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Publication Date: April 2003

They are no strangers to menace. The murk and twitch of Massive Attack’s music came to define the band: the urban melancholy, the aching soul, the sepulchral beats. Some of the paranoia came from smoking a lot of very strong weed. But much of it echoed that of our times: surveillance cameras in every high street, PIN numbers for every transaction, explosives in every holdall forgotten on the Tube. Mistrust is hardwired deep into the human psyche and Massive mined its deep recesses with skill and grace.
Each member of Massive’s early line-up – Daddy G, Mushroom, and Tricky, of course – contributed to the seductive heebeejeebies. But Robert ‘3D’ Del Naja was the man muttering dark things in the music’s interstices, eyes narrowed, jumpier than the rest. With 3D the last man left standing, Massive’s sense of dread finally got an album all to itself in 100th Window. Consequently, it’s his version of Massive that’s out tonight, occupying roughly half the set. It’s just as well everyone is hellbent on having a good time, because every instrument is distorted by electronic effects, making openers ‘Futureproof’ and ‘Every-when’ soupy and lugubrious.
Even the angelic tones of Horace Andy are subsumed into the mud, when his role is usually to rise above it. Volume helps, of course: the louder the malevolent rumble, the more real the danger feels. Inertia Creeps’ is properly intense. But much of the gig is buried under the aural equivalent of wet sand, which is a terrible shame.
Heaving and groaning, Massive ignore their second album, Protection, completely, but make a detour into Mezzanine, and the errant Daddy G earns a whoop of approval when he comes on for ‘Risingson’, a convincingly dark reading. We don’t see much more of him – only ‘Mezzanine’ tempts him out again.
His is not the only disappearing act. Except for Horace Andy, not one of Massive’s usual singers is here. It’s all understudies. The parts of Sinead O’Connor and Liz Fraser are played by Dot Allison, who tries heroically, but can’t quite manage Fraser’s flutters on ‘Teardrop’. The soul parts, meanwhile, are sung by one Debbie Miller. By the home stretch, everyone’s so grateful to hear the old hits ‘Hymn Of The Big Wheel’, ‘Safe From Harm’ and ‘Unfinished Sympathy’ that her performance is almost irrelevant, although Miller does earn a big cheer for a particularly strong sustained warble.
It’s hard to overstate how great ‘Unfinished Sympathy’ still is. But tonight’s rendition does throw up a curious scenario. It may say Massive Attack above the door, but it’s not Massive Attack playing the song. Unless any of Massive’s instrumentalists – there’s a full band stretched across the front of the stage tonight – played on the original, this is technically a cover version, with none of the song’s authors or original inter-preters onstage. It’s an elastic sort of franchise, this Massive Attack of 3D’s.
Massive’s collapse into 100th Window’s gloom is understandable in some ways. 3D may be paranoid, but as it turns out, they were out to get him too. 100th Window is an album about internet surveillance which features a track – sung by O’Connor – abhorring the abuse of children. 3D was recently arrested on suspicion of downloading child porn off the net. His credit card number was on a file the FBI had seized from a porn server. Del Naja’s name has since been completely cleared, but not before Massive’s tour of Australia and New Zealand was affected. According to a recent interview, the immigration services rescinded his visas at the behest of the Sun. So it’s no surprise that the tabloid receives a sharp dose of 3D’s wrath tonight.
In the same breath, he thanks Chris Martin of Cold-play for publicly supporting him when he was under suspicion. Impressively, he doesn’t dwell on the incident, but lets the gig do the talking more persuasively. If the music leaves something to be desired tonight, the visuals almost make up for it, turning the turgid tunes into a soundtrack to something greater. High-speed digital messages flash across the screen, encompassing stock market tickers to train timetables. Statistics chart the population increase, barrels of oil consumed, a league table of military spending, questions about the war – of which Del Naja has been an implacable opponent. On paper, it reads like a gimmick. But a brief summary can’t do justice to the dance of information and sound that makes Massive just about bearable tonight. In an ideal world, the music would be good enough on its own. But as we and Massive Attack know, it’s not an ideal world.

Written By Kitty Empire