Trip-hop pioneers Massive Attack are back on the shelves with a new sound that will surely let down longtime fans.
“Heligoland,” the group’s fifth studio album and first release since 2003’s “100th Window” (excluding the soundtrack to Danny the Dog), takes its name from the German archipelago. The duo of 3D and Daddy G, as always, invites several guests, including Tunde Adebimpe of TV On The Radio, Damon Albarn of Gorillaz, Hope Sandoval of Mazzy Star and frequent visitor Horace Andy.
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The album, like its disappointing predecessor, abandons the hip-hop of the group’s early work. Not a single song incorporates rap verses. But unlike “100th Window,” the album does add a new sound to the progression of Massive Attack’s music. Trip-hop, a downtempo, jazz and soul-inflected breakbeat music no longer applies.
The Bristol, UK outfit’s dub atmospherics have almost vanished. “Heligoland” sounds more like indie electro-rock. At moments, the use of synthesizers makes it feel like a slowed down Simian Mobile Disco record. “Pray for Rain,” featuring Adebimpe, really just channels TV On The Radio.
While “Heligoland” introduces a different Massive Attack sound, it isn’t original. For a group that has continually refashioned the electronica genre, Massive Attack fails to innovate. They would have done better to echo their ’90s material. “Blue Lines” and “Mezzanine” were masterpieces partly due to their juxtaposition of laid-back rhythm and hard-hitting beats. The latest album could use piercing percussion like that of “Teardrop.”
The production as a whole, in fact, is substandard. It presents an interesting mix of organic instruments and electronic noise, but lacks the complex layering Massive Attack is known for. Single songs don’t evolve over the course of their time-span. Nothing compares to the build up from the downtempo start of “Angel” to its hellish fury of a climax. “Paradise Circus” is the only track featuring especially appealing production. Its chiming melody and drumming built around claps provide a beautiful backdrop to Hope Sandoval’s velvety, soft voice.
The vocals in general are decent. Horace Andy’s signature reggae falsetto makes “Girl I Love You” the best track on the album. When he croons, “Girl I love you but your loving has gone forever,” you can almost imagine you’re listening to “Mezzanine” instead. Excluding Adebimpe and Sandoval, most of the other vocals are forgettable. The chilled-out raps of former collaborator Tricky or even 3D and Daddy G themselves would add much-needed variety. Not to mention those British accents just sound cooler when they’re rapping.
Perhaps the greatest achievement of Heligoland is its coherence. No song seems out of place, and they progress smoothly without jarring transitions. Massive Attack selects certain instruments uniquely for specific songs while staying faithful to the overall relaxed pace of the album. Intentionally or unintentionally, they unify “Heligoland” around a soft electro-rock concept. It feels consistent. But when the songs themselves aren’t too brilliant, that doesn’t count for very much.