Massive Attack – [Live]

Wednesday, 09 June 2010

It's been twelve years since the release of Massive Attack's iconic album, the dark and sometimes sinister layers of Mezzanine. And, while we’re counting years, it’s been seven years since the 2003 breakup of the core duo of Robert “3D” Del Naja and Grant “Daddy G” Marshall. With the 2010 release of their much-anticipated fifth studio album Heligoland, it was clear that their two-night stop at The Warfield in San Francisco should not be missed. 

Setting the tone for the evening was fellow Bristolian, Martina Topley-Bird, a familiar Massive Attack collaborator. The incredibly talented vocalist performed tracks from her past solo efforts, switching instruments and creating a sound much larger than one would expect from a solo performer. Her soulful and serene delivery captivated the appreciative crowd from her very first breathy vocal. Just as the audience was perfectly primed for Massive Attack, another band, MNDR took the stage with a jarring and incoherent set of Oakland-inspired rap. Not only was their set awkward and hackneyed, it was just such an odd addition to an otherwise complementary line-up.

When Massive Attack finally did appear, the sparsely lit stage was dominated by an enormous screen which provided a very dynamic backdrop. Two stations were generously appointed with dazzling electronic gear, flanked by a drummer on either side. The unfamiliar and unreleased “United Snakes” opened the show, providing a segue into more recognizable tracks. Horace Andy delivered his reggae-tinged vocals on “Angel” while Topley-Bird returned to provide her spin on Elizabeth Fraser’s vocals during the instantly recognizable “Teardrop.” House is still one of the few show intros that doesn’t get my 30-second DVR skip treatment. Other tracks included standouts from Heligoland: “Babel,” “Splitting the Atom,” “Girl I Live You” and “Psyche.” Previous albums Mezzanine and Blue Lines were also well-represented including “Risingson” and “Inertia Creeps.” Guest vocalist Deborah Miller joined the band for rousing versions of “Safe From Harm” and “Unfinished Sympathy” which, in comparison to the tracks from Heligoland, is starting to show its age just a wee bit.

During the show, the screen behind the band alternated between lines and bars of color to scrolling words consisting of everything from drug names to political factoids. While the content was interesting, the messages were a distraction from the performance and created a harsh, photography-hostile back-lit stage environment. There was no lack of groove from any of the musicians onstage although many of the layers and melodic intricacies which are the hallmark of Massive Attack’s music simply got lost in a far too bass-heavy mix. There was a sweet spot projecting about 15-degrees from the center of the stage but the rest of the house got more slop than sweetness.

While the dark, atmospheric and menacing vibe of their latest album is hard to reconstruct in a live setting, there are very few bands who can match the brilliant trip that Massive Attack provides. After a seven-year hiatus, the reunion of 3D and Daddy G with their dusty beats, all-star parade of guest vocalists and world-influenced, sweeping cinematic tracks has not lost its appeal.


Heligoland is out now. Buy it on Amazon.

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