Born and raised in Bristol, England, the Massive Attack collective is responsible for summoning up the spooky, clubby and groovy sound made most popular by another Bristol band, Portishead. Spawned in 1987 from the Wild Bunch, a group of musicians — including Neneh Cherry and Nellee Hooper (subsequent leader of Soul II Soul) — who assembled in the early ’80s, Massive Attack takes languorous reggae/dub rhythms and adds synthesizers, vocalists and luscious soul stylings to make a potion that gets to the essence of cool.
The songs on Blue Lines dabble in several different veins but retain the same rhythmic backbone: a slow, hypnotic beat and reggae’s traditional one-three emphasis. Singer Shara Nelson (a former member of Adrian Sherwood’s On-U Sound posse) has a delicate yet strong soul voice; other vocalists on the album include reggae veteran Horace Andy (who shines on “Hymn of the Big Wheel”). Other members of the amorphous group — most significantly the soon-to-be-a-star Tricky — contribute an understated Brit-rap component. Despite the various voices and styles, the record is remarkably cohesive, covering William DeVaughn’s 1974 hit “Be Thankful for What You’ve Got” and James Brown’s “Blue Lines” while relying on the strength of Nelson and Andy’s vocals to define and maintain its direction. Because of the group’s sonic signature and clear confidence behind a soundboard, Massive Attack spent a good portion of the next few years doing outside remix and production work.
Many other bands had discovered the Massive Attack recipe by the time Hooper co-produced Protection with the group, so the elegant innovators changed course. With four of the first album’s seven participants gone (including Shara Nelson and Tricky, both off to their respective solo careers), the group needed another powerful singer to lead the melody from their clubby drone, and got Tracey Thorn (Everything but the Girl) to add her silky, poignant vocals to the title track and “Better Things.” Tricky returns as a guest (on “Euro Child” and “Karmacoma”), as does Horace Andy (for “Spying Glass” and a cover of the Doors’ “Light My Fire”). Newcomer Nicolette, who sings on two tracks, sounds like Eartha Kitt, with the same annoying nasal emphasis and pronunciation. Protection‘s lack of cohesion means that what remains from the original is the beautiful, intoxicating rhythm tracks and the pristine production qualities. What it lacks is the soul.
A promising idea in principle, the Mad Professor (Neil Fraser) cut a dub version of Protection, turning “Spying Glass” into “I Spy,” “Heat Miser” into “Backward Sucking,” “Better Things” into “Moving Dub” and so on. While the veteran English studio pro’s radical reorientations certainly relieve the album of its glib surfaces and occasionally manage to tease out a seductive undertow that wasn’t originally there (check “Trinity Dub,” remixed from “Three,” and “Cool Monsoon,” drawn from “Weather Storm”), the rhythmic and sonic tumult he wreaks on the immaculate tracks often leaves a shapeless mess.
Four years after Protection, Massive Attack returned with Mezzanine. As distinctive and compelling as the debut, it signaled another change in direction. The noir atmospherics of Bristolian trip-hop had permeated the global pop idiom; although that sound remains central to Massive’s aesthetic, they up the ante considerably here. Using a full studio band, Mezzanine transforms trip-hop’s smoky, kitschy grooves into something far darker and edgier. While Portishead and their ilk made fashionably dissolute music for small-hours lounge denizens, Mezzanine is an unsettling, brooding soundtrack for post-apocalyptic cityscapes. Where Protection lacked soul, this is music for the dark night of the soul. Dub-heavy production, intense, effects-laden guitar work (from the Blue Aeroplanes’ Angelo Bruschini), ocean-trawling bass lines and austere keyboard textures conspire to give much of this material an overwhelming aura of menace. For standouts like “Risingson” and “Inertia Creeps,” Daddy G and 3D take the mic, their hushed, threatening raps enhancing the overall feeling of suffocation and danger. Guests Elizabeth Fraser, Sara Jay and Massive stalwart Horace Andy provide vocal counterpoints that let some light and air into the dense, claustrophobic arrangements. Fraser’s ethereal lullaby (on “Teardrop”) and Andy’s falsetto croon (on “Angel” and the John Holt song “Man Next Door”) make for some of the album’s most sublime moments.
The recording of 100th Window ran into numerous problems. Mushroom, one of the band’s three core members, quit in ’99, leaving 3D and Daddy G to rethink their approach; in 2001, citing a loss of focus, the duo shelved everything they’d recorded and started over; in 2002, the announcement came that Daddy G wouldn’t appear on the new record, leaving only 3D with co-producer/co-writer Neil Davidge. This didn’t bode well and, indeed, the album proved to be Massive Attack’s weakest release thus far. 100th Window is a less convincing rehash of Mezzanine. Textured, moody atmospherics, huge bass and creeping beats generate a more intense claustrophobia, but the material is one-dimensional, lacking the hip-hop and rap elements as well as the range of melody and moods that make their earlier work so memorable. Guest vocalists, usually key to the Massive equation, make scant difference here. Andy’s voice on “Everywhen” has little of its characteristic rich vibrato, and Sinéad O’Connor has neither the soulful quality nor the emotive power of some of the band’s previous female singers. But while there are no instant anthems on the scale of, say, “Unfinished Sympathy,” “A Prayer for England” comes close. Sung by O’Connor, it touches on a spate of child murders that occurred in the UK around the time of the recording. The material has undeniable emotional impact, yet it suffers from O’Connor’s earnestness; the subject is no laughing matter but her self-righteous, clumsy invocation of “Jah” certainly is. The album meanders, although Eastern- inflected tracks like “Future Proof,” with its tabla groove, and the tense, hypnotic “Antistar” are reasonably strong. Reduced to a drowsy slur, 3D’s vocals on these numbers add to the album’s suffocating ambience.
Shara Nelson’s disappointing solo debut (she also appears on Guru’s Jazzmatazz Volume II) puts the spotlight on the Londoner’s throaty, dynamic voice, but the songs — engaging mid-tempo soul workouts which she co- wrote — aren’t as strong or mysterious as what she sang with Massive Attack.