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.