Somehow, it’s 21 years since Massive Attack turned up the volume on the abrasive, paranoid, post-punk elements of the sonic stew which had seen them labelled “trip hop” for their down-tempo beats, soulful female vocals and whispered raps. The result, Mezzanine, more than holds its own amid that run of brooding pre-millennium albums which includes the likes of Radiohead’s OK Computer.
Now the stars have aligned not only for Massive Attack to take Mezzanine on the road for its 21st birthday, but for former Cocteau Twins vocalist Elizabeth Fraser, who sang its standout track Teardrop, and has barely performed in public for two decades, to join them.
In Manchester, the lights go down. And stay down for ten minutes before anything happens. As ever, Massive Attack move at their own glacial tempo and on their own terms, rejecting crowd-pleasing performance for lurking in darkness while their video screens do the work. Visuals by filmmaker Adam Curtis bombard us with subverted images of the Royal Family, Saddam Hussein and Tony Blair, set to the band’s mellow opening rendition of the Velvet Underground’s I Found A Reason (later they will also cover The Cure’s 10:15 Saturday Night).
The serious business begins as the fathoms-deep bassline from RisingSon hits and Massive Attack mainmen Robert “3D” Del Naja and Grant “Daddy G” Marshall partially emerge from the darkness to command the mics. And things only get better, with the charismatic presence of veteran reggae singer Horace Andy on Man Next Door and a shy but beautiful-sounding Fraser making her first appearance on Black Milk. Later, she will sing Pete Seeger’s Where Have All The Flowers Gone? to a montage of Gulf War images, half-hidden at the back of the stage.
Inertia Creeps builds the power and tension, and even Bristol’s least-user-friendly performers can’t keep the lid on the hits as they unleash the peerless Angel, from ominous bassline to cathartic storm of guitars, with Horace Andy in fine voice, before Fraser’s star turn on Teardrop meets with the kind of warm, rapturous response that you hope could lure her back to the stage on a more regular basis. Perhaps ironically, given Curtis’s gloomy visual sloganeering about the alienating effects of technology, and the band’s studious determination to avoid any of the conventions of live performance, it’s the human connection made by the singers that shines through the darkness.