Strange how the two biggest names in trip-hop (Massive Attack and Portishead) both kind of quietly slipped out of the limelight for several years, though unlike fellow Bristolians Portishead (? Is that correct? Who knows.), Massive Attack have at least been somewhat visible in the seven years since 100th Window, their previous studio album (they released a two-disc “Best of” in 2006 and scored the 2004 Louis Leterrier film Unleashed). And since Portishead returned in 2008 with Third it only makes sense that Massive Attack would return, too. But whereas Portishead took their stripped-down spookiness and pushed it farther into darker, more unsettling realms with their 2008 return Third, Massive Attack seem to be going in circles with Heligoland. That would be disappointing for a band that hasn’t had a seven year gap between studio albums, and that Massive Attack manage to keep Heligoland registering only as a disappointment is somewhat of an achievement. Somewhat.

Of course, one of the benefits of going in circles is that you occasionally hit paydirt, and when Massive Attack do this, they’re usually accompanied someone. After going through the liner notes, I can say without exaggeration thatHeligoland is the most guest musician-dependent album the band have ever released. Somewhere, Arjen Anthony Lucassen is jealous; among others, Heligoland features Tunde Adebimpe of TV on the Radio, reggae maestro Horace Andy, Damon Albarn of Blur/Gorillaz/The Good The Bad and The Queen, Guy Garvey of Elbow, Hope Sandoval of Mazzy Star and UNKLE collaborator Robert “3D” Del Naja. You’d think that with all these musicians of varying backgrounds, that the songs they’re featured in would stand out from each other more, but that’s not the case. Sure, there are a few highlights; Tunde proves again that he can carry on any song he’s in all by his lonesome. And Horace Andy’s two tracks (Girl I Love You and Splitting The Atom) are genuinely troubled, intimidating and moody, far moreso than the rest of the material on the album. But they’re not the norm – the rest of the tracks all fall short in some way or another. Guy Garvey’s song, Flat of the Blade is a trembling, dopamine-soaked breakcore lull. Marina Topley-Bird’s Psyche is based around a twitchy flamenco loop that wears your nerves down awfully quick. The worst offender, though, is Albarn, whose song Saturday Come Slow sounds like a limpid Gorillaz b-side; it’s three and a half minutes of warbly acoustic emptiness. Definitely not up to par with the songs he was featured in on 100th Window.

Heligoland got me thinking about how to best use guest musicians, and the first album I thought of was Jay-Z’s latest offering, The Blueprint 3. If you listen to just Jay-Z’s segments of the album, he’s not at the top of his game at all – but he wisely gives his guests’ songs that they can pour themselves into. And it works. Heligoland gives its various guests only a single template and as a result, we don’t get much out of it. And how could we? There wasn’t much there to begin with.


3 Responses to “MASSIVE ATTACK – Heligoland”

  1. […] while Aereogramme never rivaled fellow Glasgowians (okay, not sure if that’s right…again) Mogwai in terms of popularity, they certainly were able to rival them in terms of vaulting across […]

  2. Sad to say that this is all very true, yeah. Heligoland is a pretty big disappointment

  3. monopolyphonic Says:

    Agreed – even the song with Tunde is fading rapidly from my memory.

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