Modern Heavy Manners
Over a twenty year career, Massive Attack have repeatedly defined and redefined what is possible in electronic music. Few in any genre can claim their ability to deftly change with the times while remaining so profoundly true to themselves. It's a formula that's kept them relevant even as others in their style have faded into the background. With their new albumHeligoland, the group seem to have done it again. Most reviews consider it a fine piece of work, and there's no argument here.
But while all this praise is most certainly deserved, so few observers pay attention to the actual meaning of Massive Attack's music. And there most certainly is meaning in these songs. Approaching a group of such legacy, of such sonic breadth, one can't help but think that there is a lot more than immediately meets the ear here. A typical Massive album takes more than a few listens to appreciate, and unfortunately most critics, glowing though their words might be, seem to have passed up the reward of the deep delve for sake of a deadline.
Perhaps it's that each album the group have released just delivers so much to digest. Maybe it's that they've always relied heavily on the vocals of guest artists. All of this can easily push any possible focus on "messages" into the background. But taking this straight road while analyzing Massive's work is to ignore a key component of a group who have never regarded any one musical element with the slightest flippancy. In fact, failing to ask "what do these songs say?" is to shortchange the rich tradition that Massive Attack are building upon.
The world of electronic music they helped create is well rooted indeed. Few genres have the capability to directly and simultaneously pull on so many different styles--dub, reggae, punk, psychedelia, soul. If you can record it, spin it and loop it, then you can process it and mash it up into something totally new. An homage to the past without losing sight of the future. In its infancy in the 1980s, it was nothing short of revolutionary. And without the artists who would later become Massive Attack, it's doubtful that it would look like it does today.
Both members Robert Del Naja and Grant Marshall (plus former Massive member Andy Vowles) have their origins in the Wild Bunch, regarded today as the original sound system crew in the UK (and also the launching pad for the careers of Tricky and Nellee Hooper).
It was a heady time to be making music. Beezer, a photographer who chronicled the Bristol scene (and has also recently released a photo-book of those years), remembers "This was England in the 1980s. It was Margaret Thatcher, it was the Miners' Strike [of '84 to '85]. It was anti-apartheid, CND [Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament]... They were pretty difficult times."
As writer Eamonn Kelly points out, the repressive atmosphere also gave way to very real resistance. "Out of that resistance grew a political confidence to organize, to speak out and, importantly in this case, to open up new spaces to party." When the Wild Bunch came together in the St. Paul's district of Bristol, it was in the wake of a multi-racial uprising against police repression and unemployment that shook the district in April of 1980.
This kind of push toward liberation has continued well through the formation and evolution of Massive Attack. It can be seen even in their most erudite actions as a group. In the past few years they've composed the soundtrack to the movie Battle in Seattle, dedicated tracks to Mumia Abu-Jamal, and publicly donated funds to the British Stop the War Coalition.
But this insurgent spirit isn't just to be seen in what they do. Massive's music has always had an organic rebellion woven into the fabric.
It can be heard in the refrain of "Hymn of the Big Wheel," sung by reggae legend and frequent collaborator Horace Andy, from their '91 debut Blue Lines: "The earth spins on its axis / One man struggle while another relaxes."
Or in "Prayer for England"--released on 100th Window a mere month before the US went into Iraq--where none other than Sinead O'Connor pleas "let not another child be slain."
One must ask: what does it mean for lyrics like these to be sung over the organic collision of so many grassroots styles? In Massive Attack's case, it results in a kind of secular, computerized, 21st century millenarianism, resolute in its belief in Bablylon's much-delayed but utterly inevitable defeat. A kind of fearless acknowledgment of today's increasingly heavy manners.
Now, with the powers that be more obviously in charge than they've appeared in a long time, Heligoland walks this same razor's edge between repression and freedom. The first standalone album (as in, not a soundtrack) in seven years, the group have traded in much of their former lushness for a haunting, often spare sense of foreboding that still manages to make room for a healthy dose of real hope.
The lead track, "Pray for Rain," starts off on an intentionally subdued note. With little else backing him except for the feint glisten of a faded synth, tom-tom drums and a minor-key piano part, TV On the Radio's Tunde Adebimpe sings of a world fallen under its own weight:
"In deepest hollow of our minds
A system failure left behind
And their necks crane
As they turn to pray for rain
And their necks crane
"Dull residue of what once was
A shattered cloud of swirling doves
And their eyes change
As they learn to see through flames"
It's a rather morose opening note, resigned to the extinction of things past--almost as if we're listening to eerie quiet in the aftermath of the apocalypse. But two and a half minutes in, the instruments gradually turn toward a building cacophony as Adebimpe defiantly declares "Drops on rocks fall fast and fleeting / Rhythm laws unleash their meaning / Usher us into the dreaming," before lifting into a cathartic, soaring crescendo.
It's a song that balances both pain and hope with profound, dynamic grace--taking as a given inevitable crumbling and rebuilding. Though it would be wrong to pin any one meaning on the song's lyrics, or look for any direct allegory, one can't help but think of the world financial collapse and the resistance that has started to bubble in its wake.
The failed bank bailouts are mentioned directly in "Splitting the Atom," a dark, twisted neo-dub hand-clapper that coolly and menacingly lambasts systemic lies and deceit:
"They shadow box and they
It never stops
And we'll never learn
No hope without dope
The jobless return
The bankers have bailed
The mighty retreat
The pleasure it fails
At the end of the week"
It's this tone that predominates throughout Heligoland--vague sarcasm floating under serious doom and post-modern decay. Even supposed love songs like "Girl I Love You" hold a subversive edge, with Horace Andy's trembling tenor and dissonant horns undermining a seemingly sweet sentiment.
True to form, there are only rare moments on the album that aren't engaging. Compared the past releases,Heligoland amplifies the use of the empty space between notes and instruments, almost inviting the listener into its surreal and complex universe. It takes a few listens to realize that their world isn't too far from our own.
The deluxe edition available only on iTunes is also worth the extra couple bucks. On top of featuring some fascinating remixes from the likes of Tim Goldsworthy and Brazillian house producer Gui Boratto, it also includes the rare b-side "United Snakes," a tripped-out, bass-heavy track that's best watched with its bizarre animated music video to get the full song.
In some ways, the tendency to gloss over Massive Attack's intensely rebellious predilections and works may be their own fault. After all, they've always done a stellar job integrating words and sounds into a singular and cohesive product. No one element can be separated from the others, and this certainly makes it easy to simply step back and look at the whole painting rather than lean in to examine the intricate brushstrokes. The meanings may not be as overt as plenty of "political" groups who fall back on lazy sloganeering, but everyone has encountered versions of these artists who quickly become faded and hackneyed.
Much harder is the task of injecting the feel of an entire era--the urban blight, the rampant inequality, the simmering anger among the masses--into a musical work. It's the difference between simply describing your surroundings and tapping into how they make you feel. Over three decades, the members of Massive Attack have managed to consistently do just this. As electronic music gets increasingly sucked into the world of cocktail parties and privileged club-goers, Heligoland stands as a reminder that honest, creative music and the drive for freedom come from the same exact place.
Alexander Billet, a music journalist and activist living in Chicago, runs the website Rebel Frequencies (http://rebelfrequencies.blogspot.com), and is a columnist for the Society of Cinema and Arts. His work has also appeared in Z Magazine, New Politics, SocialistWorker.org, SleptOn.com, CounterPunch and PopMatters.com.
Contact him, or subscribe to his mailing list at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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