Essential albums: Massive Attack

Although they constructed their tracks using hip hop methods, like Brian Eno they took the recording studio and played it as a kind of giant instrument. Massive Attack re-fashioned borrowed samples and drum loops with remarkable production expertise, bringing in guest vocalists and studio musicians to help fill out their heady sound.

Massive Attack

country of origin:

Trip hop, hip hop, dub, soul, cinematic 

decades active:
90's - 00's

essential releases:

  • Blue Lines (Circa/Virgin, 1991)
  • Protection (Circa/Virgin,1994)
  • Mezzanine (Circa/Virgin, 1998)

Reviewed by Mike G

No downtempo dance music act in the 1990's achieved simultaneously the commercial success and creative heights of UK trio Massive Attack. Although they constructed their tracks using hip hop methods, like Brian Eno they took the recording studio and played it as a kind of giant instrument. They re-fashioned borrowed samples and drum loops with remarkable production expertise, bringing in guest vocalists and studio musicians to help fill out a heady sound that fused hip hop beats and scratching, the stoned haze of Jamaican dub, the emotion of soul music, and haunting ambient atmospheres.

The Rough To Guide To Rock winningly describes them as purveyors of "long-dark-night-of-the-soul music". It's surprising that music at times so dark and searching has become a staple of couch culture and post-club listening, proving that there's more to chilling out than just blissing out.

Massive Attack's formative years have been documented extensively elsewhere, so I'll only touch on them briefly here. A prototype of the band first formed in Bristol in the early 1980's as the eclectic and innovative reggae sound system The Wild Bunch. The name Massive Attack was adopted in 1987 and after a few singles came the first album Blue Lines (1991). By this time the line-up had crystallised into three core members, all of them DJ's: Andrew Vowels (aka Mushroom), Robert Del Naja (aka 3-D) and Grant Marshall (aka Daddy G).

The debut Blue Lines in retrospect sounds the most straight-forward of their releases. Although not a big hit at the time, it was recognised by more astute listeners for the brilliant, seminal work that it is. The album served as a catalyst for the rise of a stoned downtempo hybrid of British hip hop known as trip hop, inspiring many acts including Portishead, Morcheeba and band-associate Tricky who later released his own series of solo albums. On Blue Lines you hear the Massive Attack blueprint: strangely soft yet edgy rapping style, crisp drum loops, creative sampling, sensual keyboards and memorable guest vocalists. The standout guests on the debut are Tricky with his evocative half-whispered raps, and soul diva Shara Nelson on the euphoric neo-soul single "Unfinished Sympathy", the band's most famous song.

Protection (1994) is the album on which the trio perfected their unique electronic filtering of soul, reggae, hip hop and ambient washes. This time the band brought in old Wild Bunch associate Nellie Hooper who's co-production prowess lent an extra polish to what is arguably the band's finest hour. It's filled with atmosphere, haunting melodies, striking vocal performances and some massive dub basslines. Tracy Thorn from the duo Everything But The Girl lends her vocals to the title track and "Better Things", two of her finest performances. 3D begins to emerge as the band's main rapper, his dry rasp making an effective contrast with guest Tricky and the gravelly-voiced Daddy G. There's also two fine cinematic instrumentals with keyboard melodies and orchestral arrangements by guest Craig Armstrong. "Weather Storm" is light and summery, while "Heat Miser" is an eerie trip through an urban nightscape which a piano riff that borrows partly from the intro to Mike Oldfield's epic "Tubular Bells". Just about every track on the album is a spliffed-out stunner.

If Protection only teases with its shadows, then the astonishing Mezzanine (1998) dares to take the full-on plunge into darkness.

For the first time members of Massive Attack's touring band were brought into the studio, most tellingly guitarist Angelo Brushini. It was a decision against which hip hop purist Mushroom vehemently protested, but it proved an inspired decision. Although only one of many sonic brushes used to paint Mezzanine's dark canvass, the sound of guitars in all their slowly churning, swirling, grungy glory casts a the dark cinematic spell over the whole album. Regular guest Horrace Andy's sweet vocals are used to stunning effect over the huge, dark rumbling bassline of the album's opener "Angel", one of several tracks which intermittently explode in white sheets of guitar riffing without ever speeding up the languid tempo. Rays of sunlight poke through the clouds on the haunting and beautiful "Teardrop" featuring Cocteau Twins vocalist Liz Frazer. The lazy instrumental "Exchange" is pure soundtrack magic for a movie you've never seen, with sampled strings lifted from an Isaac Hayes record. And 3D steps to the fore a as rapper and lyricist of quiet force, at times frightening in his intensity.

All these flashes of light and darkness and tense paranoia somehow make Mezzanine a coherent album, for which new co-producer Neil Davidge can take considerable credit. As the calm centre among the serious tensions and in-fighting that were afflicting the band by this stage, the album couldn't have happened without him.

Mezzanine was the last album made by the original line-up. Mushroom left soon afterwards, and with Daddy G on the sidelines the remaining member 3D made 100th Window (2003) which was pretty much a 3D solo album with Neil Davidge and various guests. It's an interesting but not essential Massive Attack release. Skip forward 7 years to the "comeback" album Heligoland (2010) where the confusing line-up of guest vocalists is ultimately wearing and robs the album of any real identity; never has the band sounded so much like a patchwork of different musical acts. Ditto for the e.p. Ritual Spirit (2016), though the title track with its dark harmony and odd vocals from Nigerian-born singer Azekel is a stunner, up there with the best material on Mezzanine.

No, the 1990's was Massive Attack's decade. Claims of their sociological importance to that period are often made: that they soundtracked the Gulf War, various political upheavals, the acid house generation's loss of innocence and optimism. Whether you buy that or not it's hard to argue with a legacy of these three stellar albums. Each is intriguingly different from the other, yet all could only have come from one very special band.

Share this: