Inertia Creeps from the Man Next Door
IMAGE CREDIT: Spotify
Massive Attack’s Spellbinding Mezzanine
EVEN though the album is not celebrating an anniversary...
IMAGE CREDIT: Getty Images
Massive Attack are touring are bringing songs from Mezzanine on the road and introducing them to new fans. The reviews for their live shows have been great. Here, for The Guardian, Alexis Petridis assessed their recent O2 Arena gig:
“As Massive Attack perform an amped-up version of Man Next Door – Horace Andy’s voice quavering, its ominous dub backing freshly augmented with distorted guitars – the screens behind them flash up a warning against the seductive power of nostalgia. “All around you are two-dimensional images of people who died long ago,” it reads, over black-and-white footage of a person who died long ago, British pop artist Pauline Boty. “They say, ‘don’t bother with the future. Stay with us here. For ever.’”
This is an intriguing message to send out in the middle of one of those gigs at which a band play a beloved album from their back catalogue in full, but then Massive Attack’s live revisiting of their 1998 album Mezzanine is clearly a more complex and troubled affair than such gigs usually are. Most gigs like this are predicated on a comforting familiarity – the audience buy tickets knowing exactly what they’re going to get – which is not an accusation you could lob the way of tonight’s show...
In 1998, a lot of music sounded like Massive Attack’s debut album Blue Lines: umpteen trip-hop and chill-out compilations were packed with artists imitating it; you couldn’t turn on the TV without hearing something inspired by it pattering away in the background of an advert. At the time, Mezzanine seemed completely at odds with the mood of beatific stoned tranquillity the band had inadvertently unleashed. It was twitchy, gloomy and suspicious, filled with songs that fretted about surveillance and control, less fashionable topics then than in today’s era of data harvesting and digital footprints”.
Robert Del Naja and Grant Marshall recently talked about the making of Mezzanine: some of the challenges involved and what the takeaway impression is from the recording sessions:
“Does it still feel raw? Marshall has entered the dressing room and leans against the wall, languid and softly spoken. “Raw. Yeah, it is to a certain extent. [Mezzanine] was the end of our trio but… it projected us to greater things, I suppose. We’ve been through different things which have made us a bit raw, but we’ve managed to patch it up.”
What is Marshall’s abiding memory of making the album? “It’s fraught with bad memories, but it was a departure from what we were used to and so, yeah, that’s kind of where all the heartaches came in.” Del Naja’s main memory “is probably the fight really. It wasn’t as simple as it used to be, because Blue Lines [their debut] was based on our collective history. Culturally and musically it was a big jam together. And then the second album [Protection] we’d become something, so we had a kind of routine and procedure. I felt that [with] Mezzanine, the procedure had to be ripped up, the rulebook had to be changed”...
The fight was about Teardrop, still their biggest-selling single; Del Naja and Marshall wanted former Cocteau Twins frontwoman Liz Fraser on vocals. Mushroom secretly sent the track to Madonna, who loved it and called, keen to record it. Having already worked with her in 1995 on a cover of Marvin Gaye’s I Want You – at the time, to Mushroom’s fury – Del Naja was incandescent and turned her down. He won’t comment on it now. “It was hard,” he shrugs. “I guess that is what I remember of Mezzanine: it was a proper struggle”.
Maybe Massive Attack are not keen to look at Mezzanine as a nostalgia trip but more as an album that is relevant today and whose messages, nearly twenty-one years ago, seemed to predict the future. In many ways, there is more corruption and deceit than there was in 1998 – Mezzanine is almost a light relief compared to the realities of today! The entire production and recording was a struggle. The tensions within the group almost split them and, in a way, it is almost like a 1998 version of Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours. Even though the source of friction was different in each case, having this group working in such a heated environment could have derailed the record and led to disaster. Instead, like Rumours, there was this masterpiece born that sounded like nothing else – maybe that tension leads to creativity.
IN THIS PHOTO: Robert del Naja and Grant Marshall/PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images
Robert Del Naja wanted a more New Wave sound in terms of samples of themes but Andrew Vowels was sceptical. Grant Marshall wanted that New Wave sound and something quite edgy and dark. Although there was some tension and disagreement within the ranks, Mezzanine is considered a classic and one that mixed Trip-Hop and Electronic. There is this darkness and claustrophobic sound that mixes with a sense of calm and melancholy. Singles such as Teardrop (ft. Elizabeth Fraser) compared to something like Inertia Creeps sounds natural. There is never a sense Massive Attack were trying to cram diverse sounds together just for the hell of it. Lesser Electronic/Trip-Hop acts would do that without much thought but Massive Attack were keen to create this very evocative and eclectic album that had a range of moods. A range of samples are used on Mezzanine, including songs from artists such as The Cure and Isaac Hayes. The fact that Massive Attack are on this anniversary tour means the album holds a special place in their hearts. Even though the group was splintered and fraught before Mezzanine was released, one would not realise it. Before I come to look at the reception and reaction to Mezzanine, I wanted to bring in an article from Billboard regarding Mezzanine and how it managed to turn out so well:
“Yet what resulted in that perceived mess turned out to be what many consider to be Massive Attack's greatest album, despite the absence of the group's secret weapon, quixotic rapper Tricky, who left the fold shortly after Protection to focus on his fledging career as a solo artist...
Alongside Davidge behind the board, the group opted to go in a darker, more guitar-driven motif for Mezzanine, flexing their roots in early 4AD dreampop with the appearance of Elizabeth Fraser of the Cocteau Twins on the album's signature hit "Teardrop" (which has since been used to wide renown as the theme to the sorely missed medical drama House), as well as a darker hue of dub reggae with Jamaican roots legend Horace Andy, the only artist to guest on all five Massive Attack LPs. His appearance on the third Mezzanine single "Angel"—one of three Andy songs on the album—is the one by which he is most well known. The track, which stems from Horace's 1973 lovers rock classic "You Are My Angel," truly takes flight in the remix provided by another longtime Massive associate, British dub giant Neil "Mad Professor" Fraser. And for the Guyana-born DJ and producer, collaborating with Andy was indeed familiar territory.
"I've been working with Horace Andy from when my studio was in my front room back in my 8-track days," he explains to Billboard. "Me and Horace, we are guys who have been through a lot of ups and downs together. Sometimes we're brothers. Sometimes we're like father and son. And sometimes we are enemies. We go back many years, man. One of the first things we dubbed up from Mezzanine was 'Man Next Door,' which was originally a reggae song done up by John Holt and Dennis Brown. Horace is a very special talent. He has a very unique style, and some people think he is Massive Attack (laughs), because they know his voice more than 3D or Daddy G".
PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images
Everyone has their own memories of Mezzanine but, when I experienced it as a fourteen-year-old, it was a revelation. I was aware of Massive Attack’s work and was a minor fan. A lot of Post-Britpop mainstream music was being played at school and, when kids started to talk about Mezzanine, it was a breath of fresh air. The searing beats and that blend of the ethereal and intense was stunning and I was instantly hooked. Mixing samples in with original loops and expressions, such a full and wondrous album took me aback and I was keen to learn more. Teardrop and Inertia Creeps are my favourite songs from the album but, truthfully, every one of the eleven tracks shines and has its place. A lot of retrospective acclaim has come in for Mezzanine and, if you look at the reviews, they are glowing and keen to express their delight. AllMusic, in 2013, has this to say:
“"Risingson" is a dense, dark feature for Massive Attack themselves (on production as well as vocals), with a kitchen sink's worth of dubby effects and reverb. "Teardrop" introduces another genius collaboration -- with Elizabeth Fraser from Cocteau Twins -- from a production unit with a knack for recruiting gifted performers. The blend of earthy with ethereal shouldn't work at all, but Massive Attack pull it off in fine fashion. "Inertia Creeps" could well be the highlight, another feature for just the core threesome. With eerie atmospherics, fuzz-tone guitars, and a wealth of effects, the song could well be the best production from the best team of producers the electronic world had ever seen. Obviously, the rest of the album can't compete, but there's certainly no sign of the side-two slump heard on Protection, as both Andy and Fraser return for excellent, mid-tempo tracks ("Man Next Door" and "Black Milk," respectively)”.
In some ways, Mezzanine seems almost historic in terms of its sounds and the sonic palette. It is almost Victorian in its moods and mixtures but, in 1998, it was an album that resonated and spoke to the people. Now, over twenty years after its release, its words have adopted new meaning and there are scores of people discovering the album for the first time. Massive Attack are taking the album on the road and ensuring as many as possible to get to hear these epic songs. I have revisited Mezzanine and picked up stuff I had not noticed before. Whether it is a sample of a lyric that passed me by, Mezzanine is a record that keeps rewarding you. I think it is one of the best albums of the 1990s and one of the finest Trip-Hop records ever created. I am glad Massive Attack are still going and the tensions of recording their 1998 masterpiece did not break them. It is amazing to hear them talk about Mezzanine twenty years after its release with such insight and passion. Maybe things were quite anxious when it was being made but time has elapsed and they can view the experience with fresh eyes. The music throughout Mezzanine is wonderful and it deserves to be heard by the new generation. There is not a lot of great Trip-Hop around in the mainstream (if any) and I feel it is time to see a Massive Attack-like charge come through. The world is in a dark space and it would be easy to document the splits and uncertainties through music. Maybe that is the truth about Mezzanine: it is such a brilliant and singular moment that nobody...
IN THIS PHOTO: Massive Attack in Berlin in 1998/PHOTO CREDIT: Kevin Westenberg