Tag: Elizabeth Fraser

Review: Massive Attack – Mezzanine XXI @ the 02


On Friday I wrote about why I consider Mezzanine to be one of the greatest albums made in my lifetime. In addition, Massive Attack are a truly great live band; one who I’ve seen on over a half dozen occasions and who have never failed to transport me to a magical place with their live music.

For the Mezzanine XXI show, the band said in advance that this would be a re-imagining of the album, with group member Robert Del Naja describing it as a “one off piece of work; our own personalised nostalgia nightmare head trip”. In addition, the band once again collaborated with Adam Curtis, with Curtis compiling the stark visuals for the show. In advance of the tour, he said of the visuals:

“The show tells the story of the strange journey we have all been on over the past twenty years since ‘Mezzanine’ was released: How we have moved into a strange backward-looking world, enclosed by machines that read our data and predict our every move, haunted by ghosts from the past. A pleasure dome that makes us feel safe from the endless wars outside, and plays back stories both of dreams of glory and the fear of others. But in that safe world suspicion and distrust is spreading — like a virus. The air is growing stale. Everyone sees conspiracies everywhere. But maybe suspicion is control?”

The band took to the stage at 2115 and it’d be fair to say there were a few external factors that weren’t in their favour. I’ve already blogged about how the venue right royally fucked up, but in addition two factors played out that did not help the gig at all.  An awful lot of the audience didn’t seem particularly interested in the gig; the audible chatting levels really hindered the experience for many, the Penguin included [I took two particularly loud girls chatting behind me to town with language that was somewhat fruity]. But the chatting was even more noticeable because the sound levels for the first five tracks was appallingly low.

The set started with a wall of guitar noise and a cover of the Velvet Underground’s I Found a Reason, a song sampled on Mezzanine track Risington, establishing both the raw, punky edge the night’s proceedings would have and also flagging up that this would be no ordinary Massive Attack gig. The band then went on to play Risington itself, which baffled plenty who expected the album to be played in its entirety from start to finish. Unfortunately the sound issues meant it fell flat; there was little applause or delight at the end.

The same process – of playing a sampled rock song featured on Mezzanine followed by the album version – was repeated next, with a lively and impressive version of The Cure’s 1015 Saturday Night followed by a disappointing rendition of Man Next Door, as Horace Andy’s vocals sounded flat and the incredible atmosphere of the original failed to migrate into the arena.

Black Milk was the last of the five songs to be played at such a low level of volume that they could barely reach the Penguin’s ears. But the cheer that erupted for Elizabeth Fraser’s first appearance on stage was certainly loud enough; the levels of affection pouring from the audience showed that she’s still held in the highest regard by music fans.

It was the title track, Mezzanine, when this gig really got going. The volume was cranked up, and it was the first of several tracks to receive an extended outro – with heavy guitars – that got the heart beating faster. It was a fantastic rendition and one of the best moments of the evening. An excellent cover – Baugaus’s Bela Lugosi’s Dead – followed, and whilst the original track was unknown to this penguin, it was noticeable from several members of the crowd that this was a very popular song to include.

The band were masked in darkness at the backstage, and never addressed the crowd. Leaving the talking to the music and visuals, it felt strange for them to not even acknowledge the reason we were all there, or to give a skeleton of an idea for how – and why – the show had come together. The band seemed almost awkward about a nostalgia tour – perhaps because of how difficult it was to record the original album, or perhaps because they fear that by looking back they’re somehow undermining their own musical future – but the visuals seemed to indicate that the real point of this show was to use Mezzanine’s appeal as a pretence for speaking about the world we experience in the here and now.

The visuals across five huge screens – spanning the entire stage – were pointed and intentionally provocative. At times harrowing, others comical, the general theme seemed to be that the world has become increasingly bizarre and nasty since 1998, and maybe we should reconsider our approach. There was a heavy emphasis on data and its misuse; Tony Blair and Saddam Hussein made regular appearances, as did children’s toys. Putin and – in particular – Donald Trump perhaps deserve special credits given their number of appearances. The latter’s face was transplanted onto a number of other celebrities, including Britney Spears in her school uniform in her debut video Baby One More Time. Disturbing doesn’t even begin to cover my reaction to that.

Various scenes of war, the destruction it causes and the grieving family members of victims were all shown. In addition, we were treated to a selection of political slogans ‘Brexit Means Brexit’, ‘Stronger, Closer Union’ amongst the most notable, alongside some of Massive Attack’s own messages, including ‘There are no enemies’. The difficulty with these type of visuals is – ironically – they’re so common place in live music experiences [see any Muse or U2 concert for example] that they had little impact, other than perhaps to lessen the connection the audience has with the band. The slogans in particular felt so obvious as to be passé; more A level art project than pioneering political point. In trying to elevate their show into a call to arms, they ended up cheapening the music that brought the fans to the arena in the first place. It’s also a little ironic – as several people pointed out on Twitter – to rail against capitalism and materialism when playing the O2 arena and selling your t-shirts for £30 a pop.

The second half of the set featured some impressive performances. A faster version of Horace Andy’s own track See a Man’s Face was an absolute reggae delight, and Andy also fronted a superb rendition of Angel. Live favourite Inertia Creeps suffered from sound problems – as did all of the tracks featuring 3D’s rapping – as you could barely hear the vocals. The opening notes of Teardrop saw a notable wave of excitement surge through the audience, and the visuals on the screen dropped to simply leave swirling white lights. It was a heavenly moment – the rarest of moments on this night when audience and the band united – and all of the O2 basked in Fraser’s peerless vocals.

The show closed with the operatic Group Four, which musically wowed but vocally struggled as again 3D’s voice barely left the stage. Fraser certainly shone, but it felt like an abrupt way to finish proceedings. The band walked off, and as people prepared a mental list of possible encores, the house lights sprung up.

What you’ll make of this gig will depend largely on your tolerance. Could you cope with the sound issues? Could you appreciate the harsh visuals? Do you mind the band not addressing the audience? I’ve seen Massive Attack enough times to know they’re better than this, but also that this was as much a statement of their art and opinions as it was their music. Certainly the brief snippet of an Avicii cover towards the end indicates that the band have a sense of humour and wanted you to see that this wasn’t meant to be a fluffy experience.

But ultimately this tour was about celebrating an album of tremendous importance to many people, and instead this tour was hijacked for other purposes. Sure we got the songs – albeit in a random order – the samples and the original vocalists, and we got some enhancements with the rocky outros, but we also lost a lot of the feeling that made the album so special. it’s an album of paranoia, isolation and darkness, and it didn’t translate particularly well to huge LED screens and propaganda. There were moments of genius, but there was also a steady flow of people leaving from about the halfway point. All in all, it was disappointing.


Celebrating: Massive Attack – Mezzanine


Before Christmas I said there was a series I wanted to write about the ten albums that had had the most influence on me. It was prompted by a question from my dad and had left me pondering for a while.

I think there’s a huge distinction between your favourite ten albums and the ten that have had the the most influence. There may also be a further dividing line between the ten that you think are the best albums of all time and your favourites, but that’s for another day.

I have interpreted the challenge as identifying ten albums that have shaped my musical tastes. Albums that I can look back and think ‘that opened up so many doors to other artists I like’ or ‘I’d never really listened to a genre like that until that album’. My musical taste is fairly varied, and I’ve been pretty obsessed with music for nearly twenty-five years, so there’s a lot of options to consider.

But the first one I have chosen is also timely, because tonight I’m going to see it played live in its entirety. Celebrating twenty years since it’s release, Massive Attack will be showcasing Mezzanine at the O2 in London.

I started with the preamble about favourite albums not being the same as influential because I wanted to avoid confusion at this point, as Mezzanine is one of the few albums that would make both lists. A lot of the albums I consider influential to me would almost certainly not make anyone else’s favourite records of all time, but Mezzanine is different; it’s a stone cold classic. It may be the finest album released in my lifetime.

It’s the only album that I can tell you exactly where I was when I first heard it. I can remember the first listen like it was yesterday. I was on a school trip to London and we were staying in UCL accommodation near Goodge Street. It was nearly midnight, the window was open and the sound of sirens and London traffic hummed in the background. The lights were off and I put the CD I’d bought that day in HMV Oxford Street on as I laid down in bed.

The next twenty minutes were magical. Mezzanine starts with Angel, possibly the most ironically titled track of all time. When you think of Angels, you think of white light and figures levitating in the air. Instead, the Mezzanine Angel is the darkest of fears, the monster under the bed you’ve feared forever. From the opening note it crawls over you, gaining strength through sapping yours. It is fucking terrifying. Horace Andy provides the vocals – with lyrics largely borrowed from another song – but whatever hope his singing provides, you never escape that creeping bass. That harsh drum beat. Those snarling guitars. The suffocating air of tension and paranoia it sets remains for almost the entirety of the album in one form or another.

A noticeable thing about Mezzanine is that it is one of the most majestically mixed albums I’ve ever heard. There’s sheer perfection in the way you can hear every instrument, every note. The songs rise and fall, but so too do the instruments and samples. The albums breathes with you, lets you enjoy the bass before shifting it back slightly to let you feel the guitar and symbols, before the samples march forward. I don’t often comment on the mixing of music because it’s super geeky and I don’t really know enough to take it much further; but I can say with certainty that Mezzanine is a cut above almost everything else. This was an album made with absolute precision. So clear and precise, yet so utterly loud and intimidating.

The monstrous Angel gives way to Risington, and here there’s no relief either. In a tale of dark and murky clubs, you feel like you’ve dropped into a nightmare filled with claustrophobia. The guitars tinkle, the bass explodes. Then Teardrop begins.

I daren’t think how many times I’ve listened to Teardrop, but the most amazing thing about it is that I still don’t feel like I’ve ever truly grasped its enormity. It’s a real shapeshifter of a song; every time you feel you’ve understood it all, you discover something else that makes you reconsider it all again. It’s both a wall of sadness and a beacon of hope. With lyrics written inspired by Jeff Buckley’s passing and a vocal performance of astounding quality by Elizabeth Fraser, Teardrop feels too delicate to move, too fragile to comprehend.

Inertia Creeps has an almost Middle Eastern feel, with added tribal drumming. If Marvel need a song to represent their next super villain, there aren’t many better options. The sounds squirm out of your headphones, like they’ve been waiting for their release for thousands of years.

Those songs are arguably the finest opening four tracks on any album ever made. If the album stopped there it’d be worth the money I paid. But it doesn’t, it continues at a relentlessly high quality.

Dissolved Girl has enough guitar licks to erode your face. Man Next Door is perhaps the best song on the album, a terrifying portrayal of paranoia that can equal any horror movie, with drums that change the rhythm your heart beats at.

Black Milk may be the only song in the world dedicated to breastfeeding, with a borrowed bass line from Manfred Mann rumbling away in the background. The title track adds bristling electronic glitches into the now-familiar paranoid terror, raising the listener’s threshold for fear just a little higher. Then we reach Group Four, which nowadays would probably be called G4S. Inspired by shift workers, it explores the isolation these workers feel, as they are tempted by the angelic freedoms that Fraser’s vocals offer. It’s all rounded off by (Exchange), which may be Massive Attack’s way of offering a comedown after what came before. It stands out because it sounds, well, almost friendly.

Mezzanine is suffocating. Full of paranoia, fears and despair, it offers you only brief moments to recover within its rise and fall. It’s also genre spanning. Ostensibly an electronic album, it encompasses huge chunks of rock, punk and prog, along with elements of jazz and hip hop. I think the reason it had such a big impact on me all the way back on that school trip was because I’d never really heard anything that sounded so distinct and like it belonged there and then, amidst the throb and cultural melting point that is London life.

Along with the three Massive Attack members, who basically disintegrated during the making of the album and were to never be a three piece again, huge credit also has to go to other members of their team. Producer Neil Davidge managed to keep the band together long enough to finally complete the album. Mark Stent oversaw the mixing, which I’ve already mentioned above. But the real star may be Angelo Bruschini, the guitarist who elevated so much of Mezzanine by giving some of the dirtiest guitar parts ever recorded.

A copy of Mezzanine hangs on the wall in my front room, a constant reminder of the sheer joy the album provides. To this day, I search for electronic, dance and pop music that has a dark and mysterious edge, that makes me feel on edge. Listening to Mezzanine changed my tastes in music in so many ways, and made me a lifelong fan of Massive Attack in the process.

Mezzanine is a masterpiece, one of my favourite albums, one of my most influential albums and one I simply cannot wait to hear in its entirety tonight, original vocalists and all. If you haven’t already, go and check it out.