Massive Attack – Heligoland

January 01, 1970




Massive Attack’s Robert (3D) Del Naja and Grant (Daddy G)
Marshall construct songs the way artists create paintings. (Del Naja is an
artist; his neo-expressionist portrait adorns the cover of their just-released
fifth studio album, Heligoland.)


Using sound like a painter uses material to build up color
and texture on a canvas, they use individual songs to create an album
recognizable as theirs for its characteristic traits – an overall
introspective, studio-processed swirl of sound, slow enough to let the ghostly,
disembodied vocals and stately minor-key chording create a seductive narcotic
effect, but varying enough in its changing drum patterns, bass figures and
keyboard/guitar coloration to have a sense of movement from song to song.


They’re so good at on Heligoland that they’ve made a lasting art object – their form-is-statement command of
trip-hop is as masterly as is Pet Shop Boys’ similar work with post-New Wave
dance music. The title refers to a German archipelago in the North Sea, but
some have wondered – with good reason – whether it should be pronounced “Hell
Ego Land” in deference to Massive Attack’s collaborative, virtuoso-adverse way
of producing music.


Yet, pop music can be compared to literature as well as
visual art. And for a specific album to really stand out, its individual songs
have to have a memorable presence independent of the group’s overall sound,
however distinctive the latter might be. Like short stories, they need to have
a sense of developing drama.


Overall, Heligoland is effective on this score. It avoids
the kind of industrial-strength dance music Massive Attack has done previously,
like Mezzanine’s “Inertia Creeps,” in
favor of a more shadowy overall mood. The duo rely a little too much on thin,
whispery and sometimes-enervated vocals (especially Del Naja’s own) that bury
the lyrics, but they aren’t imprisoned by that. (While this approach keeps
vocals from dominating the overall carefully constructed soundscape, an
apparent goal, I sometimes wish Massive Attack would take a hint from their
precursors, 1980s dance-music collective Art of Noise, and just let Tom Jones
rip through an occasional song. Or at least bring back Sinead O’Connor.)


Sometimes the duo rescue a track from an uninteresting
voice, as when they build up the bass and organ at the end of “Babel,” which
Martina Topley-Bird sings prettily but vacantly, and then double-track her to
give the vocals some climactic power. And while Tunde Adabimpe (of TV on the
Radio) actually sings the chilly, ominous but danceable “Pray for Rain” (think
Peter Gabriel’s “Red Rain”) with just the right sense of expressive tautness,
Massive Attack beautifully lets it build toward an ending with a waterfall of
wordless, Brian Wilson-like harmonies. 


Other songs are made memorable by the lead vocals,
themselves, and the sense of progression – rather than stasis – that the
singers communicate as they traverse the compositions. Guy Garvey (of Elbow)
does a terrific job with the melodically difficult “Flat of the Blade,”
reminding one of David Sylvian or Scott Walker in his ability to summon beauty
out something you’re never quite otherwise works as pop music. And Damon Albarn
is romantic on a gorgeous song poetically titled “Saturday Come Slow.”


Perhaps the single best track is “Paradise Circus,” which
hooks you right away with a slow, steady keyboard pattern that straddles minor-
and major keys so effectively you feel drawn to its secrets as if to a
mysterious force. And then the drum patterns keep you close, while Hope
Sandoval sings with a commanding mixture of quietude and clarity until the
track builds to a symphonic flourish.


Incidentally, Massive Attack’s treatment of their work as
art extends to the production of music videos. One of several commissioned for Heligoland, Toby Dye’s take on “Paradise
Circus,” is extraordinary – using former porn star (and now-elderly) Georgina
Spelvin in a then-and-now reflection on her career, which is also about on her
sexual awakening. Combining eroticism and melancholy, it takes on Proustian
dimensions. In its survey of a life through a pop song, it’s a worthy sequel to
Johnny Cash’s “Hurt” video and deserves a wide audience, even if it has some
adult material.


Standout Tracks: “Pray for Rain,” “Paradise Circus.” STEVEN ROSEN


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