Review Summary: Rarely has the phrase 'return to form' been more accurate.
There are a whole lot of thing I don't like about greatest hits albums, but one of the big ones is that they tend to obfuscate the realities of an artist's work. I'm not just talking about all the great album bands who are usually judged based on a tiny collection of arbitrarily chosen singles; I'm talking about all the bands who try to make people forget about a poor album by following it immediately with a Best Of. Yes, Massive Attack, I'm looking right at you.
didn't just make people forget about how crushingly disappointing 100th Window
was, it made people forget how long it's been since then, too (7 years to the day, for the record). It was cynical and deliberate, and the marketing for Heligoland
has been suitably shameless. 'The first album with Daddy G in 10 years!' And how many studio albums have been released in that time? Oh wait, it's only one, isn't it? 'A return to the sound of Mezzanine
!' So a return to the sound of one album ago, then.
And yet, for all the raised eyebrows and tuts the build-up to Helioland
has produced, the most remarkable thing about it is that it instantly blows away the cobwebs. The 7 years have been spent wisely - this is exactly the album Massive needed
to make after 100th Windows
. The only real disappointment is that it took so long.
The line about this being a return to Mezzanine
is a half-truth, in all honesty; it's a definite return to the darkness of that album, but there's plenty of 100th Window
here too, the bad ideas from that record have just been dumped and the good ones have been given a better context to operate in. There's a whole new level of influence going into this, too, and for perhaps the first time, you'd struggle to call it hip-hop. Certainly, it's hip-hop filtered through Prefuse 73
and Flying Lotus
more than through Massive's earlier albums. The drums shake and rattle rather than roll; the first two tracks especially have got rhythm tracks ripped straight from the funkier side of IDM. It's a bold and smart step from the band, and in the doomy "Pray for Rain", it results in a song that ranks among their best ever.
That's one immediately apparent change; the other is the guests. There are loads of them, some not even mentioned on the tracklist - you'd probably expect Horace Andy and Martina Topley-Bird
, and Adrian Utley showing up to play guitar isn't so out of the blue, but Damon Albarn? Hope Sandoval? Guy Garvey? Tunde Adebimpe? Jerry 'Lift!!!' Fuchs? It almost looks like a mixtape. Apparently contributions from Elizabeth Fraser, Beth Orton
, Mike Patton, and Terry Callier
were rejected too; if true, that's seriously ballsy, and definitely worth giving the band credit for. Clearly namedropping wasn't their aim, and neither was repeating the past - just imagine how much easy hype they could have scooped up just by putting Fraser on the tracklist and labelling it as the sequel to "Teardrop".
The guests at least give a listener an easy way to judge how successful each individual song is, and why. Damon Albarn's turn on "Saturday Come Slow" makes it easily the weakest song on the record - frankly this belongs on a Blur B-sides compilation, and even there it wouldn't stand out - while Elbow
's Garvey and Mazzy Star
's Sandoval put in star turns and lift their songs from 'good' to 'great'. Yet behind all that, the willingness to take contributors on board is matched by their willingness to learn new trick from the artists they spawned. It's most obvious on "Atlas Air", a track that nods so obviously toward DJ Shadow
's "Organ Donor" it's practically headbutting it, yet there are more than a few deft touches learned from Portishead; there's even a couple of ideas you could probably trace to acts like Red Snapper
. Does that make it derivative? Not at all; what's the point in being the master if you're going to stand still and let your students overtake you?
This album, despite its power and consistency, is probably doomed to a lukewarm reception, mostly because it's not as good as Protection
, but also because it's not as good as Portishead
, an album it will undoubtedly suffer countless unfair comparisons with. Yet there's certainly no shame in falling behind three albums that are as brilliant as those are. For the fans, this is a blast - suddenly, trip-hop's Godfathers are back on track.