Deconstruction time again: Massive attack tear apart their masterpiece Mezzanine

In the hysterical climate of retromania, band reunions and anniversary tours, it’s easy to forget the albums that actually deserve the adulation.

In recent times we’ve had 10-year anniversary tours of indie detritus bands such as The Enemy and The Wombats, and we hit hit rock bottom with Kula Shaker’s 20th anniversary tour of the debut album K, and nonsense band Alien Ant Farm celebrating 15 years since their album ANThology.

It’s rare to get an anniversary tour that celebrates a record that defined a whole scene. However, Massive Attack are on tour showcasing their 1998 album Mezzanine, their beautiful, dark twisted masterpiece that did for trip-hop what PiL’s Metal Box did for post-punk – redefined pop culture and imprinted itself on a generation.

From its impact on electronic music to its ubiquity in cinema whenever a director wants a short-cut to dread, paranoia and brittle emotions, it’s seeped into our DNA. And to mark the 20th anniversary, Mezzanine was even the first album to be encoded into synthetic DNA, with the digital audio of the album stored in the form of genetic information.

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Massive Attack’s third album followed 1991’s Blue Lines and 1994’s Protection – two records that had already laid down a blueprint of sorts, elegantly blurring the lines between soulful house music, dub, hip-hop and soundsystem culture as a whole. DJs Daddy G and Andrew ‘Mushroom’ Vowles and rapper/ graffiti artist Robert ‘3D’ Del Naja met in the late 80s in Bristol as members of the Wild Bunch soundsystem – with their first two albums released on Wild Bunch Records. Critical praise, award nominations and transcendent singles like ‘Unfinished Sympathy’ and ‘Protection’ heaped pressure on Mezzanine, their first album on a major label, Virgin.

Originally set for a 1997 release, Mezzanine was continually pushed back for months, as Del Naja refused to stop reworking the tracks, hacking away at nerve endings and forcing the album into ever darker corners. Even first impressions of Mezzanine suggested a severing of the past. Gone was the hip-hop collage and graphic aesthetic of previous Massive Attack artwork, for a monochrome hi-definition close-up composite photo of a stag beetle.

The album’s dread unfurls slowly, with the sub-bass and industrial guitars of ‘Angel’ still testing subwoofers to the limit 21 years later, and the self-explanatory ‘Inertia Creeps’ becoming a shorthand tone for the record as a whole. Mezzanine still called on dub echoes and melancholy guest vocals, but infused it with stark, processed guitar, wiry electronics and claustrophobic production.

Reggae great Horace Andy lends his vocals again, but his angelic falsetto is smothered in darkened, disorientating dissonance and smothering bass. The initial shuddering mental image of ‘Black Milk’ is offset by the spectral vocals of The Cocteau Twin’s Liz Fraser over smudgy hip-hop, while Fraser also adorns the near-miraculous single ‘Teardrop’, Massive Attack’s biggest ‘hit’. ‘Teardrop’’s beauty is all the more bittersweet when it emerged that Fraser recorded the song on the day she found out about the death of her friend Jeff Buckley. The song was initially pencilled in for a Madonna vocal, which is a tantalising prospect, but you get the idea that Madge would’ve chewed the scenery and stole the limelight. As it is, it’s one of the perfect, heartbreaking songs of the decade, and Fraser is touring for Mezzanine XXI, along with Andy.

Mushroom being overruled on the Madonna feature was just one case of the spiralling tension between the trio. Mezzanine basically broke the band, with Mushroom leaving straight after and Daddy G temporarily quitting soon after that, despite the united front at the time.

3D’s reworking and tinkering of Mezzanine has been invoked once again on this tour, with the album being presented in a shape-shifting fashion, remixed and updated. A remastered version of the LP was released in December with eight new tracks and a previously unreleased remix from dub innovator Mad Professor, who reworked Protection in 1995.

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3D and Daddy G have taken Massive Attack on tour numerous times since the release of Mezzanine, always with a politically-charged multimedia live show, often causing a few doses of the fear at festivals with their dystopian ticker-tape warnings and visuals. But this will be the only full-on immersive deep dive into the real dark heart of Massive Attack, a singular artistic statement that the world is still catching up with.

And with new visuals created by HyperNormalisation documentary maker Adam Curtis, expect the dystopia to spin out through the evening. As Del Naja says: “It’s going to be a one off piece of work; our own personalised nostalgia nightmare head trip.”

  • Massive Attack present Mezzanine XXI at Dublin’s 3Arena this Sunday, February 24