ALBUM REVIEW:Massive Attack “Heligoland”

Massive Attack – Paradise Circus


Tomorrow marks the official release date (U.S. and Canada) for Heligoland, the 5th proper studio album by Massive Attack.

Whereas the 2003 release 100th Window glistened with mechanical accuracy and disciplined minimal techno, Heligoland finds the Bristol duo returning to the dirtier, dubbed out sound of 1998’s Mezzanine.  Analog synths bubble around ethnic drums, abstract textures, traditional instruments and vocals in a seamless tapestry only Massive Attack could weave.

Heligoland is not a simple collection of ‘singles’…the album is assembled like the soundtrack to a journey through crowded streets, perpetual darkness and rain, seedy hotels and desperate love.  Texture and mood are given precedence over easy to digest pop song structures.  One gets the idea that Massive Attack could care less about their music being played on radio.  Heligoland is an album, meant to be consumed in its entirety, meant to transport the listener and hold them captive in a distant yet familiar world.

We also note that Massive Attack’s penchant for collaboration has gone unchanged.  Guest vocalists Damon Albarn (Gorillaz), Martina Topley-Bird, Tunde Adebimpe, Hope Sandoval and long time collaborator Horace Andy work wonderfully within the framework of Massive’s moody production, Andy delivering one of his most melodic performances atop the menacing bass line of “Girl I Love You”.  Guy Garvey of Elbow lends his subdued tenor to “Flat of the Blade”, a song that could easily find its home in a Luc Besson film. “I’m not good in a crowd / I’ve got skills I can’t speak of / Things I’ve seen / will chase me to the grave” Garvey croons in his believable, thick, monotone.

Heligoland is not all doom and gloom, however.  The album is sprinkled with bright moments of uplifting sonic emancipation.  The near-pop turn around in Pray for Rain.  The beautiful string arrangements of “Splitting the Atom” and “Paradise Circus”.  These moments break through the tech-noir soundscape like rays of angelic sunshine, adding wonderful humanity and balance.

Heligoland reaffirms Massive Attack’s legendary status.  Some will complain that the album is too similar to Mezzanine and doesn’t offer anything new.  But as countless electronica bands fall back on robotic 80’s, overly arpeggiated and soul-less sounds, Massive Attack has returned to do what no one else can.  Blending influences from across the globe, they have created a wonderful work of art, full of light and shadow, free of cliché, imitation and predictability.  Their sound is so unique that an entire genre was created in an attempt to pigeon-hole and market them.  Notwithstanding, Heligoland displays the duos ability to transcend genre and classification to create a wonderfully engaging, aural experience.

Pray for Rain feat. Tunde Adebimpe: Tundes voice exists perfectly in the abstract world of samples, ethnic drums and heavy piano work.  The song builds to an unexpected, near pop-like climax of beautiful harmony only to resolve back into the menace of the main groove.

Babel feat. Martina Topley-Bird: Martina’s voice falls into the track like a lovely instrument amidst the patchwork of rhythm guitars and analog synths.

Splitting the Atom feat. Damon Albarn: Very Gorillaz-esque staccato organ accompanies Grant Marshall’s signature baritone which contrasts wonderfully with Horace Andy’s high tenor on the hook.  Albarn’s background harmonies add mystery and depth and texture as the song is lifted by glorious string textures during its final moments.

Girl I Love You feat. Horace Andy: Horace Andy lends his signature vocals over a menacing bass line and Mezzanine-ish guitar work.  The track is transported to another dimension with intricate horn work.

Psyche feat. Martina Topley-Bird: Chopped, jangly guitars wrap Martina’s vocal in an intricate texture of urgency.  By all means check out the Flash Treatment remix by Christoffer Berg featured on the Splitting the Atom EP.

Flat of the Blade feat. Guy Garvey.

Paradise Circus feat. Hope Sandoval: One of the most hopeful uplifting tracks on the album, production-wise.  Hope delivers her intimate performance in the midst of gentle piano work, hand claps and dub bass.  Lovely.

Rush Minute: Del Naja makes up for any lack of vocal ability with the introspective opening line “I wanna be clean but I gotta get high”.

Saturday Comes Slow feat. Damon Albarn: A very nice delivery from Damon Albarn could almost be accused of being out of place…that is until the guitar textures creep in at the 2:20 mark.

Atlas Air: A building near 8 minute groove that takes us close to 100th Window territory is the albums closer.