Massive Attack is inconsistent, but ultimately gratifying, on Heligoland

2010 is the year of the archipelago, it seems. Having already mentioned Shearwater’s upcoming The Golden Archipelago quite a few times, we can now dive into Massive Attack’s Heligoland, named after the German archipelago in the North Sea. What is it about archipelagos that makes us want to associate them with music? I suppose the word flows off the tongue with a bit of a musical edge; one that seems slightly magical.

The magic and mystery lead into Heligoland appropriately. It’s an album of varying, sweeping electronics, as we’ve come to expect from Massive Attack. But after seven years of absence from normal studio albums, the duo of Robert Del Naja and Grant Marshall come back into the game with a heap of expectations at the plate. When you’ve become as popular as these two production masterminds and enlist the help of several renowned musicians and vocalists, audiences and fans expect nothing but your best effort. As we well know, expectations can be tricky and can easily lead us to a narrow-minded viewpoint; but if we keep it in mind we can hope to listen without being blinded by the context and rather allow it to supplement our listening experience.

Heligoland starts off strong with “Pray For Rain”, which builds off of a slow rolling percussion and persistent keys to a satisfying climax, full of synth/dream pop. The raspy vocals from TV On The Radio’s Tunde Adebimpe are a nice complement to the bass-driven sound, and the high harmonies backing him do wonders for a contrast of sound. “Babel” is a chillier track, which kicks off the ground immediately with the heavy electronics and Martina Topley Bird’s crisp, sultry voice. These tracks are wonderful album openers, and excite us for the album as a whole. However, Heligoland stalls a bit as it hits its middle. “Splitting The Atom” is a bass-y bore (correlation with it being the only track the duo sings together?), and while “Girl I Love You” has a nice horn section, the sounds mesh together into a bit of a cacophony, and loses ground from the steady build ups of the previous tracks. The final section of Heligoland is nothing supremely special, but it’s strong all the same; I’m quite enamored with Hope Sandoval on “Paradise Circus” (for which you’ve no doubt seen the highly NSFW video). The pounding handclaps do wonders for the sound as their sharp hits with the cymbals play off Sandoval’s warm vocals, and the song turns into a mini-orchestra with keys and crying strings. Trippy, resonating, surreal; it’s one of the best tracks on the album.

For another artist, the songs would be considered top-notch, with a bevy of enormous and fresh instrumental cues to make the songs atmospheric, and darker undertones to keep the sound complex. However, I can’t help but feel like something is missing and that Massive Attack could have poured more layers into these tunes. Maybe Del Naja and Marshall meant to keep us mostly unaffected and hope that we could dig deeper into their sound. I think I’m coming around to it, but sometimes I’m left wondering whether the experimental static could have used a bit less uncovering.

Massive Attack – “Pray For Rain” (feat. Tunde Adebimpe) [MP3]

Massive Attack – “Paradise Circus” (feat. Hope Sandoval) [MP3]

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2 comments to Massive Attack is inconsistent, but ultimately gratifying, on Heligoland

  • The final section also contains their excellent collab with Damon Albarn, ‘Saturday Come Slow’. Great tune!

    Lee Reply:

    haha did you want me to discuss every song on the album!? (ok, fine, I actually did and then realized the review was too long…;))