Massive Attack - Heligoland

On Further Review
by Nick Parker

in stores now

Let me dispense with the usual build up and say something about this album that you’ve probably guessed already, given the history of this band: Massive Attack’s Heligoland is a very good album. It’s typically sinister and serious, built from a mix of industrial beats, sparse synths and driving bass, and the often very beautiful work of guest vocalists like Damon Albarn and Martina Topley-Bird. Fans of Massive Attack will likely not be disappointed with this, their first release in seven years.

Now we’ve got that out of the way, I need to share some of the album's failings... Reasons why the album falls a bit short of being considered, "excellent." I’m not just trying to knit-pick here. I think the limitations of Heligoland tell us a great deal. There's an interesting statement here about the challenges of being in a band as seminal to its audience as Massive Attack. (Let me also let you know that I love this band with a passion, so I’m hardly set against them.)

There are some shaky moments on this album, which show that Massive Attack are not invincible. While tracks like “Babel” and “Girl I Love You” are really compelling, The Guy Garvey guest track, “Flat of the Blade,” reveals that, even when all the ingredients are there (i.e. incredible vocalist, master beat producers, etc.), things don’t always gel when you try to force beautiful melody onto a cold, sterile backing track.

[ ed.'s note:
I have to agree with Nick on this thought; Flat of the Blade, for me, is the only track on the album I cannot break bread with. I tried to like it but my brain simply won't allow it. It's just sounds like noise to me, and I have very open ears. Snazzy video though...]

Beyond this, there is the pressure that Massive Attack now face from some other bands, who might just steal their thunder. On one side there are their peers (and friends) from the Bristol-based invention of Trip-Hop of the 90s, Portishead. Last year Portishead brought out “Third.” It drew lots of criticism at the time (although it was on our shortlist for album of the year) for being too austere and unapproachable. I disagreed, but that seemed to be the consensus. Still, listening to “Heligoland” now, you wonder if any of it couldn’t have come from a previous release from some years ago. It makes me feel that, even if the Portishead release was hard to follow, it was more fresh and new than Massive Attack’s new work (Listen to our recent video post of Portishead’s “Chase the Tear,” and see if you agree with me).

Then there is the pressure from newer bands. The album’s opening track, “Pray for Rain,” features Tunde Adebimpe from TV on the Radio. This is a great song, and hearing it here, at the start of the album, seems like a signal that there are bands like TOTR snapping at Massive Attack’s heels. Might Massive Attack be passing the baton to the next generation of musicians here? Isn’t TOTR’s “Dear Science” a more radical album, in a genre built on radical experimentation?

I’d still say go and buy Heligoland, and I hope you enjoy it. Massive Attack will be more of a classic band, a transition band - whose time is gone or on it's way.

Ed.'s note: Despite a few shortcomings on both of our scorecards, Heligoland is clearly superior to most material being cranked out by others. This one should be in your collection and needs to be heard. ]

Why don't you readers let us know where it stands in your mind at the end of the year?? Unit then, the beat goes on.

May 2010 Dates

7 Toronto, ONT - Sound Academy
9 Toronto, ONT - Sound Academy
11 New York, NY - Terminal 5
12 New York, NY - Terminal 5
18 Los Angeles, CA - Wiltern Theater
19 Los Angeles, CA - Wiltern Theater
25 San Francisco, CA - Warfield Theater
27 San Franciscos, CA - Warfield Theater
30 George, WA - Sasquatch Festival

Massive Attack
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