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Massive Attack Exports Moody Rock, Angry Shows to U.S.: Review

Robert Del Naja and Grant Marshall
Members of the U.K. group Massive Attack, Robert Del Naja, left, and Grant Marshall. The duo has been touring in support of a new album, "Heligoland," on Virgin/ EMI Records. Source: Sainted PR via Bloomberg

Massive Attack has spent two decades building its rock reputation with tracks such as “Unfinished Sympathy” and “Teardrop.”

The U.K. duo won critical raves at home, while remaining one of music’s best-kept secrets outside Europe. That may be about to change, with Massive Attack pushing across Australia and New Zealand this month. It has just announced plans for another assault in the U.S. and Canada in May to promote “Heligoland,” its first album in seven years.

Massive Attack is known for “trip hop” -- think rap slowed to a beat that could induce a trance. It has a deep appreciation of dub and bass. One of its most famous songs, “Angel,” has damaged hi-fi speakers with its rumbling earthquake intro in the lowest possible register.

The new CD’s opener “Pray for Rain” has booming piano, rattling bones, thundering drums and singing by Tunde Adebimpe, frontman of TV on the Radio. The impressive production cries out to be played on a good audio system. It’s a tall order for live performances to live up to this sophistication, as Massive Attack’s latest U.K. show proved.

The concert should have been definitive, with many of the album’s guests appearing onstage, including reggae veteran Horace Andy and Damon Albarn of Blur and Gorillaz.

Brittle Tears

Martina Topley Bird excelled with her rendition of “Teardrop,” replacing Elizabeth Fraser’s original ethereal vocals with a brittle frailty. “Splitting the Atom” featured all three singers and was a powerful, wounded beast of a song.

Its lyrics about bank bailouts were seared onto retinas by an extraordinary light-show. The dot matrix had an ever-hectoring display of facts, figures and radical quotes.

As a comeback, “Heligoland” beats “Third,” released in 2008 by Portishead, another long-term band from the western England city of Bristol. Massive Attack has made a moody and broody record, with highlights in the powerful “Paradise Circus” and “Flat of the Blade,” which has heartfelt vocals by Elbow’s Guy Garvey.

Massive Attack’s soft minimalism made its 1991 debut recording “Blue Lines” the ideal background for dinner parties. The London show at the HMV Apollo Hammersmith opted for a thicker sound. The six-piece band added scathing guitars and synthesizer drones to build a dense throb that bludgeoned and bewildered some listeners.

The result was more akin to experimental heavy metal than a suitable accompaniment to a souffle. The subterranean rumble reached heights on “Karmacoma,” the night’s closing song. Anyone catching the shows can expect to be introduced to a superb record.

“Heligoland,” on Virgin/EMI Records, is priced from $12.98 in the U.S. and 8.99 pounds in the U.K. Download fees vary across services.

Massive Attack’s Australia and New Zealand tour ends in Auckland tomorrow. Its U.S. tour starts in Toronto on May 7 and includes the Sasquatch Festival, George, Iowa, on May 30.


CD rating ****. Concert rating: **.

What the Stars Mean:
****       Excellent
***        Good
**         Average
*          Poor
(No stars) Worthless

(Mark Beech writes for Bloomberg News. Robert Heller is a freelance music critic who also writes for Bloomberg. The opinions expressed are their own.)

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