Seven years have passed between the recording of trip-hop pioneers Massive Attack’s new album, Heligoland, and their previous studio album 100th Window. While the band hasn’t exactly been on hiatus in that time – there have been soundtracks, a greatest hits album, singles and shows – it is clear that the time away from a concerted creative effort has taken its toll.
Specifically, there are two impressions that the listener takes away from Heligoland. The first is that Massive Attack have strayed from the cohesiveness of expression found on past works and instead have chosen to embrace the unpredictable fruit that is borne when working mostly with outside collaborators. While several of the vocalists who contributed to Heligoland are familiar faces, such as Horace Andy, a full eight of the album’s 10 tracks feature the talents of artists outside of the band.
The second and perhaps more pervasive sentiment associated with Heligoland is that Massive Attack’s prolific soundtrack composition has heavily influenced its songwriting direction. The majority of the tracks on the album feature the type of subdued, ethereal backing sound that is characteristic of a film score. While Massive Attack have rarely gone for bombastic, in-your-face arrangements in the past, Heligoland’s tunes are lacking the drama and sense of purpose found on albums such as Mezzanine or even the earlier work of Protection. Several tracks, such as Babel featuring Hope Sandoval (formerly of Mazzy Star) or Psyche fail to establish enough of a lead for listeners to latch on to, leaving fans to conjure up their own story lines to accompany the album’s aural soundscapes. Likewise, Flat of the Blade starts out promising, but it fails to deliver on its early intrigue.
There are, of course, exceptions to the general Heligoland feel. In fact, simply raising the volume imbues the opening track ‘Pray For Rain’ with far more presence than it at first appears to offer the listener. Saturday Come Slow, which features the talents of Blur frontman Damon Albarn, is perhaps the catchiest and most engaging effort to be found on Heligoland, despite straying from the general blueprint of the album. It does so by embracing a slow, acoustic-oriented ballad style that evokes a sense of loss and loneliness in a way that brooding synths and rumbling bass haven’t been able to anywhere else on the record. In direct contrast, Heligoland’s final track, Atlas Air centers around a whirling organ melody that imparts a sense of purpose to the piece and which aptly bookends what is perhaps the most energetic, frenetic and concentrated dose of Massive Attack on the entire disc.
Some might say that the face presented by the group on Heligoland is an indication that Massive Attack have lost their way. An argument could be made that seven years spent working in tandem with the artistic visions of others in the film world or through collaboration with outside musicians have allowed Robert Del Naja and Grant Marshall to transition into the role of uber-producers rather than focused artists. Massive Attack purists may bemoan the fact that the group has slowly transformed into a vehicle for the electronic experimentations of a star-studded cast of musical guests, but at the very least Del Naja and Marshall have spread their wings from a creative standpoint and chosen to explore new horizons within the basic framework of the band.
Yes, Heligoland does offer enough of the group’s classic dark British sound to appease a large number of its fans. However, it is clear that the marriage of strong pop sensibilities and underground energy that characterized Massive Attack’s most accessible work is now in the rearview mirror.