Massive Attack – Mezzanine (1998)
I think we can officially say that Mezzanine is the soundtrack to television; the singles from this album (and a few tracks that weren’t so fortunate) have wormed their way into the media – including but not limited to the use of “Teardrop” as the theme song of House M.D. We’re dealing with massive commercial success here, although mostly in the United Kingdom. Anyways, Massive Attack is a band I learned about primarily by using Pandora, and their chosen “trip-hop” style was at first something that I could not relate to my understanding of electronica at the time. While I’ve grown more knowledgeable since then, I still have gaps to fill.
Massive Attack, at least on Mezzanine, focuses on texture and atmosphere above all else; one aspect that falters as a result is their use of dynamics. There’s a major emphasis on looped samples over which an ensemble of vocalists perform (which lead to legal issues with “Black Milk”), and the general level of intensity is best described as ‘ambient’ at many times. However, there are a few moments of increased intensity and loudness, such as the lead-in track, “Angel”. Ironically, “Angel” is the opposite of many of the tracks here, in that it relies almost entirely on dynamic change to retain listener interest; another prominent example of this is “Dissolved Girl”. Still, this is not an album of dramatic developments; when things change, they do so slowly and gradually.
Given the way these songs are written, my judgement of whether a track was good or not often came down to the quality of the vocals. Ironically, the main vocalists (Robert del Naja and Grantley Marshall) pale in comparison to their several guests because their chosen style is flat, bordering on monotone in a style where the backing is not particularly dynamic. Sometimes, they manage to overcome it with interesting soundscapes – like those on “Inertia Creeps”, but the guests simply outsing them. Horace Andy (on “Angel” and “Man Next Door”) seems to provide the most effective contrast, but Elizabeth Fraser (who performs on “Teardrop”, “Black Milk”, and “Group Four”) is the most technically accomplished vocalist on this album by far. Either way, while the lines they are assigned don’t particularly break any boundaries, they sound good and add much needed dimensionality to the music.
The last time I referenced this album (in a discussion of Perdition City by Ulver); I used it to describe a sort of ambient pop music that I was uncovering the boundaries of. This does not have the “experimental” edge of such a recording, unless you count the by-1998-established genre of trip-hop as experimental, but it is definitely a more coherent recording than what it may have inspired. This coherence definitely helps Mezzanine in the long run, as do the guest vocalists, but this only goes to show that the entire style benefits from development and variety. Based on the elements I mentioned, though, Massive Attack seems to understand this even when they don’t always hit all their nails.
Highlights: “Angel”, “Inertia Creeps”, “Man Next Door”, “Black Milk”