Psych album of the week: Massive Attack’s Mezzanine (1998)

Anytime a filmmaker needs to convey paranoia; thick, brooding intensity; druggy malaise; or beauty in the darkness, you know Massive Attack has it covered

Massive-Attack

Massive Attack, Mezzanine (1998).

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There has always been something cinematic about Bristol electronic legends Massive Attack. After all, their music has appeared in many excellent (and some not so much) movies throughout their career, including Snatch, The Matrix, Blade 2, Sliver, and The Insider

These films, like Massive Attack’s music, are concerned with the darker side of life. More specifically, anytime a filmmaker needs to convey any or all of the following: paranoia; thick, brooding intensity; druggy malaise; or beauty in the darkness, you know Massive Attack has it covered. 

Their 1998 chef d’oeuvre, Mezzanine, with its creepy insect-that-never-was cover, and sub-dub melancholy, will forever elevate them above most of their ’90s trip-hop contemporaries with the possible exception of the divine Portishead. 

Major players

Blue Lines (1991) and Protection (1994) established the group as major players in the U.K. electronic music scene, with a hip, brisk, multicultural sound blending soul, hip-hop, reggae, and psychedelic elements. Massive Attack featured frequent vocal appearances from soon-to-be solo artist Tricky and reggae icon Horace Andy, along with a wealth of additional vocal talent from within and outside of the band. These included founding members Robert “3D” Del Naja, Grantley “Daddy G” Marshall, and Andrew “Mushroom” Vowles. 

Mezzanine fades in with Massive Attack’s trademark sub bass textures on the slow burn opener “Angel”. The track transitions from laid-back drum machine to Bonham-style live drums at the 1:40 mark. Distorted guitar textures begin to appear from there. The song climaxes in an all-out sonic assault and Horace Andy’s repeated “Love you, love you, love you, love you” as the track begins to strip down and fade out. 

Paranoid and unsettling

“Risingson” is inspired by Bristol’s club scene and is suitably paranoid and unsettling. The languid, liquid groove underpins 3D and Daddy G’s verses as their contrasting voices guide you through dark times at the disco. “You light my ways through club maze.” “Now you’re lost and you’re lethal.” “A better smoke’ll bring you back round.” “Your cheap beer’s filled with crocodile tears.”

Speaking of contrasting voices, “Teardrop” is the first of three tracks on Mezzanine featuring indie deity Elizabeth Fraser of the Cocteau Twins. The track was developed by Mushroom, who originally imagined Madonna as the guest vocalist before being outvoted by the other members. The first female voice on the album injects an element of sweetness and hope to the dour proceedings: “Teardrop on the fire/Feathers on my breath/Black flowers blossom/You’re stumbling in the dark.”

Droning menace

“Inertia Creeps” is the band’s “sex song”. It was originally given to the Manic Street Preachers, who recorded their own baggy-pants-chorus beat version in 1994. That was shelved until it appeared as an extra track on the Massive Attack single. The Mezzanine version is much darker, with squashed and clipped guitar lines and droning menace: “Inertia creeps, moving up slowly.” “Been here before, been here forever.” “I caught your radio waves/With a tin can and string.” 

“Exchange” is a calm, interlude-style track that sets up the smooth and sultry vocals of Sarah Jay on “Dissolved Girl”. This track can be heard through Keanu Reeves’s headphones near the beginning of The Matrix. It’s a perfect example the patented Massive Attack juxtaposition of dark, sinuous rhythms and sub bass with something sweet on top. By the time the grinding sludge metal guitars come in two and half minutes along, the spell is complete and Massive Attack has you right where they want you.

“Man Next Door”, a re-work of reggae staple “I’ve Got to Get Away”, samples and pitch-shifts the Cure’s “10:15 Saturday Night”, and features Andy’s keening voice and poise. 

Empty streets and darkness

Fraser returns for next track, the crystalline “Black Milk”, with its slippery bass line and chill-out vibe. 

3D says of the titular “Mezzanine”: “The track we called ‘Mezzanine’ [was named] quite a long time ago but it changed shape quite a lot over the last six months. In fact, we completely reinvented it about five times, out of frustration.”

Album closer “Group Four”, the final track with Fraser, references themes of “loneliness, waiting for time to pass, solitude, empty streets and darkness”, according to 3D. He also offers that it is “an operatic, building, changing track”. It’s certainly a fitting closer to the group’s greatest album.

Post-Mezzanine full lengths, 2003’s 100th Window and 2010’s Heligoland both have much to recommend them. Neither, though, captured Massive Attack at their best in quite the same way as the group’s late ’90s magnum opus. 

Sonic psych-out

When Fraser sings her first line on the album in “Teardrop”, her soft and gentle tone contrasts so beautifully with the sparse, degraded, minute-long intro and all the heaviness of the album until then, you may find some tears of your own falling. 

Trippiest lyrics

“Closed eyed sky wide open/Unlimited girl, unlimited sigh/Elsewhere, indefinite, far away/Magnifies and deepens” (“Group Four”)

In their own words

“If you’re not drinking, take some drugs.  You’re on Massive Attack time now.  No-one’s going anywhere.”  (Robert Del Naja)

“There’s a really weird perception that all we do is sit around taking loads of drugs, but it’s not as if we sit there smoking spliff all day, every day.  I spend a lot of time playing table football as well.”  (Daddy G)

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