Massive Attack review: Elizabeth Fraser shines amid the paranoia and late-night alienation
The Bristol band turned their career-defining album Mezzanine inside out and made a new one
Massive Attack: ‘one off, personalised nostalgia nightmare head trip’. Photograph: Jim Dyson/Getty Images
Massive Attack perform Mezzanine XX1
It’s Sunday night at the 3Arena, and you could be forgiven for thinking this is a convention for fortysomething men with beards. But it’s not: This is, in fact, a Massive Attack concert. And no ordinary one either. The Bristol trip hop group, who released the career-defining album Mezzanine 21 years ago this April, promise a “one off, personalised nostalgia nightmare head trip”.
Now widely considered their masterpiece, they reimagine their best-known and most commercially successful album with visuals from documentary maker Adam Curtis. Plus star turns from two of Mezzanine’s key vocalists: Cocteau Twins’ Elizabeth Fraser and reggae star Horace Andy.
The show opens with flashing lights seemingly designed to induce an epileptic fit, and a reverby guitar drone that bounces off the arena walls. Something big is about to happen...
And indeed it does, though perhaps not quite as expected. The group launch into a lush cover of The Velvet Underground’s I Found a Reason, a song sampled on Mezzanine’s first single, Risingson. Large screens flagging the shadowy figures onstage display swooping CGI visuals of cityscapes, interpolated with footage of Tony Blair, Prince Andrew’s wedding and Barbie dolls. It’s the first of many songs that will be paid homage tonight, the scattered, unrecognisable fragments and samples finally released from the album’s grip.
The cover ends and suddenly up pops Britney Spears circa 2007 on screen, looking drugged and dazed as paparazzi encircle her like bloodthirsty sharks. Spears has dropped something. “Can someone find her memory card?” implores a kindly paparazzo. “Once upon a time data was going to make you free,” the onscreen text pronounces forebodingly.
Backed by a full band, the Bristol born duo then launch into Risingson itself, nightmarish and claustrophobic. Mezzanine XX1 is a show that presents its own esoteric, nonlinear version of recent history. It’s also one that at times risks being overly preachy: throughout, onscreen text delivers messages such as “as the decade went on, machines began collecting memories” and “outside the pleasure dome the endless wars continued” alongside footage of the Twin Towers, Trump, Michael Jackson and JonBenét Ramsey.
However the musical journey is filled with greater nuance. It boasts the light and shade the visuals arguably lack, as the soundtrack moves from post punk numbers such as the Bauhaus track Bela Lugosi’s Dead and Rockwrok by Ultravox to the elegiac beauty of Fraser’s voice on Black Milk and a searing cover of Pete Seeger’s Where Have All The Flowers Gone.
Some of the audience may not have liked the inclusion of songs sampled on the album at the expense of Massive Attack’s own tracks, but this group has always been about creating genre-defying, expectation-busting soundscapes, and here they’ve turned their iconic album inside out and made a new one.
The most bizarre inclusion comes in the form of a reworked portion of the late Avicii’s Levels – Am I actually hearing this?, I wonder aloud – while Group Four proves a confident closing number as it reaches a dizzying crescendo of sound and fury.
The highlight is undoubtedly Teardrop, sung live in Fraser’s ethereal tones for the first time in over a decade. After a night filled with Massive Attack’s trademark sense of paranoia, creeping dread and late night alienation, it marks a sudden shift in tempo. The Scottish singer’s understated beautiful voice is like the morning sun glinting through the blinds as the comedown eases off. Bathed in the warm glow of light, the audience can finally breathe again. For now.