Review: Massive Attack, Heligoland

On the majority of Heligoland, Massive Attack’s idea of heterogeneity is limited to rotating guest vocalists.

Massive Attack, HeligolandIt’s been seven years since the last proper Massive Attack album, and those who missed the trip-hop titans should have no trouble sinking into Heligoland: Daddy G and 3D’s latest offers 10 tracks of the same eerie, art-house melodrama upon which the duo has built their rep. Honestly, it’s like they never left, and that’s both the best and worst thing about the album.

Though subtly crafted from start to finish, Heligoland makes no essential addition to the Massive Attack catalogue. Save one late-coming pair of songs, “Flat of the Blade” and the exquisite “Paradise Circus,” the album’s admirable consistency is belied by a lack of standout cuts. It also reaches too readily into the bag of trademarked Massive Attack tricks, a sign that the band’s pioneering producers aren’t looking to stake out any new frontiers. Case in point is the closing track, “Atlas Air,” which realizes its epic aspirations only in its eight-minute runtime while indulging in overly orthodox Aphex-worship that sounds damn near anachronistic.

On the majority of Heligoland, Massive Attack’s idea of heterogeneity is limited to rotating guest vocalists. It’s a trick that works fairly well on first listen, but with each repetition it becomes clearer that the diversity in vocal performances in no way extends to the textures or rhythms that have always been the highlight of the best Massive Attack songs. Nonetheless, they do make some salutary choices in collaborators: TV on the Radio’s Tunde Adebimpe presides over the opening track and his magisterial monotone turns “Pray for Rain” into a slam-poet’s sermon. Compositionally, it’s a promising song that derails at the five-minute mark, but Adebimpe certainly can’t be accused of phoning it in. And Guy Garvey, of the perpetually underrated Elbow, one-ups him: Typically a tenor, Garvey, aided by all kinds of creepy processing tricks, slathers “Flat of the Blade” with a barely tonal baritone, his otherworldly drawl holding the track together while stately horn samples ebb and fade.

Some more familiar faces from the endless roster of past Massive Attack collaborators turn up as well, with Martina Topley-Bird and Horace Andy each taking two passes at the mic. Maybe it’s just coincidence, or maybe it’s that those two are more attuned to the typical Massive Attack aesthetic, but their presence seems to encourage the band to retread old roads. Worse, their songs all come in a row, saddling the album’s first half with a good 20 minutes of what amounts to well-executed Mezzanine rewrites (those featuring Andy) and somewhat-listless Mezzanine rewrites (those featuring Bird).

It adds up to an LP that never becomes wearying but which is far too easy to relegate to the background. Once the essential ingredients (clattering beats, haunting synths) are in place, the tracks on Heligoland become moods that one can zone in and out of, chilly chill-out music where the rule of vibe is only intermittently challenged by dynamism or melody. It’s less interesting than recent work by Massive Attack disciples like Burial and the Knife. Fans who have spent the better part of a decade jonesing for exactly this kind of fix will surely appreciate the effort, but for the less dependent, the songs here offer little that the band hasn’t already done better. Greeting the new decade with a brand of anxiety that sounds all too familiar, Massive Attack may have made the most discomfiting comfort music of all time.

 Label: Virgin  Release Date: February 9, 2010  Buy: Amazon

Matthew Cole

Since 2016, Matthew Cole has been a Preceptor of Expository Writing in the Harvard College Writing Program.

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