Massive Attack – Heligoland

Back at the top of their game

After teasing with the recent ‘Splitting The Atom’ EP, the UK’s much loved and perhaps most consistently difficult band deliver the full package in ‘Heligoland’.

Remarkably their first studio album proper since 2003’s ‘100th Window’, ‘Heligoland’ sees the duo – Robert ‘3D’ Del Naja and Grant ‘Daddy G’ Marshall – return with a reassuring roster of collaborators, both out front and behind the scenes.

Featured vocalists include TV On The Radio’s Tunde Adebimpe, Elbow’s Guy Garvey, Damon Albarn, Hope Sandoval and Martina Topley-Bird. Albarn also helps out musically, as do Portishead’s Adrian Utley and DFA’s Tim Goldsworthy.

Already aired on the ‘Splitting The Atom’ EP, the album begins familiarly with ‘Pray For Rain’, featuring Tunde Adebimpe. With such an identifiable vocal, it could easily be a track by TVOTR, a band who share a similar space to the Bristol duo – there aren’t too many Massive Attack signifiers giving the game away. That is until the breakdown halfway through the seven minutes when the song reassembles itself, adding layers of noise and guitar until a surprisingly ‘light’ middle-eight (if Massive Attack did such trad things) throws another curveball at you. Rounding off with a replay of the opening minutes, it’s an assured beginning.

‘Babel’ starts in a more incendiary mood. Distorted, fractured drums are joined by a spasticly slapped bass as former Tricky muse, Martina Topley-Bird, adds her delightfully sleepy, sultry vocals. Following a once around, the sonic gaps are filled and things move up a notch as guitar feedback threatens and buzzes just out of sight.

‘Splitting The Atom’ is next. Composed of many classic Massive Attack elements, Daddy G’s deep, dark tones rap in a slo-mo skank as ghostly voices echo in the rafters before long-time, and always welcome, guest Horace Andy adds those trademark tremulous tones. It’s discordant, low in the mix, synths delivering the niggling, oppressive mood that you associate with late period Massive Attack.

Despite the bubblegum sounding title, ‘Girl I Love You’ is more a distant relative of ‘Mezzanine’’s ‘Angel’, as a fast rumbling bassline propels Horace Andy’s ethereal warbling at a pace unexpected, perhaps unsuitable, for such a distinguished gentleman. Elements of TVOTR appear in the clattering, round-the-kit percussion, while the ominously cinematic bass horn blasts suggest Del Naja’s film soundtracking side projects. Always the masters of dynamics, the track builds and drops to spotlight Andy’s always sterling voice before being joined by free jazz parps, ending in a vaguely middle-eastern place.

Martina Topley-Bird makes a second appearance on ‘Psyche’, a breather that sees her surrounded by deconstructed acoustic plucks, singing “Conjure me, us a child” in a slight three and a half minutes that offers a ledge of shelter.

‘Flat Of The Blade’ is, confusingly, the ‘Splitting The Atom’ EP’s ‘Bulletproof Love’, with Elbow’s Guy Garvey stepping up to the mic for one of the album’s most expectation laden tracks. As suspected, Elbow’s Radio 2 garnered fans might not find what they’re looking for here. Also boasting Damon Albarn on bass (well, squelching, psuedo acid bassline generation), the track sees Garvey’s character-driven writing prowess exercised as his protagonist admits, “I’m not good in a crowd / I’ve got skills I can’t speak of”, and “Things that I’ve seen will chase me to the grave”. The sparseness gives way to an almost Elbow-esque brass accompaniment, with added Bristolian menace, and intriguingly sees Garvey display a different take on his usual roll call of salt of the earth characters.

Sounding a lot like Martina Topley-Bird, it’s actually Hope Sandoval that brings a similarly languid, feminine guile to ‘Paradise Circus’. Its simple piano notes and cyclical percussion giving way to a satisfyingly dry drums and deep bass section that segues into an unfolding orchestral accompaniment for a satisfying conclusion.

Del Naja takes a solo spot for ‘Rush Minute’, his threatening, whispered delivery sees us immediately transported back to 1998’s ‘Mezzanine’. The layers of guitar confirmed his stewardship over that album, which saw founder member Mushroom depart over the outfit’s direction, but equally sealed the band’s development from blues party sound system collective to white rock critic darlings. His between-album soundtrack work, with Massive Attack member Neil Davidge, is apparent in the piano and slow burning dynamic of the track.

Kindred spirit Damon Albarn steps up to the mic for ‘Saturday Come Slow’. A natural fit, it could almost be Blur at their most experimental, though the brooding cloud of Massive Attack hangs unmistakably overhead in the sonic squall that surrounds.

The album ends with Del Naja behind the mic once more for ‘Atlas Air’, an organ decorated push and pull that pitches ghostly screeches against the deepest of speaker rattling bass grumbles for blow upon blow of sonic attack, settling back on its opening organ riff.

As Burial and his dubstep colleagues highlight, while Massive Attack might not be the cutting edge they once were, they do still represent a uniquely honest, British reflection of the times we live in. As unflinching in their sonic adventuring as ever, tempered by performances drawn out of some high profile guests, the sound remains identifiable with no need for DNA analysis.

Returning from a six-year long wilderness of soundtrack work and greatest hits, ‘Heligoland’ sees the duo back at the top of their game.


Words by Nick Annan

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