21. Massive Attack–Heligoland

Best of 2010A 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.

H EL I  G  O L A N D

‘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.

A Week With… 7. Massive Attack – 100th Window

JP AWW 07

The first issue of Word Magazine appeared in February 2003, visually arresting with its Nick Cave cover and little flap telling you more about the contents and seemingly an alternative take on music journalism. To a certain extent, it has remained true to that purpose, although it’s far less revolutionary than it thinks it is. Having said that, I suspect I will be a reader forever, even if quality control slips, as it was the esteemed organ in which I got my first shot at reviewing. Paul Du Noyer and Jude Rogers ensured that I was kept in a healthy supply of free CDs but never quite comfortable enough to presume I would automatically get in the next issue. After some three and a half years of reasonably regular column inches, I was quietly jettisoned without explanation. The range of reviewers slowly slimmed until the very latest issue of the now definite-article enhanced, and New Stateman aping (in shape, if not content) The Word hit the shops last week. Now, only the big five or six reviews are farmed out to their top writers, while the smaller reviews are all done in house. Amongst those few ‘big’ reviews this month, is a positive and wisely argued piece on the new Massive Attack album ‘Heligoland’. Why is this relevant? That first issue had much the same space dedicated to ‘100th Window’ by the very same band. It did a fine job of putting the album in context for me and, reading about another music fan’s struggle to get their head around the music, it helped me to get to grips with what was, essentially, an underwhelming release from an extraordinary band. The ever-engaging Andrew Harrison described the record as “difficult to get into, but hard to get out of too,” and I soon knew what he meant.

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I became strangely obsessed with ‘cracking’ this album. I was sure that my initial sense of it as something cold and uninviting was down to a lack of familiarity and that, if I made the effort, it would all soon slot into place. I spent numerous glum National Express journeys poring over those nine tracks, my decrepit CD walkman rarely having anything else for company. Listening to it now, it’s hard not to think of the, frankly shit, emotions associated with that period in my life. What also comes to mind though is the fact that I never reached a conclusion. I just stopped listening to it at some point and never really went back. I don’t remember deciding it was crap but I don’t remember deciding it wasn’t, either. It just dropped off the radar and sat on the shelf gathering dust.

Returning to ‘100th Window’ this week has been a chore. Knowing that they have since produced a record a truly wonderful as ‘Heligoland’ makes this whole period of Massive Attack’s history stick in the throat a little. The corrupted soul and rhythmic cunning of their new album makes the autistically insular paranoia of ‘100th Window’ seem so utterly benign that it takes a concerted effort just to make it through to the end.

Sinead O’Connor’s appearances can be discounted without much effort. ‘What Your Soul Sings’ and ‘A Prayer For England’ are horribly jarring, whiny and utterly lacking in character. Yes, she’s absolutely recognisable, but then so are Piers Morgan and chronic flatulence. Horace Andy attempts to polish a turd with ‘Everywhen’ and ‘Name Taken’ but then I couldn’t hum either of these back to you right now. The tracks on which 3D takes lead vocals are a mixed bag, ‘Butterfly Caught’ and ‘Future Proof’ standing tallest and actually meriting repeat listens, but, fuck me, there must be easier ways to keep your ears entertained. Piers Morgan with chronic flatulence, perhaps?

I am now actually more disparaging about this album as a result of ‘Heligoland’. At the time of its release, ‘100th Window’ was the Massive Attack album we’d been waiting five years for. It was our duty to train ourselves until we liked it. It wasn’t them, it was us. Except it wasn’t. It was a blip. It’s the soundtrack at a wake for a few motherboards and a failed attempt to graft on some much needed RAM.

Oh, and before anyone emails telling me I’ve screwed up, the picture above deliberately links to ‘Heligoland’. I wouldn’t want anyone to put themselves through ‘100th Window’ on my account.

Song Of The Day 26: Massive Attack – Girl I Love You

There will be a little more FUTUREMUSIC musing to follow soon, but the artist profiles having concluded, it’s time to return to the daily dose of musical delight. Massive Attack’s new album, ‘Heligoland’, was released today, with a deluxe triple-vinyl jobbie following in two weeks for those of us who are so inclined. It’s a superb album and anyone who says it’s just more of the same or whines on about how it’s not another ‘Blue Lines’ or not another ‘Mezzanine’ needs a slap. Obviously, it’s not another ‘100th Window’, as you’ll want to listen to it lots. Speaking of which, I’ve decided to do my first almost unwilling ‘A Week With’ based on ‘100th Window’, so you can see if a revisit is really in order at the weekend.

Heligoland’, on the other hand, is a wonderful set of ten compelling songs. ‘Pray For Rain’ and ‘Splitting The Atom’ will be familiar to those who bought the EP in Autumn last year and both still sound just as good. The track featuring Damon Albarn, ‘Saturday Come Slow’, is epic in the Massive sense of the word, the tortured rendering of the phrase ‘do you love me?’ is genuinely affecting. Suffice to say, the whole record is great and rewards repeated listens, either at full volume or via the headphones – either way will leave you in no doubt. With that in mind, here’s my current favourite track. Slightly lazy reviewers have been branding it the cousin or brother of ‘Angel’ – presumably because it has a brooding bassline and it features Horace Andy. Beyond that, the comparison is pretty vacuous and suggests that the deadlines for their pieces were sooner than they’d thought and some space needed filling. It is, however, an enormous track, capturing much of what makes Massive Attack so very, very special. Treat yourself below or stream it here. Click here to order the precioussss vinyl edition.

A reasonably concise update

It wouldn’t be the same if this blog didn’t just grind to a halt for a month or so every now and then, would it? I’d originally intended to rest it for a week or two while I delved into the Beatles remasters but a week leads to a fortnight, a fortnight to a month and, well, you know how it is. Quite a month, mind, including the live return of one of my all-time favourite bands, Massive Attack. If the new songs played on that drab night in Sheffield are anything to go by, the new album will be everything people have hoped for and a little bit more. There’s one new track, (I have no idea about the title, I’m afraid) sung by Horace Andy which may well be one of the best things they’ve ever done. The ‘Splitting The Atom’ EP emerged last weekend as a digital download and it’s a pretty impressive quartet of new material. The lolloping title track belies the fact that Damon Albarn has been involved this time around, while ‘Pray For Rain’, featuring vocals from TV On The Radio’s Tunde Adebimpe, has a wonderful gear change about four minutes in which elevates it to ‘special’ status. You can sample it for yourself over at Spotify, purchase it as a high-quality FLAC download from 7Digital or even shell out £20 for a spangly vinyl edition from those Monkey-box-set-making-types over at The Vinyl Factory.

Beatles expenditure limited the funds for new music last month, but a few splendid things snuck though, such as the latest offering from Richard Hawley, ‘Truelove’s Gutter’, which is a muso’s dream and the very definition of a ‘headphones album’. Coming off the back of the really rather polished ‘Lady’s Bridge’, (hmm, that sounds slightly wrong) an album with only eight songs, two of which scrape the ten minute mark, it’s an absolute delight to listen to and it may well be his best. ‘Remorse Code’ is a remarkable beast, languidly atmospheric and beautifully recorded. ‘Open Up Your Door’ may have spent some time with ‘The Ocean’ from ‘Coles Corner’, mind. There is meant to be a deluxe double vinyl edition with free CD and signed photo springing up at some point but, with every additional week’s delay, I wouldn’t hold your breath.

The NME has a new editor in the shape of Krissi Murison and she’s already made a few changes. Icky changes, largely speaking. Making me actually wish Conor McNicholas hadn’t left after all kind of changes. The most unforgiveable change is the removal of Mark Beaumont’s weekly column, which was as good a reason as any to shell out £2.30 a week. Thankfully, Peter Robinson Vs has been retained, tucked away at the back now, or I may have had to have said goodbye. Again. Oh, who am I trying to kid. Still, it’s a shame as Beaumont was a witty and acerbic observer of the music scene, something the NME was always good at and I’m not sure how that hole will be filled.

The Radiohead deluxe editions for the latter half of their EMI tenure proved to be delightful additions to the collection, containing some splendid B sides which I’d never previously spent any time with and selected visual highlights from this wonderful, wonderful Later… special.

Put aside an hour and treat yourself. It’s really rather special. While I’m talking about all things Yorke, if you’ve not yet sampled the two tracks recently released as a (bloody expensive) heavyweight vinyl 12” single, you’re truly missing out. Click here to sample ‘FeelingPulledApartByHorses’ and ‘The Hollow Earth’, the latter track being one of the finest things I’ve heard all year. It’s in the same, slightly skittery vein as ‘The Eraser’, with a nagging hook and a thumping beat. It’s almost worth the insane amount the 12” costs. £10, by the way.

I’ve been ploughing through my record collection for the last few weeks, attempting to assemble a list of some kind ready for the launch of the previously trailed, ‘Just Played – Albums Of The Decade’ feature, which will be arriving fairly soon now. It’s been lovely to be reminded of albums like Daft Punk’s ‘Discoveryand Air’s ‘10 000Hz Legend’, alongside Teenage Fanclub’s ‘Howdy and Rufus Wainwright’s ‘Poses. There are some absolute certs for the final list, but it’s been interesting to realise some of the records I’d totally forgotten about that are thoroughly deserving of a place. More on that soon.

Oh, and there were those remasters I briefly mentioned at the start. I haven’t got an awful lot to add to the millions of column inches offered up over the last six weeks (and largely bought by me) so I’ll not say much. (On the other hand, recent convert, Dan of teatunes, says plenty here) Suffice to say, the more expensive of the box sets, ‘The Beatles In Mono’, is an absolute delight, with the sound punchy and remarkably clear. I feel obliged to inform you that you haven’t heard ‘Rubber Soul’ until you’ve heard the mono mix at a fair old volume – it’s a rather special moment. The packaging is wonderful and a serious step up from the fold-out card things used for the stereo reissues. As for the more widely available stereo mixes, I found that box a slight anti-climax, what with it arriving four days after the mono box had had its chance to seduce me. That said, it’s still a beguiling collection of music and those albums only available in stereo sound pretty impressive to these ears. I’ve certainly never liked ‘Abbey Road’ more than I do now. I love their catalogue now more than I ever previously have, but that’s probably no great surprise. For anyone who takes their music listening seriously, you really should get at least one of these boxes, if you haven’t already, as they are the definitive versions. Sod the money, on this occasion. Buy a few less takeaways or £40 games and treat yourself.

Oh, and if you’ve still not heard the new Maps album, sort yourself out, eh?