Dublin Olympia Theatre
Ten-fifteen in the haunted dancehall, and the vibes are very, very bad. Somewhere at the heart of this ornate, spooky old theatre, mapping territories inside a deep purple fug, half a dozen diffident men are making a music of suppressed brutality, of covert threat. Words are muttered allusions to imminent hostilities, rancour unconvincingly veiled in nonchalance.
Sounds are jarring and steely, needled, a kind of infected dub. Heads are nodded as if it is inconceivable there could be a more sinister gesture. This is Massive Attack playing ‘Mezzanine’, playing hard, and, if the epithet ‘gothic’ hadn’t been wasted on the sonic equivalent of a dog turd, then this, truly, would be deserving of it. If you’d never heard a single portent-laden note by Massive Attack, you’d be forgiven for instinctively hating them these past few weeks, as a succession of journalists who gave up liking music years ago have filled column after broadsheet column with sincerely adult hyperbole in their honour. They have ascended to that most unenviable of categories – ‘Recommended Rock’; the discerning choice of Britain’s three-CDs-a-year massive, ‘Mezzanine’ cast as ’98’s ‘OK Computer’ with all the tricksiness and heady whiff of significance that entails.
Sadly, of course, whilst NME would love to shoot down a few sacred cows, we can’t argue with our elders and betters on this one. Not only are Massive Attack as gripping and innovative a band as Britain has produced this decade, but they have, now, become a truly great experience, too. It’s worth remembering, as their musicians begin with the coiled, hybridised metal racket of ‘Angel’, that throughout the phenomenal success of ‘Blue Lines’ Massive Attack never once appeared live. And, even when ‘Protection’ was released, they were only stepping out as a sound system, with singers working over DATs and dubplates.
Nowadays, fully Musicians Union-friendly, there’s a certain irony that a band once posited as an antidote to rock and all its ‘authentic’ trappings are, if not exactly embracing it, then undoubtedly deploying its weaponry to their own ends. For Massive Attack manage, tonight, to be both spectral and heavy; elliptical words and postures melting into a pulverised, soiled blues that’s orchestrated, at least in part, by the unlikely figure of a former Blue Aeroplanes guitarist, Angelo Bruschini.
Much here is remarkable, and unswervingly horrible, as when 3D and Daddy G stalk round each other trading unpleasantries on ‘Risingson’ while Mushroom looks on disdainfully. The latter remains true to their old sound system habits of professional loitering, a sentinel figure who barely touches his decks all night but merely glowers evocatively at the audience. It is to his considerable credit that he makes this seem an essential and highly-specialised art.
Meanwhile, that formidable back catalogue has become brilliantly diseased, so that ‘Safe From Harm’ starts with an overture of avant-garde wind noises and clenched slow-motion scratching, and many of Horace Andy’s conscious, humane lyrics feel like sick jokes when undermined by music so redolent of pessimism and menace. Only two songs totally evade the inspirational mauling with innocence intact: Andy’s blessed saunter through ‘Song From The Big Wheel’, where a more forgiving vision of mankind is treated straight and stripped-down; and a predictably triumphant ‘Unfinished Sympathy’, a reward for booming-voiced Deborah Miller after she has grappled – and narrowly failed – to reproduce the baroque whinnying of Elizabeth Fraser on ‘Teardrop’.
It’s when, in fact, ‘Unfinished Sympathy’ is received so rapturously that the strange genius of Massive Attack really hits home: here is a band whose three key members are barely onstage for their biggest hit. Who are content to sit watching while a bunch of hired hands set about the layered intricacies that have taken them years to perfect in the studio. And who stand, finally, in a row across the front of the stage, evaporating into strobelight at the howling climax of ‘Group 4’.
It’s an elusiveness, a vapourous mystique, a barely-tangible presence that says everything about these prodigiously gifted men and their music. Then they’ve gone, ghosts sucked back into a machine of their own making, disappeared completely.