London Highbury Garage

This is music that explores depths in your soul that most bands in the late-'90s don't know exist...

Christ, it’s like Britpop never happened. From the MANICS‘ beautiful sadness to[a]Mansun[/a]’s bombastic bluster, from EMBRACE‘s steely-eyed anthems to PLACEBO‘s sleazy mystique, the new seriousness is becoming infectious. Even the BEASTIE BOYS aren’t joking any more. And if MARILYN MANSON have a sense of humour, there’s none more black.

But where other bands do ‘dark’, get doomy on your ass and delve into the abyss for sleazy thrills and borrowed gravitas, only ‘Mezzanine’ has really taken us there this year, hearts, minds, blackened souls and all. If this was the year of the new grave, then MASSIVE ATTACK are a different kind of gravedigger. Because ‘Mezzanine’ isn’t about adolescent angst or sensitive artifice, this is emotional and spiritual meltdown, a long night’s journey into the other side of mo(u)rning.

But how in sodomy they are going to transport the otherworldly, surreally claustrophobic atmosphere of ‘Mezzanine’ into the kind of converted aircraft hangars they’re playing on this tour, is another kettle of skulls entirely.

Maybe it’s best just to turn out the lights and let the bad times roll. And sure enough, the moment the darkness descends, your senses immediately converge on mezzanine level. Swirling searchlights frantically scan the darkness, the approaching menace of a brooding bass rumbles, and we’re thrust into an impossibly cavernous, Zeppelin-size thunderous beat, as all around us, the echo of ghostly moans, whistling winds and eerie noises in the distance bristle against our nerves and stir our senses into uneasy psychedelic reverie. Then a portly, middle-aged caretaker mooches on, thumbs aloft, with a grin the size of the Caribbean.

What fresh lunacy is this? Why, it’s our old friend Horace Andy. And this, of course, is ‘Angel’. And yet his presence, reminiscent of that bloke by the bar in the pub who dances the same to everything even if you put on ADD N TO (X), and his voice, by turns yearning, crooning and haunting, only adds to the intoxicating sense of alienation.

No sooner have we adjusted our mindsets, though, than it’s dark again, then we’re rabbits in the spotlights as helicopters descend, snakes rattle a warning, and ‘Risingson’‘s narcoleptic, narcotic groove envelopes us. This is the point where 3D and DADDY G take the stage, a whispering malevolence and a strong, cautious wisdom wrestling with their altered perceptions.

There’s no escaping the world we’re now inhabiting. LIZ FRASER seems serenely transcendent on ‘Teardrop’, her voice so feather-soft and ethereally soothing amid the madness, and yet you feel she’s just a mirage, another ghost floating across the mindscape Massive have created. Even the previously sunnily disposed likes of ‘Daydreaming’ now seem shrouded in dark clouds, while ‘Karmacoma’ is desolate, austere stuff indeed.

Much of which is down to Massive Attack‘s dub-derived understanding of what bass can do to a human being, and the dimensions of sound it can reach. Once you’ve achieved that disarming sensual effect you can turn noises, voices and beats into all manner of bad (and good) craziness.

And yet for all the brooding paranoia and dehumanised alienation that characterise the ‘Mezzanine’ sound, it’s still rich with emotional resonance. That’s what allows them to reprise ‘Safe From Harm’ and the sublime ‘Unfinished Sympathy’, bathed in red light and aching melancholy. Because there’s catharsis in this often scary experience, in facing up to demons both mental and emotional.

As such, this is music that explores depths in your soul that most bands in the late-’90s don’t know exist. ‘Mezzanine’ is a level beyond traditional rock and dance music, beyond mere miserablism or hollow escapism. You wouldn’t want to live there, but it’s an amazing place to visit.