When we last heard from Massive Attack, it was 1998 and they had just released their own version of Pre-Millenium Tension, Mezzanine (Virgin Records). It was dark and aggressive and, laced with guitars and grit, an incredible sonic leap from 1994's more muted, austere Protection (Virgin Records).
Mezzanine anticipated "The Year 2000" a year that, long before its arrival, had been a marker for the unknown, for the "Future." There was an understanding that life wasn't going to be any cleaner or prettier or safer or easier than it had been. With wars sparking and famine spreading and AIDS decimating and populations skyrocketing and debts crippling, the global picture was, in fact, foreboding.
Each of the three albums Massive Attack released prior to their latest, 100th Window (Virgin Records, 2003) have been musical benchmarks. But where Blue Lines (Virgin Records, 1991) was a stylistic homage to Bristol's vibrancy, the commentaries of Mezzanine and 100th Window stretch broadly beyond just the cultural, to reflect in tone, tenor and texture the mood of the times.
Blue Lines, their classic debut, used hip-hop as an endoskeleton and had a body made of soul music. Heavily influenced by the group's days as the Wild Bunch, a loose collective made up of DJs, budding producers and rotating vocalists, its songs were mysterious and cinematic, but its approach was grounded in the racial and cultural diversity of the streets they were shaped by. Some songs were epic ("Unfinished Sympathy"), while others simmered coolly ("Safe From Harm"). They built a monster and left a generation of producers, on both sides of the Atlantic, trying with differing degrees of success to replicate the formula.
Protection was a quiet second act. It may not have had the drama or impact of Blue Lines, but it did have two of their best songs, "Protection" and "Karmacoma" (their last collaboration with Tricky). And the band's obsessive attention to detail, displayed in Protection's immaculate production, continues to humble pretenders trawling in their wake.
Massive Attack, unlike artists such as U2, or Bono specifically, never had the desire or ego to take it upon themselves and save the world. But, looking outward with their music, they've always called it like they've seen it.
From its first ominous notes, Mezzanine was a combative statement from a band that had, with Protection, been credited with perfecting "trip-hop," a genre born with their debut, Blue Lines, and saddled with an implied passivity. "Angel," the brilliant song that kicks off Mezzanine, made it plain that, no matter what was coming, Massive Attack were ready for a fight. In all of its grinding glory, "Angel" was anything but passive.
100th Window duly picks up at least in its willingness to survey the high-pitched international landscape where Mezzanine left off. The thematic continuity is remarkable considering the changes the band has gone through since 1998. Of the trio's core, two are now gone, one permanently (Adrian "Mushroom" Vowles) and one on hiatus (Grant "Daddy G." Marshall). These departures leave the reins firmly in the hands of the third founding member, Robert "3D" Del Naja.
It's now being said, at least in the current Massive Attack press release, that Del Naja has actually been the group's visionary backbone all along. No matter. This time out, Del Naja is responsible for whether Massive Attack's latest sinks or swims. Or soars, which is what he does with most of 100th Window.
Beginning with "Future Proof" and its combination of galloping electronic blips, reverberating guitars and layers of feedback, Del Naja makes plain this new group dynamic when, in the midst his stream-of-consciousness lyrics, he sings about "absent friends." Yes, he sings. Del Naja has left behind his signature raps for a voice that sounds a little like a stoned Thom Yorke. There's not a lot of range displayed but, at least on 100th Window, it's not necessary. Del Naja understands his songs and his strengths and he phrases things bluntly, accordingly, effectively, line after line.
As with each of Massive Attack's previous efforts, the sound-system dynamic with which the group was built remains in place. While Del Naja helms four tracks, he calls upon two other vocalists, one a new contributor and the other a familiar source, to give voice to the balance of the album's nine songs.
Where Shara Nelson was used on Blue Lines, Tracey Thorn on Protection and Elizabeth Fraser on Mezzanine, the mantle is passed here to Sinead O'Connor. It could be argued that with O'Connor they were blessed with the best voice of all. Yet, unfortunately, if there's one misstep on 100th Window, it's that her talent and her range are underused.
"What Your Soul Sings," the album's second track, and first with O'Connor, might also be the closest 100th Window comes to repetition. Its percussion is softer, melted further into the mix, but the beat and the rhythm of her delivery is similar to one of the band's greatest songs, Mezzanine's "Teardrop." O'Connor's other contributions "Special Cases," with its "Angel"-like bassline and the bare, unusually literal, "A Prayer for England are (aside from "Prayer..."'s lyrical departure into pointed directness) the least exciting songs on 100th Window.
That's not to say they're duds. But with Massive Attack, fair or unfair, it's always a game of highest expectations. Stacked against many other acts competing for a foothold in a genre this group has owned for a decade, and whose image evolves when Massive Attack say so, it's no competition at all. While the Morcheebas of the world continue to entertaining Pottery Barn shoppers, even a lesser effort on 100th Window casts a long shadow over their entire catalogue.
If the responsibility for holding O'Connor back falls on Del Naja's shoulders, than praise must be given for the efforts and results with longtime collaborator and Jamaican elder statesman Horace Andy. His voice has always been an otherworldly gift strange and androgynous and angelic. Here, minus the reggae influence that shaped his decades-old career and singing original material written specifically for him, he is extraordinary. "Everywhen," with rolling drums and an electronic wash of echoing sound, is cast skyward by Andy who, now into his 50s, has never sounded better. "Everywhen" represents Massive Attack at their most emotive and resonant.
Those who heard and liked Massive Attack's collaboration with Mos Def, on the remake of Bad Brains' "I Against I" (from the "Blade II" soundtrack and soon to be a B-Side of the "Special Cases" single) will dig the percussive immediacy of "Butterfly Caught." Heavy synthetic beats coupled with East Asian strings and Del Naja's psychedelically treated vocals make this an uptempo, mid-record wake-up call.
Where Mezzanine began with a furious combination of "Angel," "Risingson," "Teardrop" and "Intertia Creeps," 100th Window reserves its best two songs, and its muscle, for the end.
Before getting tough with the album's finale, "Antistar," Del Naja is responsible for "Small Time Shot Away," a stunner. If there is any tonal comparison to be drawn with "Small Time...," it would be the gorgeous tones of Boards of Canada's "Music Is Math" (from their latest, Geogaddi). It's the warmest song on the album and finds Del Naja stretching boundaries, making new sounds to check out to (sample lyric: "It's my favorite chloroform"), in ways their audience, maybe unfairly, expects them to do each time out.
"Antistar" closes 100th Window with a threatening guitar loop smashed against Middle Eastern-flavored strings and Del Naja at his most claustrophobic. Juxtapositions of the beautiful and the ominous betray this track's genetic lineage. Even as it takes you someplace you have yet to go, with Del Naja offering that, "you look good in bloodstains," you know where you're coming from. It's the take-no-shit younger sibling of Mezzanine's, "Risingson." The son has risen.
What's set apart all of their work, including 100th Window, is the rigor of the production. But where Mezzanine's more overt exercise, commenting fearlessly what was looming, was a blunt attack, 100th Window's message is delivered in the layers that lie beneath its surface. Tracks upon tracks of percussive elements, of tingling, stuttering, noise, of lost guitar loops moving independently, in different directions, churning in their subterranean canals, makes for an experience of uneasy listening.
An experience that echoes the litany of uncertainties economic, political, biological, chemical this post-millennium tension has handed us. In its immediacy and with its creative integrity squarely intact, 100th Window also pierces the rhetoric that's been coming and numbing in surround-sound.
Right now, what more can you ask for?