Graffiti artist and rapper Del Naja met Grantley Marshall and Andrew Vowles when they became part of the local collective The Wild Bunch. Picking up in places where the legendary Bristolian The Pop Group left off The Wild Bunch and their sound system concentrated on reggae, dub plates, skank and soul. After stabs at production they signed to Circa Records on Neneh Cherry's recommendation (she was an early supporter and bankroller) and spent months perfecting Blue Lines with co-producers Jonny Dollar and Cameron McVey, while Geoff Barrow, later of Portishead, worked the tapes.
Blue Lines is available in original and Remix versions and is highly recommended as a starting point for its fusion of electronic, hip hop, dub, soul and reggae sounds. From the outset the writing was powerful with early tracks 'Safe from Harm' and 'Lately' setting a high standard. While they don't pay lip service to the terminology surrounding trip-hop the album did establish their style. Innovative, with catchy earworm hooks and what-the-hell-is-that twists, Massive Attack slowed down the hip hop groove to their own pace - mellow and meditative. Easy facility with break beats and sampling became their calling card and their influence stems from this moment. Guests on the album include Tricky (aka Tricky Kid) Shara Nelson and Horace Andy and the cuts are fresh and funky. The title track samples Tom Scott's 'Sneakin' in the Back' while 'Daydreaming' quotes Wally Badarou's lush Mambo. Given that every song has vast merit it may be invidious to choose one highlight but 'Unfinished Sympathy' has become a signature piece. Percussive excellence and the string arrangements of veteran Wil Malone lend themselves to outside remixing and the track has been carefully dismantled and reshaped by the likes of Paul Oakenfold and Nellee Hooper.
In its stark form the single was voted number one cut of the year by mainstream and style lead publications. It signals their arrival as a major force. Tina Turner would have a Top Ten hit with it in 1996 but Massive Attack's own chilled take with its Mahavishnu Orchestra vocal sample is the blueprint. Even the video, shot by Blue Velvet cinematographer Baillie Walsh, is breathtaking and groundbreaking in its use of a Los Angeles street scene and a slow perambulation around West Pico Boulevard by Nelson. The Verve would pay homage to the video/film's elan in their own Bitter Sweet Symphony. It is truly an important moment in British music.
Having spent around eight months on the first album, the second disc, Protection (again available with full Remixes) arrived in 1994. Now recording in London and Bristol the cast list still includes Tricky - just about to complete his own Maxinquaye debut - Hooper and Andy while adding vocalists Nicolette, Tracey Thorn from Everything but the Girl, Craig Armstrong's piano and Chester Kamen on guitar. Again the reviews were glowing and the album sounds as crisp and cool and sexy today as it did - incredible to recall - nearly twenty years ago! The timeless grace of Massive Attack's approach is a definite virtue. Listen to their version of The Doors' 'Light My Fire', as different in its way as Jose Feliciano's in 1968. In stripping the song down and then layering it up Del Naja and company reveal the unexpected. Same goes for 'Protection' and 'Karmacoma'. Protection uses James Brown's rhythm motif from 'The Payback' but swaps his ferocious hi-hat and bass snap with a much more sultry loop. It's worth mentioning a few of the mixes on this too as they include 7 and 12 inch versions helmed by Eno, 'Radiation Ruling the Nation', 'Angel Dust' and 'J. Swift'. Perhaps most impressive is Tracey Thorn's vocal - a performance of great beauty. 'Karmacoma' is a dance floor beast with raps by 3D and Tricky and samples of Borodin's Prince Igor and Serge Gainsbourg's 'Melody'. Again the video for the track is mind-blowing - think Quentin Tarantino rather than a bunch of pretty boys strumming guitars on a desert island. That ain't the Massive method.
The next single 'Risingson' would usher in third album Mezzanine (1998). With Vowles back at the mixing desk this new venture signals ever more adventurous use of sampling, programming and state of the art sonics. Massive Attack were also influential in the download world since this album was made available months before any physical release. Not that it did sales any harm. This is their most successful seller to date. Ironically it was also, they said, the most stressful to complete. All that perfectionism can drive a fellow mad it seems. Out they came relatively unscathed with an artefact that went Double Platinum in 2012.
Textured, dark and ambient Mezzanine buries the trip-hop pigeonhole for good. An eerie, unsettling at time, mood pervades tracks like 'Inertia Creeps' and the title song (which features a cute sample from The Velvet Underground's 'I Found a Reason') although the most intriguing cut could well be a reworking of John Holt and the Paragons slinky 'Man Next Door' where the in-house groove is funked up and frazzled by snatches of Led Zeppelin's 'When the Levee Breaks' and The Cure's '10.15 Saturday Night'. Tensions may have been high in the studio but the sense of dangerous adventure is all over this baby. And it does have many seriously grooved up gears. The title track shouldn't be overlooked. Perfect late night soundtrack stuff with a rare groove drum link from Bernard Purdie's 'Heavy Soul Slinger'. They couldn't resist that title. Nor could they put down the classic idea of sampling Isaac Hayes and Quincy Jones on '(Exchange)'. One of the five star summer albums of '98.
For 100th Window Del Naja found himself in sole charge of the Massive moniker as Vowles and Marshall quit for some fresh air. The solution was to use a wider spectrum of vocalists so Damon Albarn and Sinead O'Connor came to Clifton. A radical departure all round, sessions began with a lot of experimental cut-ups involving Spirituailized offshoot Lupine Howl. Eventually these were discarded as was the sampling technique and the jazz dub fusion of previous discs. The single 'Special Cases' (featuring O'Connor) gave fans their first sighting of the new direction while follow-up 'Butterfly Caught' indicated this was going to be something completely different. Well into their second decade Massive Attack were now able to fly and the Official Soundtrack album Danny the Dog, scored for the martial arts action thriller Unleashed (the OST has also been made available under that title) found Del Naja and cohort producer Neil Davidge adapting their sound to suit the atmospherics demanded by working to show reels.
Collected (2006) is a must-have compilation. As well as the key cuts from previous discs there are exclusive edits, the single 'Live with Me' featuring underground soul jazz legend Terry Callier and a bonus dual layered CD containing rare material with collaborators like Madonna, Mos Def and Debbie Clare. Team this with the handy extended play of Bite Size for the latest digital Attack.
And so to Heligoland. Perhaps their most immediately accessible album, this warm bunch of beats and blues boasts guests Albarn coming on more Gorillaz than Blur, Mazzy Star's Hope Sandoval, Elbow's Guy Garvey, Martina Topley-Bird updating the Bristol connection and Portishead's guitarist Adrian Utley. Fans were delighted to find Marshall back on board and co-writing every track but saddened to hear the passing of original Wild Buncher Jonny Dollar to whom the album is dedicated.
Del Naja and co. originally sent out feelers to dozens of possible collaborators but opted for a more organic mood. 'Paradise Circus', co-produced with Burial, highlights Sandoval's gorgeous throat, albeit tinged with an air of menace that made it ideal theme title music for the acclaimed BBC crime series Luther. The flip 'Four Walls' was unreleased. 'Splitting the Atom' is another significant cut as it welcomes back Horace Andy and sees Albarn providing keyboard synths. Lovers of FIFA 11 will also be familiar with the blood-rushing groove here while the epic closer 'Atlas Air' is simply classically Massive Attack.
In short this is all modern music for the mind, body and soul.
Words - Max Bell.
The first masterpiece of what was only termed trip-hop much later, Blue Lines filtered American hip-hop through the lens of British club culture, a stylish, nocturnal sense of scene that encompassed music from rare groove to dub to dance. The album balances dark, diva-led club jams along the lines of Soul II Soul with some of the best British rap (vocals and production) heard up to that point, occasionally on the same track. The opener "Safe from Harm" is the best example, with diva vocalist Shara Nelson trading off lines with the group's own monotone (yet effective) rapping. Even more than hip-hop or dance, however, dub is the big touchstone on Blue Lines.
Most of the productions aren't quite as earthy as you'd expect, but the influence is palpable in the atmospherics of the songs, like the faraway electric piano on "One Love" (with beautiful vocals from the near-legendary Horace Andy). One track, "Five Man Army," makes the dub inspiration explicit, with a clattering percussion line, moderate reverb on the guitar and drums, and Andy's exquisite falsetto flitting over the chorus. Blue Lines isn't all darkness, either -- "Be Thankful for What You've Got" is quite close to the smooth soul tune conjured by its title, and "Unfinished Sympathy" -- the group's first classic production -- is a tremendously moving fusion of up-tempo hip-hop and dancefloor jam with slow-moving, syrupy strings. Flaunting both their range and their tremendously evocative productions, Massive Attack recorded one of the best dance albums of all time.
Words - John Bush
Increasingly ignored amidst the exploding trip-hop scene, Massive Attack finally returned in 1998 with Mezzanine, a record immediately announcing not only that the group was back, but that they'd recorded a set of songs just as singular and revelatory as on their debut, almost a decade back. It all begins with a stunning one-two-three-four punch: "Angel," "Risingson," "Teardrop," and "Inertia Creeps." Augmenting their samples and keyboards with a studio band, Massive Attack open with "Angel," a stark production featuring pointed beats and a distorted bassline that frames the vocal (by group regular Horace Andy) and a two-minute flame-out with raging guitars. "Risingson" is a dense, dark feature for Massive Attack themselves (on production as well as vocals), with a kitchen sink's worth of dubby effects and reverb. "Teardrop" introduces another genius collaboration -- with Elizabeth Fraser from Cocteau Twins -- from a production unit with a knack for recruiting gifted performers.
The blend of earthy with ethereal shouldn't work at all, but Massive Attack pull it off in fine fashion. "Inertia Creeps" could well be the highlight, another feature for just the core threesome. With eerie atmospherics, fuzz-tone guitars, and a wealth of effects, the song could well be the best production from the best team of producers the electronic world had ever seen. Obviously, the rest of the album can't compete, but there's certainly no sign of the side-two slump heard on Protection, as both Andy and Fraser return for excellent, mid-tempo tracks ("Man Next Door" and "Black Milk," respectively).
Words - John Bush.
The opening title track is pure excellence, with melancholy keyboards, throbbing acid lines, and fragmented beats perfectly complementing the transcendent vocals of Tracey Thorn (an inspired choice to replace the departed Shara Nelson as their muse). Tricky, another soon-to-be-solo performer, makes his breakout on this record, with blunted performances on "Karmacoma," another highlight, as well as "Eurochild." But even though the production is just as intriguing as on Blue Lines, there's a bit lacking here -- Massive Attack doesn't summon quite the emotional power they did previously.
Words - John Bush.
Until 2003's 100th Window, each Massive Attack album had been a discrete record, stylistically distinct and mostly unconnected to what had gone before it (even if it included the same vocalists). By sounding like an inferior copy of the 1998 landmark Mezzanine, 100th Window broke a string and led to negative reviews. Heligoland marks a return to departures. The sound of Massive Attack circa 2010 has some similarities to what the group has done in the past, but overall, this represents a radical shift in music-making. Granted, most of the Massive Attack hallmarks are still here: gripping music laden with tension and dread, a production that sounds fathoms deep, and an insular worldview represented by a cast of vocalists both new and old. (The new voices include Damon Albarn, Hope Sandoval, Elbow's Guy Garvey, and TV on the Radio's Tunde Adebimpe.)
What's immediately apparent, however, from the opener "Pray for Rain" is the sparseness and understated air on display here. With Adebimpe on vocals, the track begins with a rattling of bones and a resigned air whose closest predecessor is "In a Lonely Place" by New Order (a group who practically defined the word understated with their music prior to 1982). This certainly isn't the Massive Attack that floated the smoothest British house of the early '90s, and more surprisingly, it's also not the Massive Attack that created dense, immersive trip-hop during the '90s and early 2000s.
Words - John Bush.
A new album from Massive Attack is an event, even if only one-third of the original group is present for the festivities. Just the group's fourth album in more than a dozen years, 100th Window marked the departure of Mushroom (permanently, after artistic differences) and Daddy G (temporarily, to raise a family), leaving only one founding member, 3D (Robert del Naja), to muddle along with arranger/producer Neil Davidge (who made his Massive Attack debut on 1998's Mezzanine). Though Del Naja is mostly successful giving the people what they want -- a follow-up to Mezzanine, one of the most compulsive listens of '90s electronica -- it unfortunately comes as a sacrifice to the very thing that made Massive Attack so crucial to dance music: their never-ending progression to a radically different sound with each release.
For better or worse, 100th Window has the same crushingly oppressive productions, dark, spiralling basslines, and pile-driving beats instantly familiar to fans of Mezzanine. Fortunately, it also has the same depth and point-perfect attention to detail, making for fascinating listening no matter whether the focus is the songs, the effects, or even the percussion lines. Jamaican crooner Horace Andy is back for a pair of tracks ("Everywhen," "Name Taken") that nearly equal his features on the last record, while Sinéad O'Connor makes her debut with three vocal features. Unlike Liz Fraser or Tracey Thorn (two Massive Attack muses from the past), O'Connor's voice lacks resonance and doesn't reward the close inspection that a Massive Attack production demands. Still, her songwriting is far superior and the slight quaver in her voice adds a much-needed personality to these songs.
"A Prayer for England" is a political protest that aligns itself perfectly with the group that coined its name as a satirical nod to military aggression. Another feature for O'Connor, "What Your Soul Sings," is the only song here that compares to the best Massive Attack has to offer, beginning with a harsh, claustrophobic atmosphere, but soon blossoming like a flower into a beautiful song led by her tremulous voice.
Words - John Bush.
As expected but perhaps not hoped for, Virgin dishes fans this best of, Collected, as Massive Attack are buying time to complete Weather Underground, their next album to be released -- hopefully -- within the calendar year 2006. All collections of this type give punters the chance to look back at what was once futuristic and is now commonplace and how well an act's music has aged. The remainder of the Wild Bunch -- Andrew "Mushroom" Vowles and Grant Grant "Daddy G" Marshall, and Robert "3D" del Naja -- who formed Massive Attack as evidenced by these 13 tracks, all have their place.
The cuts are nearly equally divided between the albums Blue Lines, Protection, Mezzanine and 100th Window. None of the soundtrack works appears here, and neither do any 12" mixes. Hits like "Safer from Harm" and "Karmacoma" don't age so well, but others, such as "Inertia Creeps," the sublime "Teardrops," the sinister "Butterfly Caught," the spooky, mercurial love song "What Your Soul Sings," (with Sinéad O'Connor on vocals), and even "Unfinished Sympathy," (with Shara Nelson singing her ass off), do. There is a an unreleased track, a new blues called "Live with Me" that begins with a string intro, a deadly slow rhythm track offered as mid-tempo creep, and the deep soul voice of Terry Callier hovering inside the darkness. He moves from the blues to soul and back again as M.A weave that sorrowful, noir-ish, sonic magic all around him, draping him in atmospheric shadows and snaky beats.
Nope, it isn't so new, but music this fine doesn't need to be. This isn't music for kids, or perhaps even for clubs, but it may be for the masses if the masses were given the chance to climb on. This is a fine introduction if you've been sleeping these past 15 years, or have recently come to realize that indie rock is but one color on the spectrum. Massive Attack at their best -- and much of it is here -- were a force to be reckoned with, and "Live with Me," is a hint that they still may be.
Words - Thom Jurek.
Where their debut bent all of the conventional hip-hop, dub reggae, and soul rules, Protection essentially delivered more of the same. Perhaps that's the reason why Mad Professor's remix of the album, No Protection, was welcomed with open arms by both Massive Attack fans and critics. Mad Professor has returned the group to their experimental, cut-and-paste dub reggae and hip-hop roots. He has gutted the songs -- twisting and reassembling the vocal tracks, giving the songs deeper, fuller grooves and an eerily seductive atmosphere. In other words, he has made Protection into a more daring and fulfilling album with his remixes.
Words - Stephen Thomas Erlewine.
Released in 2004 as the soundtrack for the film by Luc Besson called ‘Unleashed’ which featured Bob Hoskins, Jet Li and Morgan Freeman. This album has 21 tracks, some very short, that appeared as the original score for the movie. The album is very much a departure from Massive’s normal style and is music which works for the film. It has harpsichords and beats and guitars echoing as tension builds within the film. The classical piano that is played in several scene’s is Mozart’s Piano Sonato 11, Adante Grazioso. Massive like you've never heard them before, but well worth checking out.
In 2005 Virgin released a new version of the ‘Danny The Dog’ OST with two bonus tracks called ‘Baby Boy’ and ‘Unleash Me’. The majority of this album was written and arranged by Neil Davidge and Robert Del Naja; it has a reflective feel with a haunting dub and ambient sound.
The remix version from 2012 of the original masterpiece from 1991, Blue Lines. Remixed and remastered by the band at their studios in Bristol it shows just why ‘Blue Lines’ was such a ground breaking album. It features the classic ‘Unfinished Sympathy’ and the sound on this version is brighter, cleaner and sharper than the original but the songs come through as utterly unlike anything before or since. A ground breaking act whose creators have set the bar high for those who followed in their musical footstep.