Music

Massive Attack: Heligoland

The Bristol downtempo legends return. Still attacking. Only now, less massive.


Massive Attack

Heligoland

Label: Virgin
US Release Date: 2010-02-09
UK Release Date: 2010-02-08
Artist Website
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No one would have predicted it back in 1991.

In June of that year, when Massive Attack released their debut album, Blue Lines, they represented the vanguard of modern dance-based music and British pop in general. A trio of singles had established a totally fresh sound that incorporated American soul and hip-hop, dub reggae, and Burt Bacharach-style orchestration. Blue Lines set the template for every modern dance music collective, employing a succession of guest vocalists to help interpret the band's compositions. Massive Attack's very name was full of intimidation and portent, and why not? They had impeccable production, great songs, and a continent's worth of cool cache. Plus Tricky, Horace Andy, Shara Nelson, and Neneh Cherry. At the time, Damon Albarn was lead singer in the British pop band Blur. About to release their own debut album, Leisure, Blur had a couple of singles and some chart success under their belt. They were, though, mostly regarded as merely one of many bands to take advantage of the British "Baggy" or "indie dance" scene that was then in full swing.

No, no one would have guessed that 19 years later, Albarn would be the Renaissance man of British music, juggling a successful record label, Honest Jon's, and at least two successful bands, Gorillaz and the Good, the Bad and the Queen, that have expanded on Massive Attack's innovation to commercial and critical avail. No one would have bet that Massive Attack would be the ones with a failed label, Melankolik, and would be the ones who, mired in a creative muck, would reach out to Albarn to help restore their artistic standing. But that's exactly where things stand with Heligoland.

Massive Attack managed three game-changing albums, but it's been 12 years since the last one, Mezzanine. By 2003's underwhelming 100th Window, Massive Attack were a band in name only, Robert Del Naja, aka 3D, having asserted his dominance so effectively that the other two members quit. Not coincidentally, the music, though well-produced as always, was a threadbare and somewhat embarrassing attempt to capture a gravitas that seemed to be gone for good.

But then original member Daddy G returned, and 2006 single "Live with Me" effectively found the lost magic, if not the innovation. All this makes Heligoland a pretty pivotal album, with high hopes riding on its shoulders. Yet even before you hear a note, it has trappings of a disappointment. Its creation was labored, spread over much time and several studios. An initial version of the album was scrapped at the 11th hour. The list of guest vocalists, though impressive, seems like a grab for attention and credibility. And the artwork, in part by 3D, is ugly in a way that demands attention if nothing else.

The good news, then, is that Heligoland is actually a mixed bag whose best tracks come close to recapturing the spirit of Massive Attack's '90s work. Still in control, Del Naja has said he wanted a more stripped-back sound. This results in more punchy, beatbox rhythms, fewer samples, and some faster tempos. The music is strikingly less dense than before, though the production is as meticulous and measured as ever, but it's also so deliberately bleak, so obvious in its intent to be capital-I Important, it all but dares you to turn your back and chuckle.

Stick with it, though, and Heligoland comes through in spots. Off-and-on Tricky muse Martina Topley-Bird lends her valium-laced sexuality to "Babel", whose brooding minor chords in turn sound appropriate. Stalwart Horace Andy, he of the voice that can be described only as "angelic", relates a convincing tale of lost love on "Girl I Love You", sounding at once desperate and bewitched. Here, the band step up, too, with soulful horn blasts, a trademark yet still-genius little percussion hook, and a beautiful, haunting instrumental interlude. Yes, it's essentially Mezzanine's "Angel" at a faster pace and with fewer guitars, but it still sounds fresh and welcome.

"Girl I Love You" along with a late-album trio of tracks would have made a killer EP, one that would have asserted Massive Attack's re-emergence much more effectively than the ill-received Splitting the Atom EP released in 2009. One time Mazzy Star chanteuse Hope Sandoval, sounding virtually indistinguishable from Topley-Bird, fronts the stunning "Paradise Circus". The lyric, something about how the Devil is bad but sin is really, you know, appealing, is trite, but the music… only Massive Attack at their best could make a three-note piano figure and some handclaps so devastating, so powerful and sad. That's followed by "Rush Minute", with Del Naja whispering about "beautiful clichés" over mournful, New Order-ish guitars. By its halfway point, the song has developed that pristine, chugging quality that was so effective on "Protection". Then, Albarn. His earnest "Do you love me?" on "Saturday Come Slow" generates more pathos than the rest of the album combined. The arrangement, with acoustic guitar and simple percussion, finally makes good on Del Naja's vision. The track could have come straight from Blur's Think Tank, but who cares?

That's the ultimate impression you can't shake, though. From Shara Nelson to Tracey Thorn and even Terry Callier on "Live with Me", Massive Attack used to make the vocalist, not the other way around. But not even TV on the Radio's Tunde Adebimpe or Elbow's Guy Garvey can make much out of the formless, passionless stuff they're given. On about half of Heligoland, Massive Attack aim to frighten you, shake you to the core. But then they do the musical equivalent of throwing sheets over their heads and yelling "Boo!" Just check the over-the-top death march of "Splitting the Atom" or the carnival fun-house fiasco "Atlas Air".

Nineteen years is an eternity in pop music. Perhaps no one would have guessed Massive Attack would still be around after such a span. Well, they still are. They're just not as massive.

6

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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