A new album from Massive Attack is always a big event. Heligoland, being the fifth studio album proper since 1991’s Blue Lines and a full seven years since 100th Window, you certainly expect a well thought out, brilliant piece of work – it doesn’t disappoint, but it doesn’t astound, either. At ten tracks, this isn’t a long hard slog, but like most Massive Attack, you can’t really call it quick music. Crawling off with “Pray For Rain”, Tunde Adepimbe from TV On The Radio provides a great vocal, and you’ve got all the classic elements – dark atmospherics, deep bass, slowly ratcheting dynamics, but the sudden break midway through into an (almost) upbeat bridge doesn’t sit right, at least not immediately. Unfortunately, it sounds too much like a TVOTR song, and not a Massive Attack one.
Perhaps the criticisms I’ve seen elsewhere, that this is mired in the 90s, and there hasn’t been a positive move forward since 1998’s Mezzanine, are a little harsh. A band as fluid and fragmented as this one, who are losing members, regaining them, and working slowly in an ever changing electronica scene, aren’t going to sound much the same from record to record. Mezzanine came along at a point where what they were doing, the mainstream’s readiness to accept it, and the overarching cultural environment all coalesced perfectly. “Babel” is a case in point – it sounds a lot like Massive Attack, but perhaps if they were covering themselves having listened to all that’s gone since. Unlike, say AC/DC, who have pretty much just stuck in a groove for 30 years, the band here has, with the return of Grant Marshall, at least tried to be a little less insular than on Robert Del Naja’s virtual solo project 100th Window. I just think that since Mushroom left after Mezzanine, nothing of the greatness of “Angel”, “Teardrop”, “Unfinished Sympathy” or “Karmacoma” could possibly happen – no Tricky, no Mushroom, and the fun seems to have gone.
Not that earnest is an adjective than can be applied here. The lightest this gets is on “Saturday Come Slow”, as Damon Albarn, whilst being brilliant at what he does, sounds ethereal in the wrong way – he most definitely is not Elizabeth Fraser. By contrast, it is the other new vocalist, Elbow’s Guy Garvey, who on “Flat Of The Blade” helps create a stone cold classic for Massive Attack. With Radiohead-like time signature shifts, and weird electronics, his vocal sounds utterly bereft, folorn and freaked out. It really is a move forward, whilst still sounding like Massive Attack. Likewise, “Splitting the Atom”, with one of Marshall’s better raps, Horace Andy’s almost expected sweet reggae vocals, and a frankly woozy and punchdrunk kind of sound really feels like a consolidation of the good and an acceptance of the new.
With features for Martina Topley-Bird , on “Psyche”, a light yet eerie tune, and Hope Sandoval with “Paradise Circus” (much more dubby and dark), the gender balance is maintained, but there’s nothing on the same level as “Protection”, “Teardrop” or “Safe From Harm”. The heights are scaled, however, in a huge tune as the final track: “Atlas Air”. A Del Naja showpiece, the strange fairground-esque keyboards and the four to the floor rhythm sit uncomfortably alongside burbling synths, which end up taking over for the last couple of minutes. Normally, such a song would get sequenced in the middle, to provide a natural focus, but this is more of a climax to a fitful buildup, which essentially sums up Heligoland – some great moments, and nothing particularly bad, but not entirely convincing as a unified statement.
Key tracks: Pray For Rain/Splitting The Atom/Flat Of The Blade/Atlas Air