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Publication Date: February 2003

Sometimes the worst thing that can happen to a band is for them to open their career with a major hit. You’ve captured the popular imagination, but in return you’re preserved there forever, half-grown. Massive Attack could have been frozen in place in 1991 by their majestic, billowing lament Unfinished Sympathy. The song was a huge radio favourite but also big with clubbers who sensed the kernel of sadness inside its dance beats; the vocal performance of guest singer Shara Nelson seemed to contain all the hurt in the world. The band appeared likely to exchange its roots – as a Bristol DJ sound system which played hip hop, soul and reggae – for a limited life making superior British R&B.
In fact, the way they transcended those roots was one of the more inspiring stories of ’90s music.

Massive Attack made records that were just so satisfying- dense, rich, hypnotic. On their Blue Lines album in 1991 they were already accessing the deep, dark subtext of reggae and hip hop, rediscovering it as music of the subconscious as well as a street culture. 1994’s Protection brought them a broader audience and stately, unlikely hits like Sly. By Mezzanine in 1998 the music had become harsh and metallic but would occasionally crack open to release the sweetness of other human voices – Cocteau Twin Elizabeth Fraser and reggae veteran Horace Andy None of their records has resembled another.

The prevailing mood of 100thWindow – its title a reference to our computers’ vulnerability to online surveillance – is glow-in-the-dark unreality. Andrew ‘Mushroom’ Vowles, the hip hop component of the Massive triumverate, left the band in 1999 and Grant ‘Daddy G’ Marshall is absent on fatherhood sabbatical, so this is effectively a solo album by remaining member Robert ‘3D’ del Naja. He pushes the band’s narcoleptic tendencies to the fore. In place of breakbeats and rock guitars, there is the corrupted sparkle of keyboard electronics and washes of echoes that seem to have no source. Songs bleed slowly into existence before oozing away again, as if the music has been going on elsewhere for some time. Human voices become instruments -longtime Massive Attack colleague Horace Andy and Sinead O’Connor are intelligible, but del Naja himself is no more than a rumour in most of the tracks. This album feels like being lost in a beautiful bad dream.

It is, at first, pretty hard to take. Very little here constitutes a song, apart perhaps from the single Special Cases, a piece of outright menace where O’Connor sounds fragile under a thunderhead of soaring synthetic strings. But 100th Window is very much a stealth record. The opening track Future Proof begins with a twinkle of synthesisers and a gentle rattle of drum machines, then gathers itself into something more sinister – it’s a few moments before you notice that there’s a furious rock guitar solo going on, hidden behind a wall of descending, James Bond theme chords and a Greek chorus of wailing electronic ghosts. By the album’s end, however, del Naja’s austerity has revealed its charms. This music is difficult to get into, but hard to get out of too.

Its major sticking point is Sinead O’Connor: not the grain of her voice, but what she’s singing. The accusatory Special Cases works best, where she wraps herself around the central line “There aren’t many good men/is he one of them?” to chilling effect. A Prayer For England, on the other had, sees her getting all priestly and invoking the protection of Jah against the usual assortment of unspecified oppressors. Similarly, What Your Soul Sings is a painfully earnest, second-hand self-help tract. 100th Window’s world is extra-dimensional and barely human. It just doesn’t gel with this sort of pat philosophising.

So just what is this record about anyway? The music and the titles evoke only negation and absence. It’s as if Massive Attack, who started out steeped in dub – the art of removing pieces of a record to reveal what’s beneath – are close to removing everything, leaving only the space where the music used to be. The nearest thing to an emblematic lyric comes in the refrain to Small Time Shot Away, perhaps the deepest and most troubled dream here. One phrase swims up from del Naja’s digitally-contorted muttering: “It’s my favourite chloroform.” 100th Window might be heading for a heart of darkness, but the journey there is strange and wonderful.

Written By Andrew Harrison