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The first thing you notice on "Pray for Rain," the opening track on Massive Attack's fifth full-length, Heligoland, is that it takes several minutes to build up. The U.K. trip-hop pioneers reintroduce themselves with a single note and anchoring sub-bass. This absence of auxiliary tones speaks volumes about a group whose last album, 2003's 100th Window, was a study in obsessive studio processing. Now, touring on this first record in seven years, Massive Attack has taken a more back-to-basics approach, while still offering contrasts.
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100th Window was an album of concepts with a capital C, which was appropriate considering it was born of an obsession with computers. The group was concerned with the ways machines can be used to both distribute and degrade societal values. It was an album that "became a kind of mission," says Robert Del Naja, better known as 3D or simply "D," one of the founding members. 100th Window was released by Massive Attack at the group's most estranged. It was essentially a Del Naja solo album, assisted by producer and unofficial bandmember Neil Davidge. It stripped away most of the sampled breakbeats and hip-hop context that had defined the group. Now, after what Del Naja saw as the ultimate conclusion of how far he could take digitally disassociated sounds, Heligoland offers the return of many familiar Massive Attack tropes.
Heligoland isn't Massive Attack in binary, but aspects of it are the band by numbers. The album was composed in seven months of sessions spread among several studios, including those of Damon Albarn and the DFA's Tim Goldsworthy. Some familiar voices return, including Martina Topley-Bird and Horace Andy, while new collaborators include Hope Sandoval, Tunde Adebimpe of TV on the Radio, and Guy Garvey of Elbow. There are instances of contrasting the "beautifully raw and hideously processed" (Davidge's words), but for the most part, Heligoland uses effects sparingly, as a means to viscerally punctuate.
Instead of overly pixelated, constantly filtered tones, the songs have brooding builds that unfurl into blunted lopes, bass-propelled swells, and roiling synth riffs. As a whole, they reaffirm Massive Attack's past as well as its kinship to the contemporary, low-end explorations of dubstep. The murmured, woozy vocals contribute to an ambience of measured unease, presenting political commentary that's more passive-aggressive than impassioned. The most notable return, however, is that of Grant "Daddy G" Marshall.
Born out of Bristol sound system the Wild Bunch, Massive Attack was originally 3D, Marshall, and Andrew "Mushroom" Vowles. The group debuted with 1991's Blue Lines, an amalgam of soulful dub that put a gauzy filter on hip-hop. The core trio followed up with 1994's Protection — one part stark bass subversion and the other part quiet storm orchestration. Vowles departed the group following 1998's mercurial apex, Mezzanine, a taut, guitar-heavy album of heady paranoia that tore at the seams of the group. Following that came several bouts of tumultuous, aborted recording, Marshall's sabbatical, and now Heligoland.
While it may be a coincidence, Marshall's return is accompanied by an air of economy within the recordings. Gone for the most part are the snarls and gnarls. He acknowledges that Heligoland is far removed from the sonically thematic, layers-steeped, and darkly tinted sessions that produced Mezzanine and 100th Window. Heligoland "is interesting because each track has its own life," he says. "With the Internet and iTunes and knowing that people will download and make their own playlists, [the record is] more a compilation of songs." He adds that there is more material to come from Heligoland's recording sessions, as ultimately Massive Attack has returned to documenting moods instead of forcing songs to "fit together [on a record] as any sort of deliberate thing."
Marshall and Del Naja have taken further notes from the rise of YouTube during their absence. Massive Attack's Web site offers half a dozen song-anchored short films for those desiring a visual entry into Heligoland. Del Naja feels it's a way to sidestep the increasingly antiquated structure of promotions funded, owned, and administered by labels — convenient, as the band's contract is nigh up. There is also a wealth of community features, including professional and fan images from performances; later, Massive Attack intends to offer limited-edition, art-dappled albums. That level of public inclusion is a strike against the impersonal one-click convenience of purchasing and archiving audio files.
Sure, there's a glowing, glaring irony in Massive Attack using computers to "connect" with fans while simultaneously producing commentary on technology's shortcomings. But the group functions best as an aggregate, obsessed with fragility and open-source composition. "It's the Blade Runner scenario," says Del Naja, searching for a metaphor to describe Massive Attack's progression. It's "this Victorian punk world where you have both analog interfaces and tiny digital opposites ... the physicality of the past interlaced with the future."
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