Massive Attack: Splitting the Atom EP

Far from being the band that every other band wants to sound like, this compilation-style EP suggests that Massive Attack are indiscriminately mining for something to make their own.

Massive Attack

Splitting the Atom EP

Label: Virgin UK
US Release Date: Available as import
UK Release Date: 2009-10-06

Those looking for something less than banal to explain the perpetual imminence of a fifth Massive Attack album will be disappointed. The delay neither involves the kind of acrimony that shaved the original trio down to Robert Del Naja (aka 3D) nor charges of child pornography, like those heaped on Del Naja in 2003. In fact, Del Naja is now happily rejoined by fellow founding member Grant “Daddy G” Marshall, who, following Andrew “Mushroom” Vowles, departed the outfit in 2001 due to creative differences. Rather, the hold-up is a consequence of Massive Attack’s inherent perfectionism, a trait that has only become more urgent for the group once anointed as a brilliant production unit that, for better or worse, put Bristol on tastemakers’ agendas and the words “trip-hop” on their lips.

Indeed, the question of where the group ought to tread next is not one the band takes lightly. After all, there is no wish for them to dissolve into the kind of self-imposed oblivion that came when they spawned myriad copy-cat trip-hop bands in the '90s. Mezzanine (1998) struck down the wave of mimicry by casting the group’s signature ethereality into howling darkness with a rawer, guitar-driven sound. That album also signalled the group’s intention to become a live band and, to the bitter chagrin of Vowles, Del Naja’s affinity with post-punk and psych-rock.

Just as Protection (1994) reinforced the dub-inflected industrial grooves of debut album Blue Lines (1991), 100th Window (2003), a joint effort between Del Naja and longstanding Attack producer Neil Davidge, cemented Massive Attack’s brooding mien. That Splitting the Atom -- the EP leading up to the release of the tentatively-titled “LP5” possibly early next year -- sounds little like what they’ve done before is unsurprising. It is also most certainly welcome, as 100th Window was headed for its own darkly oppressive cul de sac. However, insofar as the four-track offering is representative of the full-length outing, it will hardly mollify fans for which a semblance of a Massive Attack “sound” is vital.

Boasting collaborators like Damon Albarn, Elbow’s Guy Garvey, TV on the Radio’s Tunde Adebimpe, as well as long-standing team player Horace Andy, the EP is little more than the proverbial sum of each collaborator’s efforts. The effect, then, is as if Massive Attack have taken a backseat, lending their production skills to their guests rather than the latter submitting their talents to illuminate the pair’s work. “Splitting the Atom”, for instance, is an unimpressive dirge-like number that sounds like a Gorillaz take on a mafia soundtrack, what with its lulling tinny beat, dampened organ backing, and a Leonard Cohen impersonation by an unidentified someone. The curious choice of Andy to fill the chorus is misguided, as his famous warble is so muted as to be the aural equivalent of having his wings clipped.

“Pray for Rain”, the EP’s best track, effects a bone-chilling discordance with Adebimpe’s hushed and disaffected delivery. Save for the shimmery synths a la Simian Mobile Disco that appear halfway, though, the song could be an outtake for the finale of TV on the Radio's Return to Cookie Mountain. Yet it is the only track that displays Massive Attack’s knack for executing a mood of singularity without compromising sonic layering.

Meanwhile, “Psyche”, which appears here as a remix by Fever Ray producers Van Rivers and the Subliminal Kid, features British vocalist Martina Topley-Bird, who appositely masters Fever Ray vocalist Karin Dreijer’s pitch-shifting to a T. But once again, other than it sounding like a barbiturate dissolving in the membrane, there is little evidence that Massive Attack have so much as breathed on this track. Final song “Bulletproof Love”, also a remix, unexpectedly contorts Guy Garvey’s normally emotive and expansive tenor into something sinister that appears to emanate from a tiny crack in the wall. Standing guard is an authoritarian rumble of sub-bass and spasmodic ricocheting effects -- the song’s only familiar Massive Attack threads.

Far from being the band that every other band wants to sound like, this compilation-style EP suggests that Massive Attack are indiscriminately mining for something to make their own in a climate that has shifted in favour of producers like Albarn and just about anyone who can fashion bleeping synthscapes. Yet, like a movie that’s so unhinged that all one wants to know is whether it will end convincingly, the seeming lack of bearing about Splitting the Atom only serves to thicken the wall of suspense surrounding album No. 5.


Cover down, pray through: Bob Dylan's underrated, misunderstood "gospel years" are meticulously examined in this welcome new installment of his Bootleg series.

"How long can I listen to the lies of prejudice?
How long can I stay drunk on fear out in the wilderness?"
-- Bob Dylan, "When He Returns," 1979

Bob Dylan's career has been full of unpredictable left turns that have left fans confused, enthralled, enraged – sometimes all at once. At the 1965 Newport Folk Festival – accompanied by a pickup band featuring Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper – he performed his first electric set, upsetting his folk base. His 1970 album Self Portrait is full of jazzy crooning and head-scratching covers. In 1978, his self-directed, four-hour film Renaldo and Clara was released, combining concert footage with surreal, often tedious dramatic scenes. Dylan seemed to thrive on testing the patience of his fans.

Keep reading... Show less

Inane Political Discourse, or, Alan Partridge's Parody Politics

Publicity photo of Steve Coogan courtesy of Sky Consumer Comms

That the political class now finds itself relegated to accidental Alan Partridge territory along the with rest of the twits and twats that comprise English popular culture is meaningful, to say the least.

"I evolve, I don't…revolve."
-- Alan Partridge

Alan Partridge began as a gleeful media parody in the early '90s but thanks to Brexit he has evolved into a political one. In print and online, the hopelessly awkward radio DJ from Norwich, England, is used as an emblem for incompetent leadership and code word for inane political discourse.

Keep reading... Show less

The show is called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend largely because it spends time dismantling the structure that finds it easier to write women off as "crazy" than to offer them help or understanding.

In the latest episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the CW networks' highly acclaimed musical drama, the shows protagonist, Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), is at an all time low. Within the course of five episodes she has been left at the altar, cruelly lashed out at her friends, abandoned a promising new relationship, walked out of her job, had her murky mental health history exposed, slept with her ex boyfriend's ill father, and been forced to retreat to her notoriously prickly mother's (Tovah Feldshuh) uncaring guardianship. It's to the show's credit that none of this feels remotely ridiculous or emotionally manipulative.

Keep reading... Show less

Here comes another Kompakt Pop Ambient collection to make life just a little more bearable.

Another (extremely rough) year has come and gone, which means that the German electronic music label Kompakt gets to roll out their annual Total and Pop Ambient compilations for us all.

Keep reading... Show less

Winner of the 2017 Ameripolitan Music Award for Best Rockabilly Female stakes her claim with her band on accomplished new set.

Lara Hope & The Ark-Tones

Love You To Life

Label: Self-released
Release Date: 2017-08-11

Lara Hope and her band of roots rockin' country and rockabilly rabble rousers in the Ark-Tones have been the not so best kept secret of the Hudson Valley, New York music scene for awhile now.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.