Album review: Massive Attack - 'Heligoland' (Virgin)
A host of special guests on duo's comeback can't hide an identity crisis
It’s hard to think of a band that has more epitomised the power of a collective voice than [a]Massive Attack[/a]. Born out of The Wild Bunch, the Bristol soundsystem behind the rap-reggae fusion that infamously became known throughout the world as trip-hop, Massive’s finest moments deployed collaborations with the precision of a smart bomb. Whether it was Shara Nelson’s spectacular turn on 1991’s future-soul classic ‘Unfinished Sympathy’ or Elizabeth Fraser, elfin on the frosted beauty of ‘Teardrop’ seven years later, they knew a great vocalist – and exactly how to use them. Seven years on from their last album, 2003’s ‘100th Window’, and Massive Attack – now the core duo of Robert ‘3D’ Del Naja and Grant ‘Daddy G’ Marshall (who wasn’t even on the last record because he was on sabbatical raising his baby daughter) – return. The backstory of ‘Heligoland’ is enough to give anyone cause for concern. It appears to have been a tricky bugger to complete, vocals with the likes of Stephanie Dosen recorded, then scrapped. Not that the finished product is short on guests – it’s absolutely crammed with them. Tunde Adebimpe of [a]TV On The Radio[/a], [a]Martina Topley-Bird[/a], [a]Damon Albarn[/a], [a]Guy Garvey[/a], [a]Mazzy Star[/a]’s [a]Hope Sandoval[/a] and [/a]Horace Andy[/a] all check in for a song or two.
They’re all undoubtedly great singers, but the frequency with which they’re used gives the awkward impression that Del Naja and Marshall are a marginal presence on their own record. It’s hard to see the logic of kicking off with ‘Pray For Rain’, a trudge of sombre piano and tom rolls that Adebimpe approaches like he might any moody TVOTR song. Sonically, too, there’s little here distinct enough to leave a clear Massive fingerprint. We don’t hear Del Naja and Marshall at all until track three, ‘Splitting The Atom’ – which ironically comes off like a gloomy [a]Gorillaz[/a] song, thanks to some ska-tinged organ from Albarn.
After a shaky start, ‘Heligoland’ finally begins to deliver. Long-time cohort Horace Andy shines on ‘Girl I Love You’, driving bass and droning horns harking back to the collective’s 1998 album ‘Mezzanine’. The luminescent ‘Paradise Circus’, featuring Hope Sandoval, is as close as the album gets to a ‘Teardrop’. “The devil makes us sick”, breathes Sandoval, over handclaps and chimes, “[i]But we like it when we’re spinning[/i]”. ‘Rush Minute’, meanwhile, is tense and paranoid, Del Naja’s whispered chant raising the pressure a la ‘Inertia Creeps’.
Overall, though ‘Heligoland’ is a puzzling and frustrating listen. Some good tracks can’t hide the fact that this is the stuff of an identity crisis. It’s one thing to call on your famous friends to put flesh on your bones. It’s another if you leave the listener wondering if you’ve any spine at all.
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