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.