Massive Attack’s fifth studio album, arriving seven years after its predecessor, is finally upon us in North America. Named after a German archipelago, Heligoland is a haunting mesh of trip-hop and atmosphere that should have fans of the Bristol duo elated.
Of course, Massive Attack has spent considerable time in the soundtrack department prior to the release of this record. They scored the music for Battle in Seattle and 2008’s Trouble the Water, so it shouldn’t be too surprising that Heligoland carries with it a fairly weighted sense of the cinematic.
Along with featuring a sense of the cinematic, the album also features a fairly big load of guest stars. TV on the Radio’s Tunde Adebimpe, Hope Sandoval, Damon Albarn, Elbow’s Guy Garvey, and trip-hop vet Martina Topley-Bird make appearances on vocals. The brilliant Horace Andy is also featured, as usual.
So does Heligoland serve to draw Massive Attack back towards their roots and away from the fuzzed-out melancholy of 100th Window?
Horace Andy’s distinctive voice offers the first clue that things might be off on the right foot for Massive Attack again. He adds layers of personality to the thumping, tense “Girl I Love You.”
But it’s album opener “Pray for Rain” that sets the tone. With Tunde Adebimpe’s vocals and a speaker-threatening, low-bass rumble over sleek jazz cool, this is a track worth many a repeat spin. It’s all slinky, sexy cool and it has a sort of budding convenience, as though Robert Del Naja and Grant Marshall are introducing us to a brand new phase of the magic.
“Splitting the Atom” takes things in an interesting direction, opening with something that almost resembles West Coast G-funk and building on it with a muffled set of Cohen-esque vocals from Andy, Del Naja and Marshall. More of that trademark trip-hop sex infuses every beat.
Topley-Bird is given every opportunity to stretch things to the extent that other Massive Attack female collaborators have done and she hits all the right paces. Her work on “Psyche” and “Babel” unearths some of her deeper, darker tones. She builds perfectly on the foundation of tripping, stuttering tone and accesses a completely different range set, approaching an almost brutal divide between impassioned torch singer and apathetic mumbler.
Part of the appeal of Massive Attack’s brand of trip-hop lies in their ability to seem almost standoffish about their shit.
In employing Blur’s Albarn to do the honors on “Saturday Come Slow,” there had to be a bit of trepidation over the singer’s tendency for vocal style over substance. But they seem to have found Albarn’s happy spot somehow, as the truly fascinating laziness of the arrangement allows him to draw on legitimate soul in the midst of a sort of melancholic fever.
Between delightfully removed pop vocalists and speaker-eating bass, Heligoland manages to be a record of substance. It does reach those old roots of reggae and trip-hop fans of Massive Attack have come to know and love, but it also reaches past them to prove that there really can be a considerable amount of passion to be found in the gloomiest of moments.