Music: Massive Attack * * *
No matter what they do in the future, Massive Attack's standing as one of the most innovative and important British outfits of the 90s is secure.
Debut album Blue Lines sounds just as essential now as when it was released in 1991, and follow up albums Protection (1994) and Mezzanine (1998) both contain their fair share of brilliance, spawning a slew of trip-hop imitators.
It was always going to be a tough ask to keep up that level of quality and so it proved with their last album, 100th Window, a moody, downbeat affair that was a Robert del Naja record in all but name. It failed to catch fire.
This follow-up, called after the formerly British-owned German islands of the same name, is just their fifth album in 20 years. It has been a long time coming, but the omens have been good. Grant "Daddy G" Marshall is very much back in the fold and along with del Naja -- aka 3D -- Massive Attack were in fine form in concert of late, not least when they played Dublin's Olympia towards the end of last year. Add to that an intriguing four-track EP, Splitting the Atom, and there's a distinct sense that Massive Attack could be about to deliver something special.
A glance at their collaborators certainly bodes well with Mazzy Star's Hope Sandoval, TV on the Radio's Tunde Adebimpe, Elbow's Guy Garvey and British music's own renaissance man Damon Albarn all lending their distinct vocals. Regular Massive Attack cohorts Horace Andy and Martina Topley-Bird are also present.
Factor in a typically pristine production and a sound that's as textured and highly atmospheric as we have come to expect from Massive Attack, and we're on to a winner. Right?
Well, not quite. The first half of the album just doesn't add up to the sum of its parts. Opening track Pray for Rain finds Adebimpe in sombre mood, but it never quite reaches the places you expect it to go. Like several of the numbers here, it sounds like Massive Attack by numbers.
Even normally reliable contributors find themselves mired to forgettable songs -- Topley-Bird has soared in the past, but here she fails to with Babel, and particularly Psyche.
Del Naja and Marshall are on surer footing with the title track of the aforementioned EP and on the Andy-fronted Girl I Love You, but you have to wait until the sixth number to be stopped in your tracks. Flat of the Blade is an intense, skeletal mood-piece featuring a plaintive Guy Garvey vocal. It's haunting and brooding.
Paradise Circus marries tender lyrics and a soothing vocal from Sandoval to a gentle, if jarringly disconcerting beat, before dissolving into a symphony of strings and handclaps.
Even more memorable is Saturday Come Slow, featuring Albarn. It's melancholic and yearning -- similar to his heartbroken croon on Blur's Tender album. There's a nakedness to his singing, stunningly offset by the music which starts off slow and subtle before building into an epic sweep.
These three tracks, in particular, show the heights del Naja and Marshall can reach. It's just a shame that such peaks don't come along often enough on an album lacking the consistency to rival their three 90s offerings.
Burn it: Flat of the Blade; Paradise Circus; Saturday Come Slow