Massive Attack- Heligoland

(Virgin, 2010)

by Paul Stephenson

One of the dangerous things about leaving a huge gap between albums is that you run the risk of either hyping your return to near impossible heights, or leaving it so long that nobody really cares any more.  The latter fate befell Massive Attack‘s previous outing ‘100th Window‘ which was critically and commercially disappointing, although personally I enjoyed the darker and gloomier direction it took.  Now, off the back of last year’s phenomenally successful best of compilation, the hype for ‘Heligoland‘ is near fevered pitch.

At this point some of you may be wondering exactly why Demon Pigeon would be covering this. The answer is simple.  Massive Attack have always been an outsider’s band that made it big, and the trip-hop scene that they helped to spawn with the likes of Portishead and Tricky has shared a lot of the gloomy despondent nuance that one finds from the likes of Neurosis et al.  Listen to ‘Inertia Creeps’ from ‘Mezzanine‘ for example, and tell me that its brooding intense menace wouldn’t fit in nicely on any number of metal albums.

But that in itself, coupled with the weight of expectation, is one of the reasons that ‘Heligoland‘ is such a disappointment.  Thematically all over the place, the menace is gone, replaced by a lacklustre vibe which never really manages to grip you.  First track ‘Pray For Rain‘ is a non starter, a pretty enough tune that never really builds up to anything spectacular in its near seven minutes. ‘Babel‘ is pretty enough again nothing like the emotional punch to the gut that ‘Teardrop‘ was.

In fact the album doesn’t really start to get going until fourth track ‘Girl I Love You‘ which sees Horace Andy‘s voice soaring over throbbing bass lines and stark, simple drums coupled with industrial synths. It’s simplicity calls to mind the recent return of Bristol’s other Trip Hop superstars Portishead, especially when the horns kick in and it all goes a bit odd sounding.

From here on in the album veers between highs and lows.  ‘Psyche‘ starts nicely with a guitar loop and Martina Topley Bird’s sweetness playing off each other nicely but again it never really gets going, feeling again like a half formed thought. Then comes the dark and hypnotic ‘Flat of the Blade,’ which sees Elbow’s Guy Garvey sounding like a drunk who has turned up on a Bjork record. It’s shambollically brilliant, haunting and reminds you exactly what Massive Attack are capable of.  It builds slowly and gets darker and darker, and is utterly mesmerizing.

Paradise Circus‘ follows, and for a while it seems that the record is gathering momentum again.  Smoky and with a jazz vibe, its underplayed piano and hand claps meeting over a drum tattoo before it builds into something quite beautiful, as swirling strings envelope it. ‘Rush Minute‘ continues the good work, with Robert ‘3D’ Del Naja‘s vocals a haunting drawl that helps to build the song into a classic Massive Attack moment.  But the trouble is that you realise that it’s this the whole album has been missing to this point, with almost all the vocals to this point coming from guest vocalists. If there had been a little more of 3D and Daddy G (who is virtually absent, despite his brooding bass being one of the band’s strongest weapons) on the vocal front it would have given the album a little more cohesion.

As if to hammer the point home, the penultimate song is ‘Saturday Comes Slow‘ the album’s total low point, featuring Damon Albarn‘s worst Thom Yorke impression to date.  Coming across as a low rent Gorillaz number, it sounds nothing like anything else on offer here, and while the song itself isn’t really that bad (although nothing earth shattering either) it’s utterly ruined by Albarn‘s rasping tuneless effort.  It aims for epic a little too conspicuously, especially towards the end, and goes a long way to undo the good work done by the previous few tracks.

Wrapping things up is ‘Atlas Air‘ which again is decent enough, but fails to really get going despite having eight minutes to do so. The minimalist drums and beat actually call to mind Nine Inch Nails at their most mellow, but it’s the sort of song that would have ended up on the cutting room for ‘Mezzanine.’  It eventually gets into a nice electronic ending, but it’s too little too late by this point.

Overall the album does have its moments, and for a while threatens to call to mind their past greatness, but the truth is that this is the sound of a band with nothing left to say.  Most of the good stuff is a look back, and when they try to do something new it doesn’t work. Add to this the ‘too many cooks’ approach to vocal duties and this is nowhere  near the album that I was hoping for from these once dark lords of British pop. A thundering disappointment.


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