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4 March 2019

Massive Attack’s Mezzanine is the natural soundtrack for an age of fear

The anniversary tour of the band’s anxious third album proves it is more relevant than ever.

By George Eaton

Anniversary tours tend to be wearily nostalgic. But Massive Attacks’s Mezzanine (1998), their third album and artistic apex, has acquired greater relevance with age. In an era of “hostile environments”, drone warfare and surveillance capitalism, its air of encroaching paranoia feels eerily prescient. Is there a better description of the anxious tedium of Brexit than “Inertia Creeps”?

On 2 March, at Steel Yard – a 14,000-capacity, purpose-built venue in Filton Airfield, Bristol (the band’s hometown) – Massive Attack closed the UK leg of Mezzanine XXI. By way of reminding the audience how anomalous the number one-album was upon its release, a series of anodyne, chart-topping 1998 pop songs precede the band’s arrival (Cher’s “Believe”, Aqua’s “Doctor Jones”). Yet Mezzanine also exemplifies the dark innovation that flourished from 1997-98 as Britpop imploded (Pulp’s This Is Hardcore, Radiohead’s OK Computer, Spiritualized’s Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space, Primal Scream’s Vanishing Point).

When Massive Attack take to the stage they begin not with the album’s apocalyptic opener “Angel” but a cover of the Velvet Underground’s redemptive lullaby “I Found a Reason”. The purpose becomes clear when they segue into the abrasive dub of “Risingson”, Mezzanine’s first single (which samples the former’s doo-wop refrain). Rather than a mere rendition of the album, this was a deconstruction, as if the shell of the metallic beetle that adorns the record’s sleeve had been prised off and its interior exposed.

In the same spirit, the band later cover The Cure’s “10:15 Saturday Night” (sampled on “Man Next Door”) and, to raucous effect, Ultravox’s “ROckWrok” (sampled on “Inertia Creeps”). Though indelibly associated with “trip-hop”, the genre from which Mezzanine represented a conscious flight, such tracks betray the post-punk stylings that shaped the album.

As Anglo-Italian frontman Robert Del Naja (“3D”) and Grant Marshall (“Daddy G”) exchange vocals on “Risingson”, moving with the elegant menace of martial artists, one is struck by how little the preceding 21 years appear to have aged them.

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From their 1991 debut Blue Lines onwards, Massive Attack have been one of the UK’s most politically-conscious acts (in 1991 they temporarily shortened their name to “Massive” to avoid any perceived association with the Gulf War).

For the Mezzanine tour, BBC filmmaker Adam Curtis (The Power of Nightmares, HyperNormalisation) provided visual accompaniment, fusing postmodern symbolism (Britney Spears morphing into Donald Trump) with archive footage (Saddam Hussein glad-handing children, Prince Andrew and Sarah Ferguson’s wedding) and unvarnished images of US-led wars. At its best, it ably reinforces the album’s disconcerting groove (“Once upon a time data was going to make you free”). At its worst, it diminishes the performance with trite slogans (“conspiracies are a conspiracy to make you feel powerless”) and stale references (“strong and stable”, “Brexit means Brexit”).

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Mezzanine was the album that transformed Massive Attack from a trio into a duo. Andrew Vowles (“Mushroom”), one of the group’s founding members, departed in protest at their musical turn. (“Are we a fucking punk band now?” he is alleged to have remarked.) But though Vowles remains absent, the loose collective that has always defined Massive Attacks endures.

In addition to a six-piece band, boasting two drummers, the performance is augmented by several of Mezzanine’s guest vocalists: reggae veteran Horace Andy (the only artist to appear on all five of Massive Attack’s albums) and the Cocteau Twins’ Elizabeth Fraser. The former, endearingly bopping during instrumental breaks, lends his transcendental voice to “Man Next Door”, his own “See a Man’s Face” and “Angel” — a cathartic sonic assault in which the eponymous creature is transformed into an agent of destruction (“neutralise every man in sight”).

Mezzanine is most often celebrated for the hypnotic, Fraser-sung “Teardrop” (recorded after she learned of the death of her friend and former lover Jeff Buckley). But in the cavernous venue, the song’s intimacy is unavoidably reduced. 

Instead, it is the album’s heavier, industrial moments (reminiscent of a more restrained Nine Inch Nails) that are most impactful. The relentless “Inertia Creeps”, propelled by Del Naja’s sinister whisper, brings to mind a new era of dating apps and on-demand sex (“two undernourished egos, four rotating hips”). But most potent of all is the closing “Group Four” on which Fraser’s soaring soprano melds majestically with the band’s chainsaw guitars and cacophonous beats.

Having eschewed a linear playthrough of the album, Massive Attack similarly avoid the “greatest hits” set that traditionally ends such gigs (there is no “Unfinished Sympathy” or “Protection”). No foreign elements compromise Mezzanine’s imperial grandeur. The band leave as wordlessly as they arrive.

That Mezzanine has aged so well bodes ill for the world. In two decades it has been transformed from a work of dark escapism into the natural soundtrack for an age of fear. The consolation is how good dystopianism sounds.