A strange beast, this one. There are certain bands who are condemned to disappoint no matter what they do. If you reach great heights but fail to split up at the time then you’ve had it. Supergrass were eternally plagued by not sounding like their first two records, Pet Shop Boys are so often judged against ‘Behaviour’ and Morrissey, having managed to escape the shackles of The Smiths should, apparently, have called it a day at ‘Vauxhall And I’. So too for Massive Attack, who, depending on how menacing you like your electronic music, should have either given up after their debut (soulful, not so menacing) or their third outing, ‘Mezzanine’ (industrial, terrifying on headphones.) Either way, it doesn’t really matter to some what Robert Del Naja and Grant Marshall come out with these days as it will never be like those records. I’ve never really understood this viewpoint. I would if new releases meant that every singe copy of those classic albums was instantly erased or destroyed. But they’re not. They’re still there, if you want them. And, just to add insult to injury, those wanting more of the same then listen to a new release in the most cursory fashion, deem it not up to scratch and then ignore it, thus removing any chance of them learning to love it in exactly the same way that they came to love the earlier albums before the internet meant we could have a new song in our ears for every waking minute of every day. Their loss.
‘Heligoland’ is not a Massive Attack masterpiece. It does, however, contain some quite remarkable pieces of music. ‘Splitting The Atom’, which preceded the album in 2009 as part of a taster EP also containing ‘Pray For Rain’ still sounds indestructible, the relentless organ throb set against a chugging beat and vocal contributions from both 3D and Daddy G, along with Massive staple, Horace Andy. Drifting synths towards its close enhance the paranoia and it leaves you feeling ever so slightly on edge. And all the more receptive for what is the album’s stand out track, ‘Girl I Love You’.
Slightly lazy reviewers branded it the cousin or brother of ‘Angel’ – presumably because it has a brooding bassline and it features aforementioned legend Horace Andy. Beyond that, the comparison is pretty vacuous and would suggest that it was a case of eye-catching phrasing over actual informative comment. It is, however, an enormous track, capturing much of what makes Massive Attack so very, very special. The musical equivalent of a hall of mirrors – on a dark, rainy night, of course – it ebbs, flows, parps and pulses towards an oddly celebratory ending, resulting in a rapturous cacophony prior to taking its leave.
That’s without mentioning the sterling track featuring Damon Albarn, ‘Saturday Come Slow’, which is epic in the Massive sense of the word. Albarn’s tortured rendering of the phrase ‘do you love me?’ is genuinely affecting and is a fine example of the kind of unusual collaborations Massive Attack managed to deliver. Take ‘Paradise Circus’, featuring Hope bloody Sandoval which was released to radio to promote the album and ended up soundtracking the BBC’s ‘Luther’, or ‘Flat Of The Blade’ a disorientating bleepy little beast featuring Guy Garvey in full emotive flight. The odd track might not linger long, but this is a fine, fine record but a combination of the weight of expectation and being released at the start of the year has resulted in a rather quiet showing thus far in the end of year round-ups. Don’t be foolish enough to pass up on this one, especially while the staggeringly splendid triple vinyl deluxe pressing is still in print.