitting The Atom” is the first time since Mezzanine that Massive Attack has sounded so dangerous. The group always excelled at making listeners feel ill at ease, and returning to that phantasmic atmosphere is a welcome change from the pristine layers and careful construction of 100th Window. With Daddy G’s deep drawl of, “It’s getting colder outside/Your rented space/They shadow box and they/Paper chase/It never stops/And we'll never learn/No hope without dope/The jobless return…” it’s clear that Massive Attack are still fascinated with exploring life’s dreaded underbelly, a facet that typically yields them their most coherent insights.
Still, Heligoland isn’t without its faults. For a record that had a near 7-year incubation period, it’s not as lean as it could be. The nimble folk of “Psyche” becomes redundant quickly, with sparse beats and directionless lines such as, “'I’m looking for you in the woods tonight/I'm looking/Looking for you in my flashlight/I'm searching/From in the high or down the ocean/And I face myself in reason…” While Martina Topley-Bird’s dove tailing vocals save the track, it’s too much of a sketch to really hold one’s attention. The same can be said for the Damon Albarn fronted “Saturday Come Slow,” a messy wash of hazy guitars that tries too hard at being a third rate Radiohead song.
While it’s impressive to see Massive Attack feature so many big names, the most engaging moments on Heligoland are when the vocalists must keep up with the music, not the other way around.
“Girl I Love You’s” rumbling bass and impending horns give Horace Andy a formidable army of sound to work with. Elsewhere, the twilight chatter and string-laced intimacy of “Paradise Circus” provides the perfect space for Hope Sandoval’s breathy croon to let listeners inside the vulnerable fatalism love can bring. However, the album’s real stand out is the immersive “Atlas Air,” a 7-minute monster of persistent drums, growling bass, and immersive synths. 3D rounds out the track with his threatening and seductive whisper, adding punch to lines like “Fish like little silver knives/Make the cuts on my insides/Yeah let ‘em feast my heart is big/My heart is big…”
Allusions to the failed airline company are blatant, but “Atlas Air” also alludes to something else. In a way, it’s 3D writing to his critics, to the fan types that, for whatever reason, don’t support Massive Attack’s current music because they feel entitled to something specific. 3D seems generally fine with that, realizing how insignificant the group’s detractors are with their “little knives.” What’s refreshing, however, is that he’s able to make such a confident statement by catering to the group’s goals, rather than answering to a specific fan base.
At the end of the day, he lets the music, not the notoriety, speak for itself.
Key Cuts: Splitting The Atom, Paradise Circus, Atlas Air
Sounds Like: Lamb (Lamb), Ghosts I-IV (Nine Inch Nails), Kid A (Radiohead)
Click on the artwork to sample Heligoland for yourself!
Monday, February 15, 2010
There are, arguably, three types of Massive Attack fans.
Monday, February 8, 2010
Two by two, reviews for you.
Spoon- Transference (***½)
Every PBR swilling hipster is swooning over Spoon’s newest album, and on the surface, it’s easy to see why. Straddling the line between sophisticated experimentalism and raucous rock n’ roll, Spoon stay consistent on Transference, their 7th overall album. “The Mystery Zone” throbs along with Rob Pope’s steady and impending bass, while Brit Daniel’s sturdy voice pops against upstroked guitar and dreamy keyboards. This time around, Spoon’s sound is clearly focused on rhythm, with many of Transference’s greatest moments being held together by Pope’s consistent bass work. Elsewhere, “Written In Reverse” relishes in Eric Harvey’s percussive ivories and Daniel’s best Paul McCartney impression as he sings, “I’ll write this to you in reverse!/Someone better call a hearse!” Spoon flaunts their rock n' roll roots proudly throughout Transference, but their energy isn’t always front and center. The group straddles the line of being accessible and avant-garde so much that it’s easy to write off the tracks that don’t come with big hooks. The lo-fi acoustics of “Trouble” and the meandering piano of “Goodnight Laura” slow the album down to a crawl, making listeners impatient for the group’s next effervescent ode to old school rock. Thankfully, Spoon delivers with the late album pick-me-up of “Got Nuffin,” featuring pulsing bass, cutting guitar work, and persistent drum rolls. Such a track will help casual Spoon fans with the bitter aftertaste Transference leaves behind, the taste of an album that contains mere flashes of brilliance that could have been so much more.
Key Cuts: The Mystery Zone, Written In Reverse, Got Nuffin
Alkaline Trio- This Addiction (***½)
Since Akaline Trio paired up with late Jerry Finn, fans have screamed for the group to return to their unofficial “glory days” of From Here To Infirmary. While This Addiction might not be as stripped down and back-to-basics as fans might have hoped for, it’s clear that Alkaline Trio made a conscious decision to revisit the sound that made them a household name. The album’s title track starts things off nicely with Matt Skiba’s buzz saw guitar, Dan Andriano’s driving bass, and Derek Grant’s skate punk drums. Elsewhere, the loopy chug of “Fine” and the biting stomp of “Piss & Vinegar” show how the Trio have been able to revisit their old sound while incorporating the more focused hooks of their later material. On the whole, This Addiction is a less polished effort than the Trio’s last 2 records, and this lean approach has helped revitalize the band. Skiba’s guitar retains some necessary grit while Andriano’s bass growls, a welcome change from the hyper slick compression on 2007’s Agony & Irony. Sadly, however, This Addiction falls short in some crucial ways. For as stripped down as the record sounds, Alkaline Trio make the occasional instrumental blunder with runaway synthesizers (“Eating Me Alive”) and out of place trumpet solos (“Lead Poisoning”). Additionally, Andriano only sings 3 songs compared to Skiba’s 9, the imbalance painting Matt Skiba as a tired songwriter. The woe-is-me politics of “The American Scream” and haunted house drawl of “Dorothy” ruin otherwise solid arrangements with tired lines like, “Found you on your doorstep/Undressed to the nines/From your Sunday best/Black and blue velvet dress/Your head’s a mess and so is mine…” Flaws aside, however, This Addiction is a step in the right direction for Alkaline Trio. The acidic guitar hum and climbing bass of “Dead On The Floor” remind listeners why we’re addicted to Alkaline Trio in the first place: They’re just 3 guys that capture death obsessed, boozed-out pessimism better than anyone else.
Key Cuts: This Addiction, Dead On The Floor, Fine
Friday, February 5, 2010
This is Davey Havok’s autograph, scrawled all over a BART schedule I printed out hours beforehand.
Let me back up, things like this need an introduction.
I was in Berkeley yesterday visiting a very special lady, Alex, as well as the university for that scary “next step” in my life. The day was rainy, cold, and windy, and we’d done a great deal of walking around because of UC Berkeley’s dumb policy of having admissions offices built a mile away from campus. ANYWAY, I wanted to have dinner with Alex before I hopped on BART, so we stopped by this Mexican place that had a full-fledged salsa bar, and was a mere half a block away from the train station.
The two of us are having a lovely dinner, and I’m explaining something that may or may not have been important about being a good person when all of a sudden, my jaw drops. Literally drops. Chin to my knees, break the floor, flies come in please, DROPS.
Davey Havok is waiting for a burrito in the same spot I was standing in not 15 minutes ago.
For those of you that aren’t A.F.I. fans, Davey’s the lead singer/lyricist. He has been since A.F.I. was Gen Y’s version of the Misfits (during their “East Bay Hardcore” days), and when he was all glittered up performing “Miss Murder” on MTV a few years back. This man helped write cuts like "God Called In Sick Today," "Totalimmortal," and "Girl's Not Grey." He's played The Phoenix in Petaluma, stadiums in Long Beach, and alienated all the hardcore kids with his love of fashion. Love him or hate him, Mr. Havok has made an illustrious career out of music and his fascination with make up, and here he is, in this Mexican restaurant, WAITING FOR A BURRITO.
At this point, it’s by no means normal for me that this man is calmly chatting it up with the chef. I’m literally bursting at the seams, and I’m pretty sure Alex thought I had an aneurysm. To this, my response is that I really couldn’t help it. I get star struck like people get arachnophobia (That comparison made more sense before I typed it), especially considering the effect Mr. Havok has had on my life.
Davey Havok has written some amazing songs, songs that have helped me grow up, and songs that I still love. This is probably on par with our parents feeling all teary eyed when they hear Paul McCartney sing “Yesterday,” but this is a more punk version of that. A.F.I. has helped me through some of the darkest times in my life, and I’m forever grateful. Sing The Sorrow is not only a masterpiece, but also a record that I have a profound emotional attachment to. True, I only gave their newest album 2 stars, but he didn’t need to know that, and that still doesn’t diminish the A.F.I. songs that I’ve screamed, cried, sung, and air-guitared to.
So, as he’s gathering up supplies at the salsa bar, I went up to him.
Me: Excuse me, Davey? Hey, I don’t mean to bother you or anything like that because you probably get tons of that, and stuff, but yeah, I just wanted to come on over and tell you what a huge fan I am and that you’re music is really, really important to me.
I’m so eloquent that it hurts.
DXH: Ah, well thanks! I’m glad that it’s so special for you. (We shake hands)
Me: It is. You guys wrote some music that will probably stay with me the rest of my life. If you don’t mind, I was wondering if I could get an autograph. I mean I don’t mean to bug you when you’re eating, I know that must be pretty irritating, but, you know, if you don’t mind.
DXH: Sure, do you have a pen? (Starts scribbling) Yeah, as long as fans are nice about it and don’t feel entitled to something, I’m nice back. (He smiles) Is that a Neurosis shirt?
Me: Actually no, it’s from this other band, Brand New. I guess they look alike?
DXH: A bit. (We both chuckle).
Me: You know, “Sing The Sorrow” is a super important album for me, and I just wanted you to know how much it means to me. You guys made it all the more special when you played a lot of it at BFD.
DXH: Oh so you’ve seen us? That’s pretty cool. Was that in Mountain View?
Me: It was, I remember because Decemberunderground had just dropped and you guys played my favorite song off Sing The Sorrow, “Dancing Through Sunday.”
DXH: Ahhh, THAT show. That show was pretty fucked. All our equipment kept breaking.
Me: Really? I can only remember the good parts. You guys closed with “Miss Murder” and you played “Forever & A Day,” which shocked me because I didn’t know you’d be playing a whole lot from The Art Of Drowning.
DXH: Yeah, we had tons of technical difficulties during “Miss Murder,” but that’s cool. We’ve actually been playing “Forever & A Day” a lot on this tour as well.
Me: Oh wow, that’s awesome. You know, off the new album, I think “Torch Song” is probably my favorite track. Something about it is pretty huge and you guys tend to pull that off well.
DXH: Ah, well thanks, glad you like it.
Me: Well, I won’t keep you, but I just wanted to say thanks for the great music and the autograph. It was really nice to meet you.
DXH: Yeah, you too. Take care. (We shake hands)
And that was that. Mr. Havok helped himself to some brown colored salsa and I walked back to my table. My awkwardness aside, it was a great exchange. You don’t get to meet your idols often, and most of the time, they aren’t as nice as you think they might be. Davey Havok is an exception to that rule, a class act all the way. I may not share the same attachment with the more commercialized material A.F.I. puts out now, but at least he hasn’t become too much of a celebrity to snub his fans.
And that’s really something special.