One of the problems of a seven year wait for an album is that people’s expectations get higher and higher with time. Almost inevitably this leads to disappointment. The most common whinge I’ve read about Heligoland is that it’s not Mezzanine. Well, that was twelve years ago. If Massive Attack had come up with Mezzanine II, the consensus would probably be that they’d become stuck in a rut. So they could never really win.
I must admit, that the first couple of listens didn’t really bowl me over, with a couple of exceptions. But having lived with it for a while, it’s really grown on me. More than on any previous album, it’s the featured vocalists that are pushed to the forefront. In some ways it feels like the band have worked around the singers rather than adopted them as honoury members, and so the album plays like a well chosen and well programmed compilation tape rather than a coherent piece of work.
Four of the tracks do feature the old guard of 3D, G and Horace Andy, and its not altogether surprising that these are the ones that sound most like the old Massive Attack. All three appear on “Splitting the Atom”, a song that’s built on a deceptively simple beat and stabs of organ, but flowers into some of the most impressive vocal work that the trio have done. 3D takes the reins on “Rush Minute”, a track that would have fit just fine on M*******e, and on the lengthy closer “Atlas Air” which, despite its unpromising beginnings of a clicktrack disco beat and Wurlitzer organ, develops into a hypnotic dark groove and ends in a collision of early Tangerine Dream and acid techno. It’s brilliant, and only topped in this quartet by the terrific, dense psychosis of Horace Andy’s “Girl I Love You” with its superbly atonal brass and deep guitar drone. In my view it’s his finest track with the band.
The other six songs feature the guests. No one fits in as well as Shara Nelson did, but there’s nothing as remotely jarring as Sinead O’Connor’s contributions to 100th Window either. Martina Topley-Bird is pretty much part of the family anyway, although neither of her contributions, “Babel” and “Psyche”, really stand out, enjoyable as they are. Hope Sandoval does what Hope Sandoval always does, and makes her contribution sound like a Hope Sandoval song. It’s that sexy, sleepy drawl that she does so brilliantly. She’s a bit of a one-trick pony, but does her trick better than anyone, so who’s to criticise? “Paradise Circus” kind of puts her on a pedestal, as the band surround her with a rich sonic pallette. It’s a gorgeous track.
The three tunes with guest male singers seem to be the ones that most people have a problem with, probably because none of the trio seems much like a Massive Attack type vocalist. Indeed, the slight tones of Tunde Adebimpe do nothing for me, and a stripped down instrumental version of “Prayer For Rain” would have been a far more positive way to lead into the record. Guy Garvey is a bit of a marmite singer. Sure he’s emotional, but his kind of troubador balladry is an awkward fit in this context. “Flat of the Blade” is definitely a grower, though. I didn’t like it at all on first hearing, but I’m warming to it. Finally, the guy who gets the most flack is Damon Albarn, doing his plaintive East End orphan thing on “Saturday Come Slow”. That lad sure gets some people’s backs up! I think it’s an excellent piece, with some really dirty distortion thrown in to counterbalance the winsomeness.
So, it’s not Mezzanine. It doesn’t have that undercurrent of darkness, dread and discomfort. But then Heligoland wasn’t born into an atmosphere of civil war, so it’s bound to be lighter in mood. It has its gloomy moments, but generally it has a fairly upbeat tone without sacrificing the depth. The production is tremendous, too. The naysayers may find that this is an album that will grow on them, and that they’ll be playing it more than they expected. It deserves the effort.
1 Pray For Rain 6:44
2 Babel 5:20
3 Splitting The Atom 5:17
4 Girl I Love You 5:27
5 Psyche 3:25
6 Flat Of The Blade 5:30
7 Paradise Circus 4:58
8 Rush Minute 4:51
9 Saturday Come Slow 3:44
10 Atlas Air 7:49