I'm not a Massive Attack buff. I've had minor encounters with the group's music, most notably that I fell in love with the dramatic "Angel" through its cinematic use. The track still gets to me today and I have yet to hear another like it since. I own that album, but I can't tell you what most of it sounds like; just the energy, trapped in a wave of molasses, of that iconic track. My overall experience with the group is that they tend to produce slow-burning tracks filled to the brim with tension and sometimes a sense of dread. "The Hunter Gets Captured By The Game," a cover, featuring Tracey Thorn, of the Marvelettes' 1967 hit, is a perfect example of the type of energy I have come to associate with Massive Attack's music. With 2009/2010 being the years that really showed an advancement of the electronic genre (mostly towards a trite, commercial sound), and that it had been seven years since the group's last studio album, I was a bit trepidatious going in. I would soon learn that with Heligoland, while some things changed, others stayed wonderfully the same.
A Proper Breakdown
The album starts on a dark note with "Pray For Rain," a pensive and fraught beginning accompanied by the smooth and smoky vocals of Tunde Adebimpe, the lead singer of TV On The Radio. Piano, percussion, and the slow-burning molasses I mentioned before occupy this track from beginning to end. Not to be pigeon-holed, this duo (formerly trio) churn out a breakbeat cut with the genre-bending vocals of Martina Topley-Bird. She appears again on the dizzy and the compellingly repetitive "Psyche." Something about "Girl I Love You" reminds me of the "Kiss From A Rose" era of Seal's career. It also mirrors "Angel" in the early part of the song, before spiraling into dementia. It is gripping.
Twitchy and minimal, "Flat of the Blade" is voiced by Elbow's lead vocalist, Guy Garvey. The track embodies the energy, the sense of dread and tension, that is Massive Attack to me, although it isn't as compelling. Damon Albarn helps create the most emotional Massive Attack cut on Heligoland, "Saturday Comes Slow." Albarn is the lead vocalist of Blur, and more famously, Gorillaz. "Saturday Comes Slow" is cinematic and sweeping but also contains elements of distortion and a feeling of being lost. It is one of the few tracks I can truly relate to on the album, which is both a pro and a con for the album. Albarn's voice is distinguishable, pulling me out of the land that Massive Attack has sent me into for the majority of the album and plopping me somewhere unfamiliar all together.
Not All Guests
The boys from Massive Attack also sing on Heligoland. Both are joined by Horace Andy, who sang on "Girl I Love You," on "Splitting the Atom." This was also the title of an EP that proceeded the album in 2009 containing the title track, "Pray For Rain," a remix of "Psyche," and the Van Rivers & Subliminal Kid remix of "Bulletproof Love." "Splitting the Atom" has an electronic hip-hop feel, not unlike Gorillaz' "Clint Eastwood." It meanders between singers and a gothic, operatic organ plays morosely in the background. Robert Del Naja tackles two tracks on his own, the first being "Rush Minute," which starts softly but quickly evolves. The cut features quick piano and guitar, a feeling like you're on a subway car watching the lights of the tunnel go by. "Atlas Air" is a funky and prolonged track at just under 8 minutes. It, too, evolves into something like an electro party track by the end but Massive Attack's dark mood is splattered all over it regardless.
I've saved the best for last. While overall, Massive Attack's
latest album has been more atmospheric music than something that
demands attention, "Paradise Circus" grabbed me from the first somber
piano notes. After a few minutes, I felt myself joining the sporadic
clapping rhythm. Hope Sandoval provides a vulnerable performance to
accompany this dark and twirling masterpiece of laid back music. I
imagine fantastic landscapes, bright colors, and long journeys when I
listen to this track. This is a fantastic spiritual successor to
"Angel" in my mind, the calm after the apocalypse.
Massive Attack's latest offering is a good entry into a catalogue I've
mostly overlooked. I see a lot of entertaining components to the
album but don't see a lot that would have me coming back for more. My
favorites are "Paradise Circus" and "Saturday Come Slow," but perhaps
as an uneducated ear, you'd like to find your own favorites. It is
well-crafted music, and that is rare these days.
Released February 2010 on Virgin Records.
Disclosure: A review copy was provided by the record label. For more information, please see our Ethics Policy