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Friday, April 04, 2003  
Massive Attack
100th Window
Wild Bunch/Virgin

It’s all about expectations, really. Yes, this is essentially a solo album by Robert Del Naja (a.k.a. 3D). Yes, Massive Attack hovered behind the nineties like a spectral whiff of sensimilia, rarely placing themselves at the forefront of our collective consciousness, but always there, always present. Their influence and greatness is undeniable; with a hat-trick of albums and a dub remix record Massive Attack have changed the face of British music for ever, the founding fathers of the early 90’s Bristol scene which has led to the genesis of trip hop, drum n bass, garage, trance, and which has bled like smoke in candlelight into everything else around it, sometimes unseen but always in attendance. But they are not to be looked to for constant reinvention and innovation. It is not their job to forge ahead into new ground any more than it is their job to continue retreading old sonic territories. Because despite what you may have been told this record does neither of those things, and yet it also does both.

The blend of contemporary urban soul, dub ambience, hip-hop turntablism and underground dance aesthetic presented on Blue Lines over a decade ago still sounds fresh and wondrous today. The miraculous, one-shot video for the Shara Nelson-sung “Unfinished Sympathy” bleeds perfection almost as much as the song itself, the jolting stabs of sub-bass swathed in street ambience that begin the track, Shara’s unequalled, bitterness-drenched-in-honey charms, the plaintive lamentation of the strings and the gently kinetic rhythm. By contrast Screamadelica, groundbreaking at the time, is beginning to date and fade into the territory of rose-tinted recollection. Revolution, it seems, is ephemeral; class is permanent.

That Massive Attack were to have difficulty following Blue Lines was taken as read by so many that the quality of Protection often finds itself forgotten, the jarring, muddy live cover of “Light My Fire” that incredulously and inexplicably finishes the album remembered more often than the delicate and lovelorn vocals of Tracey Thorn or the subtle elemental powers of Nicolette. It took Mad Professor’s dub overhaul of the record to cement it in the same collective quality consciousness as its predecessor. And then, by 1998 and Mezzanine, everybody had come to recognize that Massive Attack were one of the finest and most important bands working in the world. The gravitas afforded to the severe solipsistic paranoia of that record, with its hungry, foreboding basslines and overwhelming, metallic guitars, finally cracking the fragile binding lines within the group.

Mushroom left the group shortly after Mezzanine was released, unhappy with the dynamic, unhappy with the record. Massive had never been a good time band, but they had equally never been so dark, so harsh and unforgiving. Mushroom’s reputation had been as the group’s turntablist and sample wizard; the move away from cinematic hip hop and sweetly melancholic urban soul towards this new, subtly ferocious, guitar-led anxiety and insularity, with its irresistible, militaristic, dictatorial march towards darkness, was never going to please him. Never prolific when they were three, Massive as two would take things even slower. When Daddy G sunk into child-rearing sabbatical, Massive as one would barely move at all.

The naysayers do not understand. Their expectations hamstring them. 100th Window is a record of organic, ambient dub. It is closer in spirit to The Orb and Bark Psychosis than Soul II Soul or Groove Armada. The metallic buzz of guitars is gone but the paranoia is resolutely in place. Once again a new chanteuse is found. Shara Nelson, Tracey Thorn, and Liz Fraser are succeeded by Sinead O’Connor’s dulcet Irish tones, occasionally eerily close in tone to the detached, oblique sexuality of Tricky’s old chanteuse of choice, Martina. Daddy G’s deeply rhythmic ragga growl is missing, but the mysterious, childlike wash of Horace Andy’s delicious reggae lilt remains on a brace of tracks, albeit buried and confused almost to the point of being unrecognisable. Even Del Naja’s own voice is twisted and altered, the laconic raps of yesteryear subdued and suspicious and verging on indecipherable, less lines of melody and tune than supplementary wafts of sound interpolated into the fascinating, precise and evocative mix along with everything else. Certainly, lyrics are not the albums strong point; O'Conner, as you might have guessed, errs too close to the sanctimonious preacher within her. Del Naja is no Keats or Blake. But 100th Window is not about words or vocals; it is about sound.

This is not a trip hop record. This is not a document of hip-hop and dance inflected modern soul. Nor is it a powerfully irresistible album of guitar-led industrial dub paranoia. To expect those things would be wrong. Massive Attack have not set out to make an epochal, world-changing record. They did not set out to make an epochal, world-changing record in 1991 either. They just did.

100th Window is fluid, black ice and oil beneath your tyres. It flows and meanders; darkly cavernous basslines joined with intricate, head-spinning production effects that imply both motion and stasis. Listened to on headphones it is seductive and irresistible, sublime movement of tones and rhythms and collaged sounds which suck awareness from you, a black hole for your conscious, “that tickle in your head – that tingle in your ear” which Sinead incants and summons in “What Your Soul Sings”. Future Proof is subdued and suspicious, Del Naja talking of lepers, ghosts and “warm pipes”, mistaken soul and absent friends. It is agonising, patient and hypnotic, its suppressed climax painted with inky guitars that slip from channel to channel in a hazy cloud of dub, disorienting and out of reach. This is not a collection of songs. It is an evocation of mood. It begs for dark rooms.

It is the clarity of production, present on all of Massive Attack’s albums, which has caused some to claim that 100th Window is mere repetition of old ground, a rehash of Mezzanine. It is not. There is no “Teardrop” or “Angel” here, no obvious single (even “Special Cases”, the nominal release, would only really fit on nocturnal, somnambulant radio), nothing with the kinesis of “Inertia Creeps”. But equally 100th Window is not a clear departure; it is recognizably Massive Attack, an evolution rather than a new direction; a slow curve in the road rather than a junction. Five of the nine tracks sail slowly past the seven-minute mark, contemplative and narcoleptic, never to be hurried or compromised. Like the glass sculptures featured in the artwork it is precise, transparent, dangerously fragile, and ominously lit. 100th Window is a masterpiece of its kind.

4/04/2003 09:32:00 am


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Nick Southall is Contributing Editor at Stylus Magazine and occasionally writes for various other places on and offline. You can contact him by emailing auspiciousfishNO@SPAMgmail.com

All material © Nick Southall, 2003/2004/2005