Dark and Heavy: Massive Attack Pound it Out

Massive Attack

The boys from Bristol did not disappoint. After a long, long wait, I managed to cross one of my dream bands off the list of “must sees” when I caught Massive Attack this past Friday at The Riviera here in Chicago. For a band that on album tends toward “chill,” the set ran decidedly heavy, but really that’s what you want out of a live act. There were the obvious hits, but I also really dug that they reached into the back depths to pull out some lesser known, but still excellent tracks. And the visuals were simple, but wildly effective.

To set the scene, imagine me in my late undergrad years, working hard at my thesis and discovering electronic music for the first time. Acts like Orbital, The Future Sound of London, Portishead and Massive Attack waft into my ears as I diddle with my programs and work out some math; it is love at first listen. Unfortunately, all those acts I just named were (at least in 2005) basically defunct or on indefinite hiatus, so I felt bummed, left to relish in the scene that I missed. Within the last couple years though, each band above has made a bit of a comeback with Portishead releasing Third (to much acclaim) in 2008, Oribital reforming to do a few live shows in 2009 and FSOL moving toward ambient recordings with their Environments series. But, my beloved Massive Attack, the favorite of all, remained silent until late 2009 when news finally appeared of the impending album Heligoland and an accompanying extensive world tour.  Flash forward nearly 12 months. I had almost given up on my trip-hop heroes as they passed through the US once, then again without a stop in Chicago. It wasn’t until this third leg that they finally gave us a date and I could rest easy.

Friday’s show began with opener Martina Topley-Bird. Topley-Bird has some solo work, but is known primarily for lending her voice to collaborations; she’s worked extensively with Tricky, and more recently, with Gorillaz and Massive Attack and she would return later in the night to lend vocals to the Massive show. Her set consisted of just herself and a loop pedal to record and play back parts in layers. This worked out OK, but unfortunately the whole deal was a little too unpolished. (Contrast this with Owen Pallet’s show where he does violin, keyboard and vocals seamlessly by himself to create quite a full sound.) She’s got a good voice, but I was distracted by how much she had to do to build up her sound live and that the results ended up a bit one-dimensional. As the friend with me said, “There’s a lot of potential there, but…” Topley-Bird herself admitted that she’s not used to doing live solo sets; this was her only opening gig as every subsequent stop on this leg of the tour features a co-headlining spot by Thievery Corporation.

After the intermission, the house lights dimmed again and the hard-hitting, recently resurrected B-side “United Snakes” began. This song in some ways epitomizes why I find Massive Attack’s sound to be sexy; it’s a slow and building crescendo with heavy beats and a muffled, reverbed, fuzzed vocals. Despite the label they sometimes receive, Massive Attack is not dance music, it’s something instead that pulls you in and makes you sway and resonate in time. As the song thumped and grew, the visual onslaught began. A bank of scrolling marquees behind the band began to light up as words and snippets of conversations, most politically charged, appeared accompanied by strobes.

The slick-dressed Robert “3D” Del Naja gave a “Thanks” (between song banter was essentially nil, a feature I’m quite the fan of) and the group thundered on bringing Topley-Bird back out for “Babel” before launching into the classic “Risingson” featuring both Del Naja and the gravelly-voiced other core member, Grant “Daddy G” Marshall.

Some of the best songs of the concert though, were those featuring Reggae crooner Horace Andy. He came out first to do “Girl I Love You,” but his true crowning appearance was the incredibly damn sexy “Angel” That was, hands down, the highlight of the night for me. The building up of “United Snakes” that I championed a minute ago pales next to the orgasmic, dark brooding of “Angel.” One can’t help but be consumed by that song. In the clip I give below, you get a sense of the feeling, but unfortunately it ends just as the momentum really starts to take off.

Topley-Bird helped out on “Psyche,” a beautiful track from the new album and then did a totally reconceptualized “Teardrop,” the band’s arguably best known track from its use in the opening credits on the show House. The main set ended on a high note with the intense “Inertia Creeps” and the soulful “Safe From Harm.”

For the encore, the band came out to the track “You Were Just Leaving,” an unreleased song that, though I wasn’t familiar with it, was a good choice to bring the energy of the crowd back up and to build into the next song, “Splitting the Atom.” For this track, Topley-Bird, Andy, Del Naja and Marshall all took to vocals and this whole group was joined by surprise guest Damon Albarn who performed a sort of improvised scat over part of the track. Albarn, a good friend of the band who contributed vocals to the gorgeous song “Saturday Come Slow” (sadly not played here), is best known as the lead singer of Blur and now Gorillaz. With Gorillaz in Chicago to do a show the following evening, rumors had been high that he might appear for the gig.

Unfinished Sympathy” and “Atlas Air” closed out the long encore, but clamoring for more, we brought them out for a second encore, which the band used to perform an extended “Karmacoma.”

I was stoked. This was definitely one of the best shows of my year and the patient wait was worth it. Massive Attack has been moving through its career from its trip-hop roots to darker electronica, incorporating (as seen here) some straight up heavy rock. (They had two drummers, if you are looking for proof.) Funk, soul, dub… the beating, throbbing heart of the band rocks on, sinister and menacing, and I couldn’t be happier.

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