Massive Attack: Heligoland

RIYL: The Specials’ “Ghost Town,” Radiohead’s In Rainbows, film noir soundtracks

If you read enough reviews of Heligoland (spoken as ‘Hell Ego Land’), Massive Attack’s new album and first in seven years, you’ll eventually be able to play Bingo with them. At some point, the phrases “dark,” “brooding,” “trip-hop,” “atmospheric,” and “guest vocals” will pop up in the majority of them, and as overused as those expressions are, they fit. Of course, the other reason many reviews will say these things – again – is because, well, what else is there to say about Massive Attack? They have carved such a unique niche for themselves that talking about their music is akin to dancing about architecture. Some bands just are. Massive Attack is one of them. It’s a sweet place to be if you can swing it, but it makes objective analysis of their music almost impossible.


Up to this point, however, no one has ever needed to write “twelve years removed from their last good album” when discussing Massive, but that is exactly where the band finds itself; you have to go back to last century’s Mezzanine (‘last century’ is a trick writers use for dramatic effect) to find their last consistent piece of work, so the band needs this one to stick. And for the most part, it does, certainly when compared to the 2003’s hazy 100th Window; with a more focused approach on songwriting rather than groovemaking, Heligoland plays like Radiohead’s In Rainbows if they had gone the Santana route and recruited a slew of guest vocalists. (Bingo!) Longtime friend Horace Andy sings on the odd “Girl I Love You,” which begins in the vein of “Angel” but ends with a horn section jazz-out not unlike Radiohead’s “The National Anthem,” and the skittery “Babel” is like “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” done as a drum ‘n bass track. That’s a good thing, in case you were wondering.

Massive’s achilles, however, has always been their tendency to stay in a groove until it becomes a rut, and Heligoland is no exception. There is a lot to admire about the album, but it’s difficult to love; for as much time as they spend exploring dark themes both musically and lyrically, it’s lacking in emotional impact, and not even Damon Albarn can save the album’s final third from coasting to the finish line. Still, bringing the band back to a duo (100th Window was basically a solo project by Robert “3D” Del Naja) was a step in the right direction, but now that they’ve made two albums without Andrew “Mushroom” Vowles, it’s evident that present day Massive Attack is much like Think Tank-era Blur without Graham Coxon. The band still exists, but things will never be what they once were. It is now up to us to accept this and hope for the best going forward. (Virgin 2010)

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Click to buy Heligoland from Amazon