This week, I was one of the thousands of fans who flocked to see Massive Attack in their 3-day residency at the Wiltern Theater in Los Angeles. I don’t think I possibly could have had higher expectations, since I’ve been waiting more than a decade (since the they began touring for Mezzanine) for an opportunity to see the band in concert. I was there at 7pm on Wednesday night, as soon as the doors opened… which, admittedly, was a bit ridiculous since Massive Attack didn’t go on stage until 10pm, and since we already had reserved seats in the mezzanine and didn’t have to fight for a space on the main floor. As it turned out, the mezzanine was not the place to be for this concert (go figure)… the acoustics just weren’t as good. I’ve been spoiled by the Hollywood Bowl, where every seat is a good seat. Massive Attack, as the name implies, delivered a very heavy sound – I remember, at one point, thinking that we wouldn’t know if an earthquake hit Los Angeles because the walls were already shaking – and it was arguably too heavy for the venue.
But I digress. Here’s the song-by-song experience:
The band (currently fronted by two of the original members: 3D and Daddy G) took the stage and immediately dived into one of their most pulse-pounding tunes: a b-side from the new album Heligoland. The thundering bass was so overwhelming that I could barely hear the vocals by 3D. Over the course of the night, he was the one vocalist who was consistently overpowered by the music, which is a shame since he’s become the focal point of the entire group. It’s been said that 3D brings the “trip” to the “trip hop” sound, as the album 100th Window (essentially a solo effort) proves. Massive Attack’s best album tracks are often thoroughly-produced, depending heavily on stereo dynamics, voice and guitar distortion, overlapping bass loops, and swelling orchestral arrangements – all of which contribute to a hypnotically complex sound. It’s hard to get that mix right in a live environment. It’s easier to pull off hip hop than trip hop, and in my opinion the live music occasionally became a little too bombastic for its own good. Such was the case with the show opener. On the other hand, I have to admit that the supporting light show was worthy of Pink Floyd, and went a long way toward generating the right atmosphere. There’s no question that, by the end of the first song, the air was super-charged with anticipation.
Perhaps the most striking thing about the current incarnation of Massive Attack is the addition of Martina Topley-Bird, who provides vocals on the new album. She performed a short solo set before Massive Attack appeared, and endeared herself to the audience. When she came back on stage to sing “Babel,” she was in a different mode: less light and playful, more “let’s get down to business.” Like many of the tracks on the new album, “Babel” does get down to business… but only at the end of the song. Around 4:30, the simple melody begins to build promisingly. Then the song comes to an abrupt end. A few months ago, Sasha Frere-Jones of The New Yorker reviewed Heligoland enthusiastically, saying it was a return to the relaxed, detail-oriented sound of the band’s first to albums (Blue Lines and Protection) and a move away from the “vague… noise and dissonance” of Mezzanine and 100th Window. I disagree strongly with the implied criticism of Mezzanine – which, in my opinion, is a perfect album (and I don’t use the word lightly) that achieves a perfect balance of detail and “noise” – but I recognize the distinction she’s making. In its final moments, “Babel” threatens to transform itself from a pre-Mezzanine song into a post-Mezzanine song – but doesn’t. The song, like the album, could probably be used as a litmus test for two different breeds of Massive Attack fans.
Since I’ve identified myself as a Mezzanine fan, it should come as no surprise that I was thrilled when the band followed up with “Rising Son,” the second track on that album. This is a song that showcases the dark, brooding side of the band – with haunting vocals by 3D and deep-voiced Daddy G. It also features the kind of lyrics that get stuck in your head for days. 3D chants, “Toy-like people make me buoy-like” over and over until it begins to sound like a Zen koan. Unfortunately, I could barely hear those words in concert.
Girl, I Love You
This was the first song on the new album that hooked me – probably because it was the most familiar. I've since come to appreciate Heligoland on its own merits, but this is the closest that Heligoland gets to Mezzanine. The appearance of vocalist Horace Andy on the album and in concert is more than welcome. This man does for Massive Attack what Richie Havens does for Groove Armada, and because his vocals were the grounding force on the fan favorite “Angel,” his voice has become an indelible part of the Massive Attack identity.
This song, which follows “Girl, I Love You” on both the album and in concert, dramatically changes the tempo of the set. It gives Topley-Bird a chance to shine, and the audience a chance to catch its breath.
This is 3D’s moment to shine. Since Massive Attack didn’t really tour in support of 100th Window, it’s telling that he has chosen this as the only featured song from that album. On the album as a whole, the magic is in the mix. For me, a better highlight would have been “Everywhen,” which is the closest the band has come to duplicating the power of “Angel.”
This unreleased track has given rise to much discussion about things to come. 3D has projected a 2011 release for the next Massive Attack album. You be the judge:
After exploring a fair amount of new material, the band offered up a generous helping of hits from Mezzanine. The first was this now-classic chill out tune, with Topley-Bird standing in for Elizabeth Fraser. It’s tough to make such a familiar song sound new, but she pulls it off. The minimalist musical arrangement was also a welcome respite… or, rather, a beautiful calm before the storm.
As with “Rising Son,” the song gives 3D and Daddy G a chance to play off of each other. It would have worked better for me if I could have actually heard 3D, but the song wasn't a complete washout. There was something genuinely bone-chilling about G’s delivery: “You know you’ve got a heart made of stone…”
What can I say? Even the numbing acoustics in the mezzanine worked for this one. I can’t even watch the youtube video without getting chills…
Safe from Harm
It just gets better. I wasn’t sure how anything could top Horace Andy crooning “loveyou loveyou loveyou loveyou loveyou,” but then they brought out Shara Nelson for an extended jam version of “Safe from Harm.” This was a powerful reminder of just how vital the female vocalists are to the success of Massive Attack. I liken the sound to “honey from the hive.” The combination of those sultry vocals on top of thundering bass and screaming guitars is just plain sexy.
Speaking of sexy. Massive Attack rounded out their main set with a track you might remember from a particularly provocative Victoria’s Secret commercial. I still can’t listen to 3D singing “she comes…” without picturing Stephanie Seymour in lingerie. Is that wrong? In concert, this one really brought out the guitar work.
Splitting the Atom
The encore began with this characteristically low-key track from Heligoland – featuring Daddy G and Horace Andy at their best.
For me, the show could have ended here. It just didn’t get any better than hearing Shara Nelson hit those high notes on the band’s first major hit song. Fans of the early, reggae-influenced sound of Massive Attack may have been disappointed that there were so few cuts from the first two albums, but this song should have single-handedly dispelled the possibility of disappointment with the concert as a whole. The only way they could have topped this would have been by bringing out Hope Sandoval to sing “Paradise Circus.”
Atlas Air / Karmacoma
The band obligingly ended the concert with the final song from the new album – a good song that always leaves me wanting more. (Maybe my biggest complaint about Heligoland is that it’s too short.) Then they tacked on an excruciatingly sloppy version of “Karmacoma” – which they blamed on too much champagne and too many spliffs. It was a shame to go out on such a low note (could they not remember what the song was supposed to sound like?), but I’m not complaining. There are few bands today that can deliver a truly epic sound on CD or in concert, and Massive Attack did what they came for: they created an aural earthquake big enough to provide emotional aftershocks.
I'm left hoping that the band will indeed release a new album in 2011, and that 3D's parting joke "We'll see you in another five years" really does turn out to be a joke.