Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Soundings (Audio Reviews): Heligoland - Massive Attack (2010)

The tyranny of our best years. In the mid-nineties, opening the mail for the college radio station, finding the promotional CDs the record companies had sent, I stumbled across a sound that immediately sucked me in: bands from England (Portishead, Massive Attack, Tricky), with a dark, hopeless air -- like Don DeLillo set to music. There was a certain aesthetic -- of gray, of twilight, of a new Brutalism in a way; a style England -- mother of the theories of both Adam Smith and Karl Marx, of the factory workday, and moth evolution affected by industrial pollution -- always seemed to flirt with.

It was music for places shrouded in mist, darkness. There is generally no sunshine in Massive Attack. If there is light, it is artificial, stark, soulless.

Portishead returned in 2008 with the masterful Third. Massive Attack has now returned from the darkness as well, with their first album since 2003.

There is more life in Heligoland than in Massive Attack's last effort, the brittle and empty 100th Window. Whereas 100th Window was flat, and much too thin, Heligoland is thick and layered, like a forest floor, covered in an imbrication of dead leaves in various states of decay, of becoming soil again.

Massive Attack have always seemed to dwell somewhere a few years in the future. Their music was often claustrophobia-inducing, attuned to the absence of choice, the institutional imprisonment of the monetary economy in the era of late capitalism. (I always think of the line "Give me evenings and weekends" from Mezzanine.)

Exemplar of the Brutalist style: Robarts Library at the University of Toronto, by by Mathers & Haldenby Architects (1973)

The glorious Blue Lines had moments of soaring, of emotions other than brooding, menace, and paranoia. The sun broke through here and there. There is more sun on the new album than one would expect.

The first track, Pray for Rain, is a good example. The song proceeds as a somber, electronic funeral dirge for much of the track, aided by vocals from TV On the Radio's Tunde Adebimpe, before giving way, somewhat inexplicably, to a few moments of joy. Splitting the Atom bops along in an underwater slow motion, but not unhappily: sort of a low-key Monster Mash. Girl I Love You is like Massive Attack after a big bowl of Fruity Pebbles, brooding with a beat you could dance to: you could put it on your workout mix and you wouldn't slow down too much. The stripped-down but insistent final track, Atlas Air, has the distinct feel of the new, but with a firm grounding in a certain familiar growling, beeping dread.

I've listened to the album only three of four times so far. Right now, it feels like the type of album that will continue to reward repeated listening, as one gets more and more lost in the layers, the heady mix of old and new, the familiar and the strange.

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