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Massive Attack

The burgeoning Bristol scene underwent a facelift of sorts when trip hop pioneers MASSIVE ATTACK emerged from the pack; West Country cohorts TRICKY and PORTISHEAD arrived soon afterwards. Not since indie post-punk acts The POP GROUP, The BLUE AEROPLANES and The BRILLIANT CORNERS, had the city witnessed such a vibe and excitement; the capital reeled in envy. Encompassing hip hop, cool jazz, sample-tastic-soul, dark-dub and a sense of the ever-evolving times integrating the dance scene, the trio of MASSIVE ATTACK (and Co) drew a large cosmopolitan crowd into their web of worldly music; 90s albums “Blue Lines”, “Protection” and “Mezzanine”, rightfully regarded as classics.
Emerging from a Bristol collective known as The Wild Bunch, that featured electro-musician Daddy G (alias Grant Marshall), DJ Milo (Johnson) and mixer/producer Nellee Hooper, the trio would rope in rappers Willie Wee (Claude Williams), 3D (Robert Del Naja) and Mushroom (Andrew Vowles) to perform at live venues; a single, `Friends And Countrymen’, was released by 4th & Broadway in 1988. When Nellee succumbed to teaming up with Jazzie B.’s SOUL II SOUL, Messrs 3D, Daddy G and Mushroom retained the old name for a fledgling label, while switching monikers to MASSIVE ATTACK for their inaugural self-financed 12-inch, `Any Love’ (featuring Daddy Gee and Carlton).
The Wild Bunch-endorsed trio were duly snapped up by then Virgin subsidiary, Circa Records, and, with only their second single, `Unfinished Sympathy’ – released under the revised moniker of MASSIVE (to distance themselves from any affiliation with the U.N. Gulf War policy) – crashed into the Top 20. Featuring the velvet tones of SHARA NELSON and luxuriant string arrangements to die for, this hypnotically beautiful track was soon cited as one of the most perfect singles ever crafted.
While not quite boasting anything as tantalising, MASSIVE ATTACK’s sublime debut album, BLUE LINES (1991) {*10}, tracked a similar chart path in spring ’91; a darkly sensual, spliff-heavy cocktail of sample-delic dub, hip-hop, funk and soul that can quite possibly laid claim to be the Big Daddy of that much-maligned genre, trip-hop. Alongside the aforementioned Shara (also on opener `Safe From Harm’ and `Lately’), the record featured guest vocalists, TRICKY (on `Five Man Army’, `Daydreaming’ – with Shara – and the title track), dub reggae veteran HORACE ANDY (on `One Love’ and `Hymn Of The Big Wheel’ alongside NENEH CHERRY) and the unknown Tony Bryan for a re-take of William DeVaughan’s `Be Thankful For What You’ve Got’.
While TRICKY was soon to carve out his own career in paranoid beats, Shara subsequently departed for a solo career and all was quiet from da Massive camp until the autumn of ‘94, when the trio re-surfaced with the Nellee Hooper-produced PROTECTION {*9} album. An even darker, slinkier creature, it featured another array of guest vocalists, most effectively employing EVERYTHING BUT THE GIRL’s Tracey Thorn (on the aching `Better Things’ and the heavenly title track); TRICKY, meanwhile, sounded almost catatonic on the spellbinding voodoo bass-psyche of `Karmacoma’, while the exotic tones of Glasgow-born NICOLETTE Suwoton graced `Three’ and the SLY & FAMILY STONE-sampled `Sly’. More cohesive sound-wise, the record was characterised by a haunting dub-reggae feel and, while it was perhaps pushing it a bit to re-vamp a DOORS track (`Light My Fire’) live, the claustrophobic brilliance of `Spying Glass’ (featuring HORACE ANDY in peerless form) more than made up for any misnomers.
London dub producer, the MAD PROFESSOR, later gave it a bowel-quaking, full-on dub re-working early the next year, the results surfacing as the mind-scrambling NO PROTECTION {*7}; incidentally, all the re-mixed tracks were re-titled.
In the summer of ‘97, the trio returned with their darkest, scariest track to date, `Risingson’ (sampling VELVET UNDERGROUND’s `I Found A Reason’), a solitary taster, at the time, for their long-awaited chart-topper, MEZZANINE (1998) {*10}. Yet again cleaning up across the critical board, the Neil Davidge-produced MASSIVE ATTACK had created a work many regarded as the pinnacle of their career, an unflinchingly bleak, downbeat and introspective record mired in paranoia, despair and apocalyptic pre-millennium tension. Nevertheless, 3D, Mushroom and Daddy G explored more musical possibilities than most bands of their ilk put together, even hooking up with Elizabeth Fraser of COCTEAU TWINS on `Teardrop’ (a subsequent Top 10 hit), `Black Milk’ and `Group Four’. On the other end of the spectrum, the nocturnal `Angel’ and a tempered beat-friendly rendition of JOHN HOLT’s `Man Next Door’ (once covered by close neighbours The SLITS), underlined the greatness of HORACE ANDY; the odd one out was `Exchange’, adapted from a Bob Hilliard & Mort Garson number and sampling ISAAC HAYES’ `Our Day Will Come’.
1999 started a little painfully for the trio when MANFRED MANN threatened a lawsuit against them for the use of the song `Tribute’ on their track `Black Milk’; an out of court settlement was soon agreed upon. However, that was the least of their problems; Mushroom opted to bail out in July that year. With Daddy G also departing on domestic duty, it was left to 3D/Del Naja to complete 100TH WINDOW (2003) {*7}, the fourth album, and the only one not to develop significantly from its predecessor. That said, its brooding, stifling atmospherics were almost as compelling as “Mezzanine”, with SINEAD O’CONNOR taking up the role that Shara, Tracey and Cocteau Liz filled with such grace in the past. Unsurprisingly, the Irish singer brought a different dimension to that role, illuminating the album’s darker corners with her burning vision, and nowhere more so than `What Your Soul Sings’, `Special Cases’ and `A Prayer For England’. Stalwart guest HORACE ANDY also reported for duty once again, airing his timeless, genderless vocal chords on `Name Taken’ and `Everywhen’, while 3D took on the remainder of the vocal cues (backed by 2D – alias DAMON ALBARN – on `Small Time Shot Away’.
The baying industrio-grunge and abstract sonics of DANNY THE DOG (2004) {*5} – or UNLEASHED in most other countries – finally represented MASSIVE ATTACK’s first soundtrack venture, a genre which they’d been gravitating towards – at least aesthetically – for years. Given the cinematic bent of their sound, it was perhaps difficult to believe that it took them all those years to get round to a full length soundtrack project (although they’d laterally contributed specially commissioned pieces to the likes of Blade II and Welcome To Sarajevo). Unlike some artists, then, Del Naja and co-producer Davidge presumably didn’t need to project their talents into the aesthetic mind-set of a professional film composer. Instead, they pretty much stuck to the musical policy of their latter-day albums, veering between gurning post-industrial territory and the glacially graceful sonic architecture Del Naja had painstakingly chiselled out over the last decade or so. While the likes of `Atta’ Boy’, `Simple Rules’ and `The Dog Obeys’ came snarling out of the speakers with teeth bared, leashed to grungy, sub-NEW ORDER basslines, the aggro-distortion worked better on `One Thought At A Time’, manacled to a hobbled, broken-backed beat, portentous timpani and an indulgent, naggingly folky melody. The likes of `Polaroid Girl’ stuck closest to the somnolent MASSIVE template, but the dark, gentle grace of old really insinuated itself through orchestrated pieces like `Sam’ and the haunting, funereal title track, curiously hidden away near the end of the disc. Ditto `Montage’, the blinking, torn-hearted chords of which suggested that MASSIVE shared more common ground with RADIOHEAD than they might’ve cared to admit.
Typically for a film project, the album failed to spawn any hit singles although it did graze the Top 75. As inevitable as the soundtrack, was a best-of, finally released as COLLECTED {*8}, in 2006. Another near No.1, its track list was split pretty much evenly among their various landmark opuses with an unreleased track to tempt diehards: `Live With Me’, which offered a rare opportunity to hear soul-folk veteran TERRY CALLIER beyond his usual acoustic guitar arrangements, shrouding his mahogany baritone in unquiet strings and smoothing a path into the Top 20 for what was the first major hit of the man’s long career.
Reinstalled as a bona fide member in 2007, Daddy G (alongside 3D) picked up where they left off for 2009’s EP `Splitting The Atom’. Augmented by ANDY on the Davidge/ALBARN-enhanced title piece, Tunde Adebimpe (of TV ON THEN RADIO) on `Pray For Rain’, ELBOW’s Guy Garvey on `Bulletproof Love’ and MARTINA TOPLEY-BIRD for final track, `Psyche (Flash Treatment)’, all four songs turned up on the duo’s fifth set, HELIGOLAND (2010) {*7}, a record – named after a archipelago – that only reached No.6 (US #46); HOPE SANDOVAL turned in an effectively cool vocal for `Paradise Circus’; the latter also a B-side of MA’s 12-minute 12-inch single, `Four Walls’ (featuring Burial; aka William Bevan).
Subsequent activity was initially scarce, however, after a long lay-off MASSIVE ATTACK worked with RUN THE JEWELS on a remix album, and streamed out a collaborative EP, `Ritual Spirit’ and double-header, `The Spoils’ (ft. HOPE SANDOVAL) and `Come Near Me’ (ft. Ghostpoet) across the breadth of 2016.
© MC Strong 1994-2008/BG-GRD/LCS // rev-up MCS Aug2015-Oct2018

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