ScanS → Uncut Magazine Review/Interview #2
Publication Date: March 2006
For much of the past decade. Massive Attack were a shortcut to credible good taste for lifestyle supplements and soundtrack compilers. Their languid, unfurnished symphonies were appealing snapshots of multiracial Cool Britannia, where urban grit meets uptown chic. Where Jamaica meets The Bronx on the terraces of Bristol City Where the tangy rawness of reggae and the boastful potency of hip hop are artfully groomed into tranquil, textured moodscapes.
But this alluring image of Massive as masters of upmarket chill-out music was always reductive.
By their own admission, Robert “3D” Del Naja. Grant “Daddy G” Marshall and Andrew “Mushroom” Vowles are “dysfunctional fuckers”. The tension between the sensual surface of their music and the fractious, intense personalities beneath has long been crucial to their appeal. Soothing on top, seething below.
Their influence also outstrips their relatively modest nine million album sales. In a career spanning over 15 years, their sounds and methods have impacted on Tricky, Portishead, Madonna, Bjork, Leftfield, U 2, Roots Manuva, Radiohead, Blur, Gorillaz and dozens more. And OK – Morcheeba and countless middlebrow also-rans, too. But at least with Massive, progressive intent lay behind the passive attack. Indeed, like Blur, they have become steadily more experimental and unshaven, and increasingly driven by a single creative personality. Sometimes taking wrong turns, no question, but consistently moving forward.
Massive generally work best when their feminine and masculine sides are in dialogue, as on their virtually flawless 1991 debut Blue Lines. The airy white spaces and orchestral flourishes that cradle Shara Nelson’s proud, wounded voice on “Unfinished Sympathy” and “Safe From Harm”, both included here, marry the towering melodrama of great soul music to the modernist architecture of ambient electronica. These are glistening anthems of latent female rage, but full of furtive corners where male voices growl.
Even when masculine energy dominates, the menace of the music is largely disarmed by deadpan, downbeat Britishness. Featuring raps from Massive’s core trio plus future breakaway member Tricky, the dub-driven “Five Man Army” patented an emphatically homegrown brand of hip hop, too introverted and vulnerable to mimic any self-aggrandising US role models. These slow beats advance via accretion and insinuation, often just a half-step away from total stoner inertia.
Nelson departed acrimoniously after Blue Lines, but Massive have always excelled at recruiting ace female vocalists. Tracy Thorn of indie-folk balladeers Everything But The Girl was an inspired choice for the luminous, hypnotic title track to 1994’s Protection. Buoyed along by sunsplash guitars and gentle rhythmic currents, her softly defiant pledge to “stand in front of you, take the force of the blow” can still liquidise the hardest heart. Likewise Nicolette, one of the Great Lost Voices of the ’90s, whose sultry feline purr on “Sly” blurs Eartha Kitt into Shirley Bassey. Tricky also returned on Protection to make his swan song appearance with Massive over the stuttering beats and ethnic whistles of “Karmacoma”, a tune he would rework into the suffocating “Overcome” on his ’95 solo debut Maxinquaye.
Friction over their drift towards harder, rockier sounds culminated in the departure of Vowles before the ’98 release of Mezzanine. It’s tempting to extrapolate these tensions from the roiling murk of “Risingson” and clenched techno-blues of “Inertia Creeps”. But, in truth, the ex-punk Del Naja’s increasing creative dominance, and the arrival of rock guitarist Neil Davidge as a new member, were probably more significant.
Mezzanine was praised on release, but much of it now feels cluttered. Slathered in heavy guitar, “Angel” never escapes its overdriven bass groove and dense thickets of studio effects. Again it falls to a female vocalist, Liz Fraser of Cocteau Twins, to provide the album’s graceful peak with the pulsing, amniotic “Teardrop”.
Their fourth studio long-player, 2003’s 100th Window, was conceived in even more fraught circumstances. Marshall stayed out of the studio altogether, putting the band’s future in doubt. The album earned lukewarm reviews, although much of it strained commendably towards avant-rock in a Kid A vein. “Butterfly Caught” possesses a fractured sci-fi grandeur but murky, mumbled mood pieces like “Future Proof ” lack bite. Even Sinead O’Connor’s drowsy guest vocal on “What Your Soul Sings” fails to add any warmth.
Happily, Del Naja and Marshall patched things up. The sole new track here bodes well for the forthcoming fifth studio album, provisionally titled Weather Underground. A collaboration with smoky-voiced veteran Terry Callier, “Live With Me” is a classy blues ballad that brings them back full circle to soul music.
In fact, it almost compensates for the largely absent Horace Andy, a Massive regular whose beatific tones are strangely unrepresented on this album.
The limited edition dual-disc release of Collected also deserves a mention. On the audio side of the bonus disc, mournful soundtrack cuts such as “Bullet Boy” and “Danny The Dog” showcase Massive’s
elegantly simple avant-folk side, as does the sorrowful snapshot of Parisian urban unrest that is “False Flags”.
A heavily disguised Damon Albarn lurks among the burbling techno abstraction of “Small Time Shot Away”, while Madonna comes out smelling of very expensive roses on the sumptuous, bejewelled version of Marvin Gaye’s “I Want You”. Mos Def lays old-school raps over buzzing electronica on the infectious “I Against I”, and Liz Fraser makes a magisterial return on “Silent Spring”.
On the flipside of the limited edition’s bonus disc are 15 of Massive’s videos. Few British bands before or since have produced such cinematic music and consistently dazzling visuals, with Baillie Walsh’s one-take, slow-motion street tableaux for “Unfinished Sympathy” and Michel Gondry’s brilliantly orchestrated, gravity-defying glide around a studio-built tower block for “Protection” especially memorable.
Taken as a coherent body of work, Collected is an impressive reminder of just how innovative and intensely beautiful Massive Attack have been throughout their 15-year journey. Looking back, the view from here is magnificent.
UNCUT: How do you feel about releasing a career retrospective?
DEL NAJA: Like a fucking old man, I guess. It’s one of those things: when is it a good time to put one of these albums out? You’re under contract to do so, so do you do it posthumously or do you put it out when you think it’s got some merit?
It’s about reminding people what you’re about, while presenting something new. Massive have a famously slow work rate – just four studio albums in 15 years. Is that down to laziness, perfectionism, or smoking too much dope?
It’s a wonderful mix of all of them. Actually, the dope they’re putting out these days is way too strong to smoke. It’s more likely to be alcohol than drugs these days. It’s not quite anal perfectionism; you just wait for these weird alchemy moments where you meet up with other people and things come together that feel meaningful. That’s why you end up with lots of unreleased things on the shelf.
UNCUT: What was the idea behind working with so many collaborators? Maybe it’s because of the DJ and sound system thing we
come from. Or the reggae thing, where you would have different versions of tracks with different vocalists. Bands like The Clash were also a big influence on us, and they had three or four different voc alists on some albums. And when I was a kid, The Beatles, because, again, they had three voices on their albums.
UNCUT: In 2003, your house was raided during a police crackdown on underage porn websites. No charges were brought, but the story made the tabloids. How did that affect you? The porn thing came and went as quick as the
newspapers did. Massive never have been about celebrity, so it was never really going to touch us.
DEL NAJA: It was no fun at all, but in terms of the way the Internet is now, it was just a crazy procedure. They were going through and collecting information, which wasn’t correct in most cases. It was a flash in the pan – it didn’t affect my life or the people around me. All the charges were dropped within 28 days.
UNCUT: Terry Callier is on this compilation and the new studio album. Why did you work with him?
DEL NAJA: An amazing voice and an amazing songwriter. We’ve done about five tracks with him, but that one felt like it contained everything from the past, the present and a bit of the future. It was a very different approach to 100th Window- more organic, less complicated. 100th Window gotvery mixed reviews, but what annoyed us about the negative ones was the suggestion that we couldn’t or didn’t want to make soulful music. We decided to go down a particular route – it was a choice. But coming out of it, we want to work with people like Terry in a completely different way again.
Written By Stephen Dalton