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Top Ten Time: Massive Attack (Pre-Heligoland Edition)

February 21, 2010


As anyone familiar with the Bristol collective knows by now, Massive Attack released its fifth proper full-length this week. Called Heligoland, it is yet another redefinition for the group, as they embrace live instrumentation and an almost band-like sound even as they retain the brooding intensity they’ve become known for.

As I try and collect my thoughts on the album, I thought it’d be worth revisiting Massive Attack’s backcatalogue, taking a look at a few of the songs that made them so lasting and beloved. In a music scene that increasingly focuses on the next big thing, it’s amazing that a group famous for taking their sweetass time between album releases can inspire such continued fascination. It’s a phenomenon predicated by a staggeringly high ratio of great moments in those first few albums — indeed, limiting those great moments to a mere ten has proven to be an incredibly difficult task. Still, I wanted to take a look back at some of those moments, and take a look at how they shaped the sound and perception of Massive Attack’s current incarnation.

So without further ado, here are….THE TOP 10 PRE-HELIGOLAND MASSIVE ATTACK TRACKS!! ! …!

(…and before you quibble, pre-Heligoland also means pre-Splitting the Atom. Mostly because I couldn’t decide whether “Pray for Rain” made the cut.)

10. Safe From Harm

“If you hurt what’s mine, I’ll sure as hell retaliate…” one of the most confrontational love songs of all time, “Safe From Harm” was a hello to the world, the first track on Blue Lines, the first step in a long trail of brilliance. In hindsight, we should have seen it coming.

9. Reflection

Massive Attack’s best B-side. It’s a little too quick for Mezzanine, but in terms of pure quality, it’s right there with the rest of the tracks on that album. A little bit of guitar, some ghostly synths, and 3D mumbling over the top of it…you know, it’s amazing how simple the Mezzanine formula is when you start trying to describe it. What makes it special? A mixture of fairy dust and dread, I suppose.

8. Live With Me

Terry Callier is a hell of a vocalist. You listen to the production of “Live With Me”, and there’s really not all that much to it. It’s a basic R&B backdrop with the moody feel of recent Massive Attack, but it’s Callier that sells it. No less than 60 years old when he recorded it, he managed a sort of longing that singers half his age will never be able to even hope to match. There’s not much to it, but there doesn’t need to be. It’s just lovely.

7. Future Proof

I hope it’s not spoiling things too much to say that “Future Proof” is the only 100th Window track in the list. Don’t get me wrong, I like 100th Window just fine, but it’s an album experience. It doesn’t have moments or standouts, really, not like the rest of Massive Attack’s formidable catalogue. But “Future Proof”…the first five or so times I heard it, I was convinced it was the best thing they ever did. Eventually, the shine wore off, but there’s still something wonderful about that clean tritone that leads it off, and the blast of guitars at the halfway point. I have to admit, I was a little bit thrilled when I noticed its presence on Collected, despite its never having been released as a single.

6. Five Man Army

Oddly, this is the only track on the entire list to feature Tricky in any capacity. Odd, because Tricky was the main reason I gave Massive attack the time of day in the first place. “Five Man Army” pretty well sums up the entire male side of the Massive Attack experience, featuring four different vocalists, and, of course, the unmistakable Mushroom backdrops that seem so, so absent these days. Daddy G makes it. This is the closest thing he ever had to a starring vehicle, and he takes full advantage. “She watches her street cred, ’cause she’s no dummy” indeed.

5. Teardrop

Better known as the House, M.D. theme song, one of the few instances that an instrumental take on a song is better known than the vocal take (granted, a phenomenon not all that unusual in television). Slow and methodical, Elisabeth Fraser’s vocal is a ray of light on a black, spiked behemoth of an album. Bonus points: it sports one of the best videos of all time. Behold the singing fetus:

4. Unfinished Sympathy

The song that broke Massive Attack into the popular consciousness, it’s the strings of “Unfinished Sympathy” that star. Adding weight and drama to what is, really, a very run-of-the-mill R&B track, the presence of those strings was a stroke of genius that proved the difference a single element could make. Also — ever notice how loud the song is mixed on Blue Lines? Just when you’re getting comfortable in the laid-back groove of “Five Man Army”, BANG, there’s that beat, there are those strings, and they just fill up the room like nothing else on the album. I’m not convinced it’s intentional (the same way I don’t think “Blue Lines” being way too quiet is intentional), but it works.

3. Group Four

Perhaps the most off-the-beaten-path of anything on this list, “Group Four” is merely the penultimate track on Mezzanine. Elisabeth Fraser returns for one last go, teaming with Del Naja for something that starts off sounding like the creepy-beautiful cousin of “Safe From Harm” until the guitars kick in. Once the guitars do show up, though, the song turns into a boulder rolling downhill, building up speed and power until it’s barely a step away from pure chaos. The end of “Group Four” is as close to pure, dirty rock ‘n roll as Massive Attack ever got, and the way it just…keeps…climaxing makes it the perfect close to Massive Attack’s masterpiece. Sure, Horace Andy follows it with a reprise of “Exchange”, but that’s just the cigarette, after all.

2. Protection

Eight minutes of bliss. It’s the second straight eight-minute track on this list, but it couldn’t possibly be more different from “Group Four” unless another band made it. Everything But the Girl’s Tracey Thorn conveys just the right amount of longing and passion, and the slow, loping beat that makes way for the even and plaintively-played arpeggios is a lovely backdrop. Eight minutes feels like four, even as the listener can’t help but wish it was 16.

1. Angel

“Angel”…wow. This is one of those tracks that you never forget where you were or what you were doing the first time you hear it. As the introduction to Mezzanine, it was proof that the new Massive Attack was not like anything we’d ever heard before. Horace Andy’s reggae croon is smoothed out over the minimal backdrop, and then BANG, guitars, BIG guitars, and the wind appears to carry Andy’s swirling vocals away, and the guitars keep building, and building, and…then they drop off a cliff. The song ends as minimally as it began, and you’re left catching your breath wondering if you actually just heard that.

Also, it has my favorite of the Mezzanine videos, and its placement at a crucial point in Snatch remains one of my favorite movie scenes of all time. It’s brutal beauty. It’s a perfect song.

…and that’s it.

Obviously, I’ve got a thing for Blue Lines and Mezzanine. Those are the five-star albums to Protection and 100th Window‘s four, and they are where most of the true classics lie.

And really, I can’t wait to see where Heligoland fits into all of this once the benefit of hindsight allows us to contextualize it.

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