Everyone knows Massive Attack do things at a snail’s pace. They’ve delivered five albums in just under 20 years and have laboured over their work to the point of impatience. Their latest and fifth release Heligoland sees the extended seven year intermission finally dissolve.
On 2003’s 100th Window, the music was more dark-shaded than before as Robert Del Naja aka 3D let his new-world paranoia seep into the songs while Grant Marshall aka Daddy G abstained from the recording process. The result left the listener with a murky album to wade in and out of, that was harder to love than it was to appreciate.
On Heligoland, the return of Daddy G and a clutch of superb guest vocalists refocuses the mood somewhat, enabling Massive Attack to occasionally make lustrous music that can uplift yet still reside in a dark place.
Opener ‘Pray For Rain’ is a rolling sombre piano and drum track featuring vocals from TV On The Radio’s Tunde Adebimpe and sets the general tone for the album. Martina Topley-Bird’s presence in the vocal booth is always welcome and she lifts the two tracks she appears on ‘Babel’ and ‘Psyche’ above their somewhat meandering arrangements . Hope Sandoval is luckier as the gentle atmospheric touch of ‘Paradise Circus’ is perfectly suited to her whispery vocal style as she delivers lines like ‘the devil makes us sin but we like it when we’re spinning in his grip’. Their old mucker Horace Andy features on ‘Girl I Love You’ and harks back to Mezzanine-era menace with its low rumbling bassline and burgeoning guitar and horn second half.
The big winners of the guests are Elbow’s Guy Garvey and Damon Albarn. The former is matched to the sparse bleeps of ‘Flat of the Blade’ in which Garvey sounds like the life is being sucked out of him – ‘Things I’ve seen will chase me to the grave ‘. He sounds like a beaten man yet remains suitably emotional and resolute as orchestral strings rise behind him. Albarn meanwhile, turns in an honest lead on the slow-burning downbeat ‘Saturday Come Slow’.
While it’s nice to hear these vocalists do their thing on the tracks that Massive Attack have provided for them, there’s a niggling feeling that this album could have done with more Daddy G. ‘Splitting The Atom’ is a case in point and is the only track Daddy G appears on. It’s the album’s highlight (along with the up-tempo sustained rush of the final track ‘Atlas Air’) because it’s different to anything they’ve done before. It’s synth-driven clap rhythms are the perfect basis for both 3D and Daddy G to do what they do best: that distinct brand of laconic rapping they both employ. It’s the closest that Heligoland comes to a standout track which is crucially what it misses the most. Still, there are enough moments to love within these 10 songs to recommend persistent listening. Maybe, that’s reason enough to have Massive Attack back once again.
Read our interview with Massive Attack.