[24 April 2014]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
Neil Davidge is probably best known for his role as producer and unofficial member of Massive Attack. Davidge helped direct his fellow Bristolians toward a heavier, more rock-influenced sound for their third album, Mezzanine (1998). The album was commercially successful and critically acclaimed, but not without a heavy cost.
By the time the next Massive Attack album, 100th Window, appeared in 2003, two of the band’s three full-time members had departed. That left Robert “3D” Del Naja and Davidge as the core of Massive Attack, and the prog/rock influences have had a polarizing effect on fans and critics ever since.
Especially given Massive Attack’s sluggish work rate, it makes sense that Davidge would want to step out from under that umbrella. Possibly to establish a degree of separation from his scoring work, of which Halo 4 is the most notable example, Davidge has for his solo debut made the decidedly rockist move of operating under his surname only. With Del Naja all but absent from the credits, Slo Light is indeed pure Davidge. Which means to say it has quite a bit in common with post-1998 Massive Attack.
Of course, that’s probably the last thing Davidge wants to hear, but on the evidence it’s an inescapable conclusion. Slo Light showcases the lumbering beats, cinematic orchestral swells, and clean, meticulous production Davidge is known for. The album follows the familiar Massive Attack template of featuring a handful of guest vocalists as well. Though none will be familiar from Massive Attack, the lineup includes Claire Tchaikowski, who appeared on Halo 4, as well as chanteuse Cate Le Bon and British pop legend Sandie Shaw.
One crucial way in which Slo Slight differs from Davidge’s work with Massive Attack, however, is in its tone. The controversial Rock element is nowhere to be heard, and guitars are all but absent from the album. Also missing is the suffocating, often forced sense of dread that has pushed parts of 100th Window and its successor, Heligoland , to the verge of self-parody. Instead, Davidge allows some beauty and light into the compositions, and it results in Slo Light‘s strongest moments.
The title track, which first surfaced in the fall of 2013, is the highlight. It introduces the album with a thick, slow-moving hip-hop beat that sounds very much like Mezzanine standout “Angel”. But then, something wonderfully unexpected happens. A ringing, music box-like melody cuts through the half-light, followed by Stephonik Youth’s gorgeous, swooning vocals. The track goes dark’n'moody again midway through, but then the music box wins the day. It’s a brilliant, not to mention soul-warming, exercise in dynamics and balance.
The pulsing, steadily-building “Anyone Laughing” derives a similar power and beauty, as do the wind chimes swirling through “That Fever”. Both tracks feature Tchaikowski’s breathy cooing. Le Bon adds her more dramatic flair to the uptempo “Gallant Foxes”, whose multitracked chorus recalls nothing as much as Abba in its Europop lushness.
Alas, Slo Light is not without its share of brooding. “Home From Home” and “Sleepwalking” are sad, piano-led affairs that by now seem perfunctory coming from Davidge. Much more effective is “Riot Pictures”, a streamlined, string-filled melodrama that shows Shaw still has the goods. It is also the album’s sole Davidge/Del Naja collaboration. Slo Light is at its most indistinct, and least successful, when Davidge does try for something heavier and more industrial. The hyper, overwrought angst of “They Won’t Know”, with Robert Smith-soundalike vocals, is almost embarrassing.
If nothing else, Slo Light shows that Davidge is perfectly capable of holding his own without Del Naja and Massive Attack. It offers no real new twists, but its best tracks recall the brittle, exquisite beauty of the latter’s “Teardrop”, still the pinnacle and defining moment of Davidge’s work.