By Alessa Valentin
It's been seven years since the release of 100th Window, the last studio album from British Trip-Hop pioneers, Massive Attack. With an impressive career spanning more than twenty two years, the former trio and current duo has not been one to recycle the same material with each of their four previous albums. Massive Attack is all about experimentation and risk taking which has resulted in a varied and unique catalog. Despite their ever changing musical style, the band's fifth album, Heligoland, manages to keep the mood and sex appeal that has kept fans coming back for the last two decades.
After working on 100th Window alone, Robert “3D” Del Naja is once again joined by original member, Grant “Daddy G” Marshall. Though Massive Attack in its current state is definitely Del Naja and Marshall's brainchild, the band has always favored guest vocals and collaborations with other artists. Heligoland is no exception with guest spots from the likes of Tunde Adebimpe of TV On The Radio fame, Damon Albarn from Blur and Gorillaz, Hope Sandoval of The Warm Inventions and Mazzy Star and Guy Garvey of Elbow. Martina Topley-Bird, known for her solo work as a singer-songwriter as well as her work with Tricky, also makes an appearance, as does Massive Attack's favorite reggae singer, Horace Andy.
It's never an easy task to know what to expect from a band like Massive Attack. With their last three albums, they've moved from the super chill sounds of Protection to the harder and heavier sound of Mezzanine to the cold, sample-less style of 100th Window. Despite their propensity to change in delivery, the band's work is always dark, sexy and atmospheric. With Massive Attack, you are truly seeing the work of two artists whose medium is sound. They know how to design mood with their instruments which makes it hard to not get sucked into their music. Heligoland is lush, dark, sexy and atmospheric like the rest of their work but is back to the more jazzy sound that was missing on 100th Window.
With an album like Heligoland, it's not at all a hard task to find a standout track. “Babel” doesn't try hard to be cool but does so seemingly effortless. It's laid back and smooth with a bit of bite to it while Martina Topley-Bird's soft, almost childlike voice adds wonderfully to the texture and intense mood of the track. “Flat of the Blade” is by far, the creepiest track on the album but with Massive Attack, that's always a good thing. Guy Garvey's vocals are hypnotic and haunting while he sings, “I'm not good in a crowd/I got skills I can't speak of/Things I've seen will chase me to the grave.” Hope Sandoval's hushed, soothing vocals on “Paradise Circus” combined with it's sexy, relaxed sound make for another incredible track off of the album. The bass and drums are slinky against Sandoval's breathy words, “Love is like a sing, my love/For the ones that feel it the most.” The drum and guitar work of “Saturday Come Slow” is wrought with emotion and feeling, melts into Damon Albarn's thoughtful and unique vocals while he begs the question, “Do you love me?” It seems fairly safe to say that the answer will be yes for both existing fans as well as newcomers.
Though all in all, Heligoland is a fantastic album, the beginning can get a little rough initially. The album opener “Pray For Rain” features vocals from Tunde Adebimpe. It moves from it's piano heavy, gloomy and sparse beginning into a more tribal sounding section with much more emphasis on drums into a dreamy, synth driven breakdown and back to the beginning again. Though the drum and synth powered parts of the song are incredibly interesting and quite lovely, the piano powered parts can come off as a bit plain and repetitive in comparison. “Girl I Love You” is dreamy with its sparkling chimes and generally beautiful but there are a few breakdowns involving horns that can really try your patience with their intentional off-key cacophony. Horace Andy's vocals are always incredible though and if you can look past or fast forward through the painful bits, you are rewarded with a great track. Neither of the low points on the album are truly awful songs but rather could have been absolutely spectacular with minor changes to them. In fact after the first few listens, it might be easier to overlook the hard bits than it was at the start.
Heligoland is an incredibly interesting album that is definitely worth a listen and worth a purchase. It hits a great blend of the dreamy, dark, moodiness that Massive Attack fans know and love while adding in a few breaths of fresh air and inventiveness. With standout tracks like “Babel”, “Flat of the Blade”, “Paradise Circus” and “Saturday Come Slow”, the album is rich in its textures and sounds. The mark of a truly good album, though there aren't that low points present, even they have a great deal of artistic value and merit. Each of them could have easily been standout tracks in their own right had a few minor changes or omissions had been made. Though it took us seven years to get here, Massive Attack has created yet another gorgeous sound landscape with Heligoland and it's a place that both existing fans and newcomers will all be eager to visit.
This article was originally published in and edited by The Brooklyn College Excelsior and was re-edited for my blog.