The fertile music scene of Bristol, England, took on a new dimension in the late 80s, when Daddy G, Nellee Hooper and DJ Milo’s Wild Bunch sound system started featuring rappers and singers including 3D, Mushroom, Tricky and Shara Nelson. After a couple of singles from The Wild Bunch, Daddy G, 3D and Mushroom began Massive Attack in 1988, teaming up with influential producers Smith & Mighty for ‘Any Love’. In 1991, following patronage from Neneh Cherry, the group released Blue Lines, which hung over the 90s in a position of supreme importance, effortlessly melding their influences from soul, funk, hip-hop, reggae and electronica into a definitive state-of-the-nation address with a collection that contains many of the best Massive Attack songs. It was the start of a remarkable career has continued to change shape throughout the years that followed.
Massive Attack’s perfect handling of their diverse material was assisted greatly by the collective approach inherited from their sound system days (mirrored by Soul II Soul, with whom Nellee Hooper went on to work). Tricky made regular appearances with the group until his solo career accelerated, the landmark downbeat hip-hop single ‘Daydreaming’ finding him trading rhymes of a distinctly British nature and accent with 3D. Blue Lines also included four tracks featuring the vocals of Shara Nelson, including the exemplary, rolling modern soul of ‘Safe From Harm’ and the transcendent strings and propulsive bells of ‘Unfinished Sympathy’. The latter was the very definition of a modern classic, and Hooper and Paul Oakenfold scrabbled to produce equally sterling remixes to complement the definitive, tear-jerking album mix. The record exhibited the first vocals for the group from reggae legend Horace Andy as well, including the rippling, spine-tingling, environmentally aware post-rave anthem ‘Hymn Of The Big Wheel’.
Between Blue Lines and their second album, 1994’s Protection, the group’s sound became known as trip-hop, and fellow Bristolians Tricky and Portishead also released rabidly successful sets. Protection featured Shut Up & Dance protégé Nicolette (her contributions including single ‘Sly’) and, most notably, two pieces starring Everything But The Girl’s Tracey Thorn, including the title track. Her assured performances sealed the deal: the group were now the act of choice for forward-thinking, upwardly mobile types, and the best Massive Attack songs balanced claustrophobic, brutally British performances such as the Tricky-featuring, throat singing-sampling ‘Karmacoma’ with the crystal-clear sadness and dignity of Thorn’s work. Reflecting the group’s continued reggae links (on pieces such as ‘Spying Glass’, with Horace Andy again), there was also a dub companion set, No Protection, mixed by Mad Professor. Tunes such as ‘Better Things’ were transformed in the Prof’s bendy mirror, the resultant ‘Moving Dub’ chucking Thorn’s vocal around inside a bass cavern, while leaving all the space intact.
While band dynamics became somewhat fractious, Massive Attack followed a line away from their funkier roots and into atmospherics, stopping off to create some lush, strings-filled remixes of Garbage’s ‘Milk’. The state of their international relationships also resulted in the somewhat bleaker material that emerged on 1998’s Mezzanine, which confirmed the group’s legacy. The key female leads this time came from ex-Cocteau Twin Elizabeth Fraser, who also wrote the lyrics for her pieces, notably the cryptic ‘Black Milk’ and the moving ‘Teardrop’. The latter’s ticking percussion still linked back to the loose funk of earlier albums, combined with one of the group’s most ethereal vocals, making it many fans’ go-to track among the best Massive Attack songs; it was reportedly almost given to Madonna, and was later bludgeoned to death by The Collective for a charity single.
Massive Attack were not shy of the odd cover version themselves, utilising Horace Andy on reggae standard ‘Man Next Door’, a John Holt composition so steeped in classic versions that it’s hard to find new expression in it. 3D and co managed anyway, with the singular, fretting lyrics about the pressures of urban life suiting the group perfectly. There was also an impressive vocal from Sara Jay on ‘Dissolved Girl’, which, over dark instrumentation, focuses on someone lacking the wherewithal to leave a messed-up relationship. This included a gnarly guitar section which signalled the direction 3D was taking the group in, as furthered on their remix of Primal Scream’s ‘Exterminator’ (the two acts found common ground over politics).
Following their cerebral, sky-scraping, neck-breaking ‘I Against I’ collaboration with US rapper Mos Def, the group (a duo since 1999, and, with Daddy G then temporarily leaving the picture, centred around 3D and producer Neil Davidge) delivered 2003’s 100th Window. A tad more comfortable than Mezzanine, as well as featuring a collaboration with Damon Albarn, it switched the lead female vocalist yet again, this time favouring Sinéad O’Connor on three tracks, including single ‘Special Cases’, with its post-punk bassline and sonics reminiscent of My Bloody Valentine.
Having already contributed to soundtracks (apt considering their cinematic sound), Massive Attack provided the full score for Danny The Dog (2004), which led to 3D and Davidge working on many more, both together and separately. The group’s 2006 compilation Collected included the flawless touch of veteran vocalist Terry Callier on ‘Live With Me’ (also “stripped back” into a style more in keeping with his other, spiritual material on one of the single mixes), and the double-disc version of the comp saw the release of vault material.
Seven years after 100th Window, fifth studio album Heligoland eventually appeared in 2010, featuring Daddy G back in the fold, as well as various collaborations with Damon Albarn. Vocals came from TV On The Radio’s Tunde Adebimpe, Tricky collaborator Martina Topley-Bird, and Elbow’s Guy Garvey. Mazzy Star’s immensely talented and classy Hope Sandoval contributed single ‘Paradise Circus’, with its deceptively poppy handclaps.
The group are now reportedly preparing their sixth studio set, but how that will rank alongside the best Massive Attack songs remains to be seen. Another promising range of contributors has already yielded the Ritual Spirit EP (with a title track sporting singer Azekel, plus the long-awaited return of Tricky, and material involving long-established British rapper Roots Manuva and the hotly-tipped Young Fathers). Single ‘The Spoils’ reunites the group with Hope Sandoval, backed with rapper Ghostpoet, who continues the group’s love affair with desperation and confusion on ‘Come Near Me’.
They don’t half keep us waiting, but they’re still delivering the goods… massively.