It is easy to forget, but Massive Attack are now very much veterans in the electronic music world. Formed as far back as 1988, they released one of the most perfect debut albums ever (Blue Lines), helped define “trip-hop” in the mid-90s (whether they wanted to or not), and then went a whole lot darker and heavier with the multi-million selling Mezzanine, before splintering somewhat over the following decade.
So, the announcement of this tour for early 2016, and then a new EP on the eve of the first date (complete with the return of Tricky to recording with the band after twenty-two years, and their first new recorded material in a while), had us wondering where Massive Attack were heading now.
The answer from this show, and the new material, was pretty much as before. There is still a collective approach to their songs, with guests coming and going, and the core remaining members (3D and Daddy G) only occasionally taking on vocals themselves, apparently preferring others to take the limelight. And musically, they are still mixing dub, chilled-out hip-hop, soul, rock, electronics and reggae in a way that no band have before or since, making it a wonder that they were ever categorised in the first place.
Early indications from the show, too, were that newer material was going to dominate – and not especially promising. With an obscure 3D solo track and an equally obscure B-side being the first two songs played, it not exactly a way to get a noisy crowd on-side, particularly after taking to the stage twenty minutes after the billed time of 2045. And as interesting as the two songs were, it took until the much better known malevolence of Risingson before much of the crowd finally stopped talking among themselves and actually started paying attention to what was playing.
Battle Box 001 (feat. Martina Topley-Bird)
Paradise Circus (feat. Martina Topley-Bird)
Ritual Spirit (with Azekel)
Girl I Love You (feat. Horace Andy)
Psyche (feat. Martina Topley-Bird)
Teardrop (feat. Martina Topley-Bird)
Angel (feat. Horace Andy)
Jupiter (feat. Martina Topley-Bird)
Safe From Harm (feat. Deborah Miller)
Take It There (feat. Martina Topley-Bird)
Voodoo in My Blood (feat. Young Fathers)
He Needs Me (feat. Young Fathers)
Splitting the Atom (feat. Horace Andy)
Sadly that silence didn’t last especially long – I’ve railed against this for a while now, but last night was the worst example I could remember in an age. Despite tickets being in enormous demand (at £37.50 a throw with booking fees on top, three nights at Brixton sold-out, the rest of the tour sold-out, people pleading for tickets outside…), many of the crowd around us found their own conversations more important, or getting hammered on two-pint glasses of over-priced beer (I’ll say again – £5.10 a pint for Tuborg?!?), or smoking dope (yes, teenager next to us), or watching the entire fucking gig through the iPhone video camera held over their head. The more in demand the gig, the worse this gets.
Ok, so Massive Attack concentrating on less familiar material earlier on perhaps didn’t help the concentration of the crowd, but this is a band who’ve never conformed to norms, and frankly have earned the right to play whatever they fucking well want. It’s just a shame that their fans haven’t heeded the message.
Actually, too, the show helped to remind me that Heligoland is perhaps an underrated album. Paradise Circus was one of a few performed by Martina Topley-Bird (on record it was Hope Sandoval of Mazzy Star), and was just as pretty as I remember, while Girl I Love You gave us first sight of the reggae legend Horace Andy – of course nowadays a regular contributor to Massive Attack work (to an extent I rather see him as part of the band!), but his later contributions to the set were better.
Green light and little else – much of the rest of the set was accompanied by extraordinary visuals from an extremely expensive-looking set of LED screens across the back wall of the stage – was the setting for the old favourite Karmacoma, but for some reason the delicate, laid-back raps on the song were yet again a cue for much of the crowd to talk among themselves.
One surprise of the night was the one song aired from the somewhat unloved and forgotten 100th Window (an album that only featured 3D of the core trio of Massive Attack, of course). Future Proof was turned into a churning, electronic rock maelstrom, reaching ear-splitting peaks and the dizzying feel was only enhanced by the red and white binary sequences appearing and changing constantly on the screens.
After that, it was broadly a run through some fan favourites until the end of the main set, and god, it was good. I was astonished to hear Teardrop attempted without Liz Frazer’s otherworldly vocals, and two things surprised me in hearing it. One, it was the only moment of the whole set where the crowd even attempted to sing along, and two, Martina Topley-Bird did an impressive job of the vocals – the closing howl prickling the hairs on the back of my neck. Better still was a pulverising, thundering Angel, that finally silenced the jabbering hordes around us, and that then was followed by the tribal drumming and dark-sweaty-room-reeking-of-sex overtones at the core of Inertia Creeps, curiously matched to random headlines from that day on the screens, highlighting the juxtaposition of serious tragedies around the world with celebrity “news” being given equal billing. The cheers for some of the latter suggested that the point was missed by a few.
None of that, as amazing as it was, mind, came even close to the set closer. Longtime associate of the band Deborah Miller was introduced, and the band struck into an extended, jaw-dropping take on Safe From Harm, whose power was only enhanced by the simple red text appearing behind them – detailing all the landmarks and buildings destroyed for ideological (religious or political) reasons from 2016 back to 1926 (the latter being the result of the Persecution of Buddhists in China). Miller’s strong, soulful voice was astonishing, and perhaps the only regret was that she didn’t get another song.
The encore was, after that, a bit surprising. Rather than any more “crowd-pleasers”, there was an emphasis on the new. No sign of Tricky (as expected) for the recent EP highlight Take It There, his place taken by Daddy G and Martina, the sombre piano tones ringing through the venue – but with the first positive images of the night, detailing in short phrases what humanity could do, in terms of alleviating poverty, ending war, making the world a better place – while support act Young Fathers joined the band for the also impressive Voodoo In My Blood, and then stuck around for an even better, as-yet unreleased track called He Needs Me, full of thunderous drum rhythms, menace and dread – made all the more stark by the black-and-white imagery behind that detailed all the nations and armed groups involved in the Syrian conflict to date (it is a long, depressing list).
The final note from the band was the downbeat, sad Splitting The Atom, which saw Horace Andy join the band for one last song, a song of course that has lyrics detailing the state of the poor and downtrodden in the present day (a song written, notably, at the heart of the crash before it’s release in 2010) – while the images behind detailed the number of displaced persons from the conflict, and who has taken refugees from Syria, in order from the largest. Britain were shamefully down in pretty much last, having taken in barely 8,000 so far. As the song faded out, and the band left the stage for the last time, further imagery of Syria and those escaping the carnage was shown – and then finally, in a glimmer of hope, a way we can practically help (by way of a UNHCR donation page).
Interestingly, at the same time as the show last night, there was a UN summit where Cameron called for additional aid, and apparently doubled the British contribution (for this year, from £255 million to £510 million), but it looks unlikely that the UN target will be met – much the same as last year – while the war rages on, and however many conflicting parties continue to inflame the situation with no apparently hope of early resolution.
Massive Attack, impressively, are no longer an insular band who occasionally appear with new material. Nearing 30 years as an active collective, they have increasingly used their high profile to press for a better world far beyond their own realm, offering political commentary, activism and providing facts and figures for their own fans and followers to digest, and perhaps their concentration on this is part of the reason why new music is so infrequent. Few bands even dare to take this route – and admittedly as noted previously there were many doing anything but taking in the message – and Massive Attack should be applauded for sticking to their stance while many others don’t.
Even better, this was an enthralling show – both for showing us a pointer of the band’s future, and for digging into their still brilliant past. I’d waited well beyond two decades to get my chance to see them live, and niggles with the crowd aside, they didn’t disappoint whatsoever.