Review Summary: If the new album is terrible, at least we'll have this to ponder what could have been.
I don’t mind that the Massive Attack collective are devout perfectionists, tweaking albums endlessly before releasing them. They’ve proved their mettle record after record, and all things considered, aren’t nearly as bad as their contemporaries Portishead, who, as of this writing, are nigh on a decade without a follow-up to 1997’s self-titled second album. This isn’t to say that the wait can’t be excruciating at times; there was a 3-4 year wait for Protection, the follow-up to their groundbreaking 1991 debut Blue Lines. A similarly lengthy gap followed before the release of 1998’s Mezzanine, easily one of the finest electronica records of the decade.
The group changed its sound considerably with successive releases; their debut channeled Curtis Mayfield and was heavily indebted to the soul-fueled 1980s US hip-hop scene. By 1998, their sound was more of a cold reflection of the rise and fall of late 90s British big beat music; slowed down, throbbing bass lines coupled with distorted guitars and an icy, almost sexualized juxtaposition of tension and ambience.
Collected compiles several key cuts in their catalog. There are two versions of this record currently available: a single-disc album with 14 tracks, including one new cut. The expanded edition includes the first disc as well as a 10-track rarities disc with a DVD layer that includes all their videos to date, including three new cuts. The following pertains to the second version.
Disc One is thoroughly comprehensive document of the group’s inventiveness; ‘Five Man Army’ (Blue Lines) heralds the introduction of the distinctive reggae-infused style of vocalist of Horace Andy and the surprisingly competent rapping of Daddy G (Grant Marshall) and 3D (Robert Del Naja). ‘Karmacoma’, one of the more successful singles off Protection features one of the last vocal contributions by Tricky, who would leave the group and release an excellent debut of his own in 1995 with Maxinquaye.
The material culled from Mezzanine is the best on the record. The brooding tension created by ‘Angel’s quietly throbbing bass grooves and mid-song guitar meltdown is the most obvious highlight, and is similar in mood to ‘Risingson’, bubbling with cold electronic percussion and looping bass lines. ‘Inertia Creeps’ is another fantastic addition; kicking off with electronic wind chimes and a Middle Eastern beat heavily reverbed, looped and cut up, pounding tribal drums accompany 3D’s cold rasp while a noisy staccato beat persists quietly in the background before exploding in volume and power during its wordless crescendo.
‘Teardrop’ with Elizabeth Fraser of the Cocteau Twins is one of the few moments on Mezzanine when the tension lets up, and its warm ambience is mimicked on ‘What Your Soul Sings’ on the similarly murky 100th Window. The latter sounds much better as part of a varied compilation such as this than it did on its own, as Sinead ‘O Connor, it could be argued, had too many vocal parts on the record to begin with. This thankfully doesn’t dampen the effect of ‘Butterfly Caught’, presented here in a slightly shortened five-minute version. The strings and piano swell and recede as 3D’s vocals fade in and out. The track pulses with anxious energy till its dying seconds, making this a supremely effective single.
The audio portion of the second disc is less effective, as one might expect. ‘Rarities’ here include some rather weak remixes of existing tracks: ‘Black Melt’ is a reworking of ‘Black Milk’, another exceptional track off Mezzanine. Elizabeth Fraser’s milky-soft vocals here are left unchanged; the rich, undulating bass and piano on which the original track was overlaid has been replaced however with a droning guitar that maintains the same annoying pitch throughout the song. ‘Euro Zero Zero’, a B-side on the Teardrop single, would have been a far better inclusion. ‘Small Time Shoot ‘Em Up’, a dance-oriented mix of ‘Small Time Shoot Em Up’ off 100th Window isn’t bad per se, but merely cutting up vocal tracks, and switching in techno loops in place of its creeping beats leaves the final product as unimaginative as its titular reworking. Also, Blur’s Damon Albarn contributes vocal parts at the end of the track, but it’s barely audible to start with, and quite unnecessary anyway. ‘Incantations’, similarly, overdubs new vocals by Horace Andy onto an instrumental version of ‘Name Taken’ off 100th Window; a rather pointless addition.
Some cuts are perfectly spot-on, however. ‘I Against I’, an exceptional track off 2002’s Blade II soundtrack features minimalist arrangements apart from a persistent bass drum beat, focusing the attention on rapper Mos Def’s rapid-fire delivery. ‘Bullet Boy’ was written for a British film of the same name, and pretty much captures the brooding mood of 100th Window. It’s decent, but hardly groundbreaking. One the other hand, ‘Danny the Dog’, from 2004’s ‘Unleashed’ OST, is another commendable addition; fully instrumental, it matches their usual dark style with Eno-esque ambience. ‘Silent Spring’ is hopefully an indication of the direction of the new album; Elizabeth Fraser’s warm, sensual vocals here restore an elegance that’s often obscured by the group’s relentless experimentation.
The most compelling reason to get Collected then, comes down to a) the new songs and b) the video disc. ‘Live with Me’ is a clear step away from the bleak futurism of the past two records. Chicago soul artist Terry Callier’s vocals and the track’s orchestral flourishes are reminiscent of Blue Lines’ ‘Unfinished Sympathy’ (which is also included here). But as second single ‘False Flags’ suggests, they haven’t lost sight of what made Mezzanine fascinating; melancholy piano lines intertwine with 3D’s stream-of-consciousness lyrics, and add a much-needed sense of space to their claustrophobic arrangements. The video disc has excellent, dramatic videos for both tracks. I’d recommend it over the Eleven Promos DVD as the former doesn’t include the unnerving video for ‘Butterfly Caught’ and ‘Special Cases’ from 2003. The Mezzanine videos are all pretty good, ‘Teardrop’ and ‘Inertia Creeps’ being exceptional.
If what I’ve written sounds like a ringing endorsement, it’s not. The second disc is slightly disappointing (Live With Me is the last track on the first disc). I felt it could have been much better with, say the addition of ‘The Hunter Gets Captured by the Game’, a collaboration with Everything But the Girl’s Tracey Thorn on 1995’s Batman Forever soundtrack. Instead, we have the rather lackluster Madonna track ‘I Want You’. The first disc, while pretty much essential, is missing ‘Black Milk’ its awful remix on Disc 2 just underscores that fact. It also would’ve felt a bit more complete with ‘Antistar’, the final track off 100th Window, which is often unfairly ignored as it closes out what’s considered a lengthy, meandering record (the track itself is 8 minutes long).
But these caveats aside, this really is an excellent, comprehensive compilation. I wouldn’t recommend buying the single-disc version though; if that’s your plan, I’d suggest just getting Mezzanine, listening to it in its entirety, and then getting the others. Collected is probably intended to be less of a retrospective and more of an attempt to tie everything together before the new record takes yet another direction. In that respect, it is successful.
(this review was first posted on Epinions in December 2006).