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Publication Date: April 1998

It begins with a bass rumble so post-punk in every aspect that you half expect John Lydon or David Thomas to start yelping over it. Instead a minimal kick drum and a lazy reggae rimshot carry the beat. A trace of murky feedback rises to a growl. When the vocals actually start it’s notyer standard-issue, abrasive punky catatonics, but reggae legend Horace Andy, making his third appearance on a Massive Attack album, soaring and swooping on gossamer wings. “You are my angel/Love you, love you, love you”, he explains, in a radical retake of his own early ’70s lyric. Minutes into Angel, the word “darkside” is sung. Very apt.

In some senses this is recognisably the same group that made Blue Lines and Protection. In other ways it is a darker, denser Massive Attack. There are those guitars for starters. Low-key, but ever present, they squall away all over Mezzanine’s 11 lengthy tracks.
Anyone who witnessed the band’s live set in the dance tent at Glastonbury in 1995, or heard last year’s Risingson single (included here), will have detected more than a hint of the new direction, most noticeably a fresh willingness to engage with the dynamics of live presentation. But the sea-change is more profound than that. Acid House politics squeezed guitars out of the equation in 1988. Ten years on, the dance mainstream seems to have settled, for the time being at least, on a stable and predictable repertoire of digitised noises.

And yet all this time there has lingered a suspicion of unfulfilled potential. Where are the Hendrix textures rippling like waves across an ocean of sound? Why didn’t the Stone Roses build on Fool’s Gold? Where are the spaces that make the prospect of The Mahavishnu Orchestra meeting My Bloody Valentine in the mix not just feasible but lip-smackingly desirable? Where are the out-rock-meets-dub meets fusion hybrids? Unfinished sympathies indeed. Mezzanine articulates what can still be done with that set of (con)textual possibilities as well as anything you are likely to hear this side of the millennium.

The much-hyped and misunderstood Bristol scene isn’t really a ‘scene’ at all. It’s just pockets of creative people sitting round their respective kitchen tables and Portastudios skinning up and making music. Every three or four years they find that the sonic debris around them has formed itself into a record.
Massive Attack, like Portishead, take that unique West Country blend of ennui and insularity way beyond its parochial, provincial limits. They’ve collaborated with Madonna and scored Hollywood soundtracks without ever compromising the essence of what they are: global isolationists, static nomads.

Arguably, no other English city produces such a consciousness. That’s why Massive Attack’s reggae connection sounds so utterly uncontrived. It’s lived rather than lip-serviced, Not for them the toy-town ska of late 1970’s Coventry or the well-meant inept skanking of the Clash City Rockers (reggae icons like Lee Perry and Bob Marley were glad of punks respectful attention but they pissed themselves laughing at their musical endeavours). When Massive’s legacy line is made explicit, as on the Horace Andy-sung version of Man Next Door (previous translators, Dennis Brown, The Paragons, The Slits), it’s a gem carved in heaven. Collaboration never sounded sweeter.

Elsewhere, core members Daddy G, 3D and Mushroom take the mic and apply their trademark skank paranoia half-whisper to tracks like Inertia Creeps and Group Four.
Their meaningful mumbles always sit just so. They make it sound so deceptively easy.

On the subject of the other major guest vocalist, there are those who suggest that Cocteaus chanteuse Liz Fraser’s creativity and wonderfulness exists in inverse proportion to her intelligibility. “Goo-goo dewdrop stew”, she sang on the very fab Victorialond and Blue Bell Knoll. “I am enunciating clearly and appear to be content,” she sang on the not-quite-so-fab Heaven Or Las Vegas. On Teardrop, the forthcoming Massive single, she appears to sing “Ga-ga oh so fair, Dan Vesey doing red”. This is probably not even approximately close but she drifts in and out of coherence like that on all of the tracks that she sings, so I guess it’s a very warm welcome back to non-linear Liz.

Teardrop, incidentally, has a melody line very reminiscent of Traffle’s Dear Mr Fantasy, but it’s not any distillation of Dear Mr Fantasy that you, I, or Paul Weller would recognise or respond to. The same goes for the punky undertow that pulls the album along. It’s as if they’ve taken the dynamics, rather than the mannerisms, of PiL’s Metal Box or Pere Ubu’s Dub Housing down a subterranean notch or two to their netherworld.

Maybe that’s what their Mezzanine represents. A halfway house between musical reference points. A neither/nor world, cut adrift from certainties and the trappings of genres. An increasing amount of music is beginning to congregate in that space.

Written By Rob Chapman