Album review: Massive Attack, Heligoland

An interesting review if only to confirm that there is a collaborative recording in the archives, recorded somewhere around the release of the ‘100th Window’ album but sadly didnt make it to the album – possibly will get released following the release of  ‘Heligoland’ …if we are lucky…very lucky!!!



Published Date: 08 February 2010
By Fiona Shepherd
VIRGIN, £12.99

ALL GOOD history students know that Heligoland, a German archipelago in the North Sea, was the scene of naval battles in the First and Second World Wars. Some good history students may also know it as the birthplace of quantum mechanics.

Massive Attack, pioneers in their own field, just liked the sound of the name, which comes from the German for “holy land”, and have adopted it as the title of their fifth album. They may yet visit this holy land, as they have aspirations to mount a music festival there in the next few years. But, as with all Massive Attack undertakings, best not to hold your breath in anticipation.

Heligoland, their fifth album, is released after a typically protracted wait. According to the band – these days comprising constant brooding presence Robert “3D” Del Naja and, back from paternity leave, Grant “Daddy G” Marshall – this one took seven years of thinking, then eight months of making. That’s if you don’t count all the recordings since their previous album, 100th Window, made with the likes of Mike Patton, Beth Orton, Terry Callier and frequent live contributor Dot Allison.

For whatever painstaking reasons, these haven’t made the cut. But it has all become terribly social around Attack HQ these days, with their usual choice selection of guest vocalists expanded to a veritable orgy of soloists. Their favourite singer, sweet-voiced reggae legend Horace Andy, returns. He’s joined by a tantalising bunch of new recruits, including Tricky’s ex-muse Martina Topley-Bird, who featured on the last Massive Attack tour but, despite being irrevocably linked with Bristol’s trip-hop sound, has never recorded with the group. From that same scene, Portishead’s Adrian Utley contributes guitar.

But Del Naja and Marshall have cast their net wider in a collaborative frenzy – if one could apply the word “frenzy” to such a terminally downbeat album. If they deliberately wanted to wallow in the brooding doldrums, they’ve picked the right vocalists for the job.

Damon Albarn is a naturally plaintive singer, TV On The Radio’s Tunde Adebimpe sounds habitually otherworldly, Elbow frontman Guy Garvey has been carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders for the past two decades, Mazzy Star’s Hope Sandoval swoons at the thought of it all – and isn’t Horace Andy affectionately nicknamed “sleepy”?

There is only so much these singers can do to light up substandard material. Unfinished Sympathy and Teardrop were fine songs even before Shara Nelson’s and Liz Fraser’s vocals elevated them to modern classics, but there certainly isn’t much likely to stir the passions here.

Massive Attack’s reputation for musical innovation and atmospheric craftsmanship, forged in the early Nineties and sustained over much of that decade, is so firmly enshrined that any scraps from their table will usually be greeted with a degree of awe.

But Heligoland marks a creative stasis. Even though Del Naja and Marshall feel that touring in recent years has steered them to take on more of a band dynamic than a studio-bound approach, there’s a poverty in the songwriting that makes their usual signatures – ominous industrial rumble, drowsy beats, sinister, whispered vocals – sound enervated, even lazy.

Pray For Rain, one of three tracks from last autumn’s Splitting The Atom EP which have been reprised here, sounds like a TV On The Radio cast-off. Adebimpe’s hypnotic vocals intone over doomy piano and martial drum rolls, but the number lacks the claustrophobic intensity of their dark classics.

Splitting The Atom itself takes a ride in the same haunted fairground as Gorillaz, Marshall’s deep murmur contrasting with Andy’s tremulous tenor and Del Naja’s indifferent contribution. The latter’s eight-minute muttered mantra Atlas Air would have been mediocre at half that length.

The girlish Topley-Bird doesn’t sound altogether present on her tracks, either. Apart from a low-key Krautrock rhythm and a drum’n’bass coda, Babel is pretty unremarkable, while the agitated Psyche recalls the quirky electro-folk whimsy of the likes of St Vincent and Joanna Newsom.

Chances are that if you buy Guy Garvey’s hangdog wistfulness and poetic turn of phrase you might derive something from the monotonous Flat Of The Blade, even though it sounds like one of Radiohead’s wilfully obscure experiments.

The chiming keyboards and handclaps of the following Paradise Circus practically sound like The Supremes compared to what has gone before, though Hope Sandoval’s gossamer, yearning vocal is a little insubstantial. Damon Albarn’s contribution, Saturday Come Slow, stands out in this company, thanks to his exquisitely beseeching vocals and a proper tune.

Another EP of additional material recorded with this merry band of troubadours is mooted for release later in the year. Again, don’t hold your breath – for musical reasons as much as their tendency to make you wait.

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