Anvil of angst

Music - Massive Attack were the soundtrack of the 1990s. Will Self on why the Bristol boys still out

Massive Attack, or even massiveattack, for the very name is a semantic compound synthesised from two equally stressed concepts. It's said that during the first Gulf war, the Massives - as we fans refer to them - allowed their name to be shortened to the first two syllables alone, so that they could avoid government censorship of the airwaves. I'd like to believe that this was apocryphal, or at least only the decision of tedious, fat-cat record company execs, ligging off the boundless talent of the Bristol boys. But still - I wouldn't bet on it.

Massive Attack: the first word being interchangeable street argot for a gang and an approbation; the second both a violent assault and an invocation of artistic brio. Absorbing all of these meanings and nuances, this group's name has always seemed to me a perfect evocation of its sound: the skirling melodies, the percussive tachycardia, the deathly lullaby lyrics. Massive Attack have always had a kind of cosmic justice about them and their music, as if they were part of some peculiar, cultural Argument from Design: if the late 1980s and 1990s, in Britain, hadn't had Massive Attack, then they would have been different decades in another country.

In part, this was because unlike so much of the music generated by the E explosion of the late 1980s, the Massives' melding of mixing desk, turntables and actual instrumentation made it from trip-hopping on the dance floor to the television. Blue Lines, Protection, Mezzanine - all these albums were ruthlessly harvested (as if they were lush sonic fields), by ad-folk and TV producers in search of bite-sized chunks of contemporary portentousness, music that irrefutably said: You Are Here. There was a time three or four years ago when you could surf from programme trailer to product placement on all channels, while being borne all the way on a background carpet of the Massives' music. I like to think that this wilful demolition of their wall of sound, and the piecemeal sale of the stock bricks was only the decision of tedious, fat-cat record company execs, ligging off of the boundless talent of the Bristol boys. But still - I wouldn't bet on it.

I've met the Massives quite a few times - Grant "Daddy Gee" Marshall is a friend of a friend - and interviewed them as well as socialised with them. I've always found their distinctly gnomic approach to . . . everything, at once endearing and infuriating. The manifest tensions between the trio, their skittishness around any questions of finance, and their anxiety about influence - were once explained to me by their manager as the attitudes of three blokes who cared more about what their mates down at the local pub thought about their work than they did for popular taste or critical acceptance. Well, maybe that was true when the first and second albums came out, but through the mid-1990s and on, while the whole myth of the Massives built and built towards a crescendo, it became impossible not to credit Mar-shall, Vowles and Del Naja with painful self-consciousness. This was - after all - the group of whom the Guardian hymned " . . . so hip it hurts".

Now, in 2003, the Massives are down to one-and-a-half members. Vowles's departure isn't even alluded to, while Marshall's partial contribution to the new album, 100th Window, is glossed in the press release as follows: "Grant has taken a bit of a sabbatical because he's had a child and he's been starting a new life." While wishing fervently to picture the saturnine Marshall reclining on a coral beach while he dandles an infant on his ample knee, I can't help but acknowledge that these are Del Naja's words. Del Naja - alongside Neil Davidge - is credited with the writing and producing for this album; and remembering the continual uneasiness of the ruling triumvirate of trip-hop, I feel pretty certain that there have been palace coups and back-stabbings aplenty over the last six - fashionably long - years since Mezzanine appeared.

Other critics seem to agree. Where once the post-industrial machine music of Del Naja (which sounds, especially when he himself is sprechenspieling over it, uncannily like the sort of pop Theodor Adorno might've produced) was balanced by the melodic contribution of Vowles and the sheer exuberance of Marshall's rapping, instead we have the full metallic jacket. This album is 77 minutes of moody meandering on the terminal beach, with the opening track, "Future Proof", setting the tone of uneasy anti-sensuality, as if a chance meeting between a sewing-machine and an umbrella had occurred on the mixing desk.

The involvement of long-time collaborator Horace Andy on "Everywhen" is presaged by the kind of lush, electronic piano chords and basso reverb that suggests a return to the land of the TV link, but instead things remain resolutely sparse and downbeat. As for Sinead O'Connor's input on "What Your Soul Sings" and "A Prayer for England", at the first few plays neither of these tracks hoick her into that Avonside empyrean where previous Massive Attack soul divas - Shara Nelson, Tracey Thorn, Elizabeth Fraser - flutter their angelic wings. There's something dirge-like and downtrodden about her extended vocal lines, as if the coloratura of her superb voice were being beaten flat on Del Naja's anvil of angst.

But what care I? Not much, as I dare say you can tell from the above. Along with Wittgenstein (doubtless one of Del Naja's pin-ups), I don't believe a true music criticism to be either possible or desirable. Other critics have said that this album contains "hidden shallows"; if so, I'm content to sport in them and strike a few attitudes. I came late to the Massives, being a pop valetudinarian, and didn't even hear the seminal Blue Lines until 1993. What I discovered in their work was everything I'd hoped for in the evolution of the form, and in a world still - bizarrely - dominated by the activities of not-so-young white men on bass, guitars and drums, I'll play even a thoroughly vapid Massive Attack album to death before I'll bother with Coldplay et al.

In recent weeks, Robert Del Naja has been gathering media attention with his anti-war statements. He and Damon Albarn of Blur have worn the T-shirts and mouthed the slogans. Personally, I don't feel any cynicism about this - the cause needs all the voices it can muster; and along with dissing Sarah Ferguson on MTV and refusing to let his music be used for American arms promos, Robert Del Naja - with 100th Window - has done another service to the cause of the left. Because, unlike their previous albums I can't see this ungainly corpus of Massive Attack's work receiving facile defibrillation, so that it can be resurrected for advertising purposes.

100th Window by Massive Attack is released by Virgin

Will Self's latest novel is Dorian: an imitation (Viking)