Massive Attack
Mezzanine

Circa/Virgin

By 1998, Massive Attack were established stars, not just of triphop, which they more or less pioneered in Bristol, England, in the late 80s, but of music in general.  Their first two albums, Blue Lines (1991) and Protection (1994) were stone cold classics.  In retrospect, Blue Lines has been recognized as one of the greatest albums of all-time, and a remastered version came out in 2012, just missing its 20th anniversary.  I remember sitting in a café in Sommerville in the fall of 2012, killing time and reading an article in The Boston Globe about the genius that was Blue Lines, which, along with Soul II Soul’s 1989 Keep on Movin (known as Club Classics Vol. I in the UK), set the game for all who followed them.  But Soul II Soul and Massive Attack were from different locales.  Soul II Soul were from the capital, the centre of everything, London.  Massive Attack were from Bristol, a provincial city in the southwest, near where the River Avon runs into the Severn and thence into the Bristol Channel, which separates England from Wales.

They formed out of the Wild Bunch, one of the very first soundsystems in UK music history, and they emerged in Bristol’s happening club scene by the mid-80s, when Grant ‘Daddy G’ Marshall and Andrew ‘Mushroom’ Vowles, both DJs, met rapper and graffiti artist, Robert ‘3D’ Del Naja.  They were massively helped by Neneh Cherry, who backed them to Circa Records in 1990.  Cherry and her husband, Cameron ‘Booga Bear’ McVey (they are still married, 33 years after they met at Heathrow Airport, and 30 years after getting married) provided the financial basis Massive Attack needed to create that 1991 masterpiece.  Cherry and McVey also backed Portishead and Tricky out of the Bristol scene, though, of course, Tricky started off as part of Massive Attack.

By 1998, though, after a steady rise, and long after trip hop had moved from the fringes to the mainstream and a metric shit tonne of second, third, and fourth rate artists were getting deals, things had changed.  Massive Attack had moved on, and they were caught in a classic bind of not being sure which way to go.  Del Naja was digging through new wave and coming up with samples from the music of his youth, and was pushing the band into an edgy and paranoiac vision.  Daddy G was also down for this, wanting to distance Massive Attack from the so-called urban soul of the first two albums.  Both 3D and Daddy G were big new wave fans, but the problem was that Mushroom was not so sure.  Nonetheless, they carried on, with Mushroom and Daddy G working on the drum loops and basslines, and 3D continue to mess around with new eave records.  Tensions persisted, especially as the album, which was created under the working title Damaged Goods was supposed to come out in December 1997.  But it didn’t because Del Naja was in the studio, making and umaking, and remaking and reunmaking loops and tracks.  This was the end for Andrew Vowles, who left the band in 1999, after the album came out.

To say Mezzanine is a colossal album is an understatement.  To call it a masterpiece, I would also argue is an understatement.  As far as I’m concerned, Mezzanine is one of the very few perfect albums I can think of.  It is also an album I have played consistently since the day I bought it in April 1998, not long after it came out.

I don’t really know what possessed me to buy this album at Sam the Record Man on Seymour St. in Vancouver.  I loved Blue Lines, but Protection took a long time to grow on me.  By 1998, I was much more into Tricky and his distorted, warped, paranoid, and hazy view of life.  His 1998 album, Angels With Dirty Faces, continued in the vein of his 1996 masterpiece Pre-Millennium Tension, which itself took his stunning début, Maxinquaye and turned the scene into a paranoid exploration of weed smoke and the urban underground.  I think it’s possible I bought Mezzanine the same day I bought Angels With Dirty Faces, and largely because, of course, Tricky, then known as Tricky Kid, had been unleashed on the world by Massive Attack on Blue Lines.

Whatever.  I did slip this one into my Discman for the walk home across downtown Vancouver. We lived in the West End, on Jervis St, just off Davie, heading towards Robson.  From the moment I pressed play at the corner of Dunsmuir and Seymour, I was caught.   ‘Angel’ arrives in a haze of phat, phat bassline.  Like rattle your brain fat, before the mellow beat kicks and and we get some guitar feedback and shimmering, and then Horace Andy’s beautiful falsetto appears on the scene; the track is partially based on his ‘You Are My Angel,’ but as his voice is layered and fades in and out, the drums kick in for real, the bass continues to slide, but now there’s a synth bass over top, and the tension slowly mounts as Andy sings, and then as his voice echoes, the drums and guitar come crashing down, and, man, even now, 22 years later, this is still one of my favourite moments in music.  I still get goosebumps from that.  Me and My Main Man Mike had this concept of the perfect song back in the day, the Car Crash Song.  The song so fucking good you crash the car.  This was one of them.

But as amazing as ‘Angel’ was, there was something even better waiting, with ‘Risingson’ the second track. Beginning with another phat bassline, we get the trippy drums, and then 3D steps up to the mic:

I see you go down to a cold mirror
It was never clearer in my era so
You click a shine upon your forehead or
Check it by the signs in the corridor
You light my ways through the club maze
We would struggle through the dub daze.
I sink myself in hair upon my lover
It’s how you go down to men’s room sink
Sad we talk how madmen think
I sink myself in hair upon my lover
I don’t know her from another miss
I don’t know you from another
See me run now you’re gone, dream on.
The bass is all slinky, it slides in and around the hi-hat and the cymbals.  And then Daddy G takes over:
Why you want to take me to this party and breathe
I’m dying to leave
Every time we grind you know we sever lines
Where have those flowers gone
Long time passing
Why you keep it testing, keep on tasking
I keep on asking.
And then he steps back into the murky deep, the dried ice smoke, the have of weed, and the dark lights of the city night and 3D is back at it:
Toy-like people make me boy-like
Toy-like people make me boy-like
They’re invisible, when the trip it flips
They get physical, way below my lips
And everything you got hoi-poloi like
Now you’re lost and you’re lethal
And now’s about the time you gotta leave all
These good people, dream on
Nicer than the bird up in the tree top
Cheaper than the chip inside my lap top
All the variations you could do with me
Nicer than the girl up in your mind you’re free.
And then 3D and Daddy G trade vocals on the way out.  I think I’ve listened to this song approximately 48 billion times since 1998.  This might be one of my favourite songs of all time.

 

We get a break from the paranoia, the edge, and the creeping feeling of someone behind us with ‘Teardrop,’ which features the Cocteau Twins Liz Fraser on vocals.  ‘Teardrop’ begins with another beat and bass, but then the music slowly picks up, centred on an acoustic guitar, and then Fraser’s beautiful voice.  It’s not just to say this is a palette-cleanser after the first two tracks, but ‘Teardrop’ is a killer track in its own rights.  Fraser sings about the mysteries of love and its dissolution:
Love, love is a verb
Love is a doing word
Fearless on my breath
Gentle impulsion
Shakes me, makes me lighter
Fearless on my breath
Teardrop on the fire
Fearless on my breath
Night, night of matter
Black flowers blossom
Fearless on my breath
Black flowers blossom
Fearless on my breath
Teardrop on the fire
Fearless on my
Water is my eye
Most faithful mirror
Fearless on my breath
Teardrop on the fire
Of a confession
Fearless on my breath
Most faithful mirror
Fearless on my breath
Teardrop on the fire
Fearless on my breath
It’s tumbling down (as in love falling apart)
It’s tumbling down (as in love falling apart)
And the music behind her is subdued, pretty even.  That acoustic guitar stays with us, as does the plucking of a piano, together with a fluid, thick bassline and the drums.

 

But then we’re right back to the creeping, the eeriness of ‘Inertia Creeps,’ which might be the perfect song title for this album.  Del Naja wrote it about a dissolving relationship, one that he just couldn’t be arsed to do anything about, or end.  And, well, we’ve all been there, in a relationship that is dying, that is actually dead, we know it and we just don’t do anything about it.  Ironically, the relationship I had been in when I bought this album died later that year, but inertia kept us in place for another two years, before we finally split.
Andy returns with ‘Man Next Door,’ one of my favourite tracks on this album.  Over a thick bassline, and looping drums, Andy sings about that neighbour we’ve all had:
There is a man that live next door
In my neighborhood
In my neighborhood
And he gets me down
He gets in so late at night
Always a fuss and fight
Always a fuss and fight
All through the night
I’ve got to get away from here
This is not a place for me to stay
I’ve got to take my family
We’ll find a quiet place
Hear the pots and pans they fall
Bang against my wall
Bang against my wall
No rest at all
He gets in so late at night
Always a fuss and fight
Always a fuss and fight
All through the night
I’ve got to get away from here
This is not a place for me to stay
I’ve got to take my family
We’ll find a quiet place
There is a man that live next door
In my neighborhood
In my neighborhood
And he gets me down
He gets in so late at night
Always a fuss and fight
Always a fuss and fight
All through the night
Got to get away

 

From 2005-2008, I lived in Saint-Henri, a neighbourhood in Montréal’s sud-ouest.  Saint-Henri was gentrifying all around me, but not my block. The block of the rue Saint-Ferdinand between Saint-Antoine and the rue Saint-Richelieu was the Last Ungentrified Block in Saint-Henri ™.  It was a shithole.  Drug dealers on the first floor, kids, men, women, fighting in the street.  The police never came down the block, I think because they were afraid to.  I had relatives of the infamous DuBois brothers on the block.  But none of that was a big deal, I was the token Anglo on the block, I was their pet.  It was good.  And I had really, really big friends.  Every now and then when the drug dealers got annoying, I’d have my friend Big Al over.  Big Al is the size of a refrigerator and covered with tattoos.  That took care of that.  Rent was cheap.  Under $500 for a large one-bedroom flat.  But.  The real problem was my next door neighbour, Bobby.  He was ok when I moved in, we even sat on our front porches and drank together.  But then he began doing harder drugs, and the techno was going 24/7 at obscene levels.  Things got tense.  And so I played this song, with the speakers turned to his wall, at an obnoxious volume, when I knew he was lying passed out on the floor next door.  Bobby didn’t speak enough English to get the track, though.
The last two tracks of this album are stone cold killers.  ‘Group Four’ is Del Naja on vocals, this time with Fraser, and she provides the perfect counterpoint to his.  Much more than Daddy G, 3D was the one who provided the paranoia and fear that runs through this album, not just with the music, but his voice too.  Del Naja had gone from sounding all optimistic and sunny to downright scary in his whispered vocals, never raising it, never expressing any emotion, but his voice reflects the paranoia of this album.

And then we’re out with ‘(Exchange)’ which sees out out in almost sunny skies, or maybe it’s just the hangover, the coming down from the night before, as Andy mutters something incomprehensible before his vocals emerge.  This was the single track on Mezzanine that really reflected Mushroom.  The song is heavily based on an Isaac Hayes sample, for the song, ‘Our Day Will Come,’ one of Mushroom’s favourite tracks for his DJ sets in the Wild Bunch days.  But then they had a problem, in that they couldn’t get clearance for the sample from the widow of one of the songwriters.  And then resolution came, as the outro of the track, which is what Vowles sampled, was actually written by Hayes himself.
This issue with samples, though, was enough for Massive Attack. They actually had had a big headache with ‘Black Milk,’ which used a sample of a Manfred Mann track from the 70s, which led to a lawsuit and later editions of the album having either the sample removed and the song retitled ‘Black Melt,’ before a resolution was reached with Mann being given a songwriter credit.  But this was it for the lads, for their next album, the very underrated 100th Window, they gave up on samples.
As i noted, Vowles left the band shortly after Mezzanine came out, but Massive Attack have carried on as a duel, their most recent full length release, though, Heligoland, came out a decade ago.  They have, though, released a few eps and singles in the past decade, though only they know if Massive Attack is a going concern.
Mezzanine remains their best-selling album and was their first UK #1 album, with 100th Window, being their second.  It is also their best, hands down.  A classic.  A perfect album.