Massive Attack - Mezzanine

The concept of band as simply a nameless squashing of individuals into this unpluralized generalization seeking a particular end-point or goal has loosened ever more in the past 20 years. No more is the identity of a music act that stands numerically greater than just the single one, about merely a name and whatever attached characteristics or attitudes that go with it. Bands, or rather the people encompassing such identities, have gone about making their points heard and their ideas come across clearly be it musically or verbally prior to any of the music's creation. Massive Attack - at the time of their third album 'Mezzanine's release - while still seen in the press' eyes as (at the time of this release) encompassing three young Bristol men, Robert '3D' Del Naja, Grant 'Daddy G' Marshall & Andrew 'Mushroom' Vowles, was in actuality an even grander and much more culturally-influenced foray of musical identities and ideologies. It may well reflect, quite fittingly, the tale of the city of Bristol's internationally-recognized tale of a cultural and artistic shift in the late 80's/early 90's, but Massive's own shift in sound from their early swarve hip-hop charisma in 'Blue Lines' & 'Protection' to something far more eye-opening and revealing on 'Mezzanine' has become one of the stand-out - and arguably, one of the grandest deliveries of musical awareness and realization - records of the late 90's trip-hop phenomenon. And while the genre itself quickly dissipated and was left a mere shell of its former credibility, Massive's third album is without its hindrance from the passing of time and the changing in musical trends. If anything, it's ever stronger because of it - media usage left, right and centre a clear sign on the cultural side of its impact.

Even from the very first low, menacing gurgles of bass and camouflage of beats on 'Angel', Massive's sound is recognizably and bewilderingly several shades darker than that of their previous outputs. Horace Andy - long-time collaborator, and a man who would remain a recurrent vocalist even on the band's 2010 release - slowly sinks his way into the low tremors of the track, 'You are my angel/Come from way above, to bring me love'. The slow-but-steady build of percussion and the even more menacing worming of bass and electronic synthesis keeps intensifying the track, yet doesn't necessarily feel dominant or even seen by what sentient environment it keeps wriggling its way through. It's only by Andy's loosening of tone does the track eventually meet its tectonic earth-shaking potential and the sounds in the centre of this lambasting are caught as if off-guard; every hit and shake of percussion; every wailing of sirens; every murmur of bass; every lonely offering of 'I love you, love you, love you' seems to express the kind of anxious uncertainty playing to the track's intense mood and setting of atmosphere. 'Risingson', Del Naja's & Marshall's return to gently-laid heavily-integral vocals, refines that same nervousness. With the aid of the track's soothing and slow-paced nod of bass and rhythmic beats, there's a glimpse of calm and reflection here. It's only when the track cranks its outward momentum up and the lacing of billowed guitars and even-heftier beats comes through do the emotion truly come into sight. Again, there's uncertainty through the guitar's sparse and loose notation, there's modest call for realization in the percussion, its cloudy pounding seeming to seep even deeper into the listener's response and reaction to the music.

But this is not an uncomfortable record - or be it, an album that seeks to make the listener retaliate in this dragged-by-the-arm approach through the underbelly or undercurrent of the suburban landscape we feel ever more digging our way under. 'Teardrop' is the soft, lucid and comforting attribute for Massive's signature mix of hip-hop momentum and soul's sense of harmony and peace with the World. Elizabeth Fraser - of Cocteau Twins fame - only adds to the feeling of weightless unity with the music, her floating swirl of lyrics and warming humbleness in tone emphasized in the song's accompanying music video. 'Inertia Creeps' while returning to that familiar veil of darkening mannerisms and subterranean conjuring, is kept from sinking too deep through its more refined, more earthly play of percussion and jungle-like metaphoric of close-together layering and 3D's hushed singing-rapping style of expression. And the lyrics themselves, 'Moving up slowly/Inertia keeps, moving up slowly/Moving up slowly/Inertia creeps, moving up slowly' add a darkly humane edge to the track's wavy but resilient momentum.

A brief exchange [literally] of something more lounge-suited and relaxing on the pulse - but still very deep and rhythmic in its use of guitar and overall production - and we drift, or rather loom into the echoey ghost-like stream of 'Dissolved Girl', a track which emits as much on its mood as it does its move going forth. Sara Jay's voice is one of deep and soulful assurance, and yet there's a slight tint of doubt and caution about the way the words spell out what is happening conceptually. 'Shame, such a shame/I think I kind of lost myself again.' And later, as the guitars once more get a lot rougher and retaliatory against the nervy undercurrent, the lyrics become more descendant and reprieving of their former confidence. 'Fade, made to fade/Passion's overrated anyway. Say, say my name/I need a little love to ease the pain.' The romanticism and indeed the personification that runs through this record is one of the album's true defining attributes musically, because the words that the listener here feel almost unrecognizable. Clear, yes...but there's something about the pinning and placement of its sound amid all the fog and dimness of the album's build that suggests the emotion running through this record is hiding something far more revealing and underpinning to the stories these lyrics may be trying to tell us.

'Man Next Door' which sees Horace Andy take vocal role once more, is one of the album's most emotionally-engaging tracks because of it. Alone, Andy's vocals - which centre on the struggle and the tolerance of others, the need for escapism and freedom being told to us because of it - take on a much more gross and amplified manner. The heavy pounding of drums and the distortion that laces over it is intensified ever more by not only the glazing of guitar strings, but through Andy's own reaching for freedom and peace in his tone. The palette and textures of these sounds may very well refrain dramatically from differentiating off-course, but the interlacing and absorbing of these vocalist's emotion and the struggle felt through the lyrics' ideas and feelings, creates a much testing and provoking output it actually starts to bleed through onto the listener. Even when the vocals feel  seemingly devoid of personal negativity, as is the case on the title track 'Mezzanine', the conjuring of darkening shifts in thought and its strengthened momentum to push that towards us, feels ever the more intense. The track's slow but stylistically devilish flow of unearthly moans gives the added use of beats that slight menacing edge. Again, Del Naja's & Marshall's vocals are one of testing; neither raising nor lowering the stakes of the game being played here, simply coasting the music along this dimly lit path of glitchy, broken percussion and moaning electronics that rise, fall and then menacingly rise once more. 'All these have flaws' 3D ushers as the tension between momentum and overall sound finally meet, 'All these have flaws/Will lead to mine.' It's absorbing, it's convulsive, it's consuming...and furthermore, it's provokingly effective in how it manages to get so deep into the heart and minds of its listener.

There are elements of club scenes on this album. There are moments of loneliness looking out at a wider crowd, too. There are indeed musical scenarios where the tension of being one part of a collective whole or mere byproduct of something far more controlling, comes into full menacing play. But above all the scenarios and settings this album does so well at conjuring, 'Mezzanine' stands as one of the most  invoking records of the 90's in its meshing of the humane and the inhumane. Each of these vocalists - guest and non-guest - present a sound that paints as much a darkly-painted darkly-hindered narrative of emotion - and its resulting responses - as much as they truly, and quite brilliantly, feel a part of the very setting the music blooms and blossoms out of. Massive Attack's grand third album is the realization of one's self in society's most gruesome distortion of the demographic and its accompanying viewpoint. And yet...the way the music builds and then allows itself to flow in a sort of humanly self-aware manner, there's a sense of majestic and orderly attractiveness to it all. While potentially menacing, and still holding the same level of responsive disturbance that is as far away from rosy and blissful as you could possibly get, it's a manner of performance and execution that signals only one and inevitable truth. And it's only when you reach the end that you realize what that very truth is: hell is other people, but the darkly surge of it is entirely of our own doing.


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Discovery: Massive Attack - Mezzanine
Massive Attack - Mezzanine
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