Few artists are able to release a truly classic album; that Massive Attack dropped not one but two classic albums of the 1990s is quite an extraordinary feat. Twenty-five years on from its release we look back at the band’s third album, ‘Mezzanine’, to consider what it took to create a truly classic follow-up to their genre-defining debut ‘Blue Lines’.
The debut album from Massive Attack, 1991’s ‘Blue Lines’, brought Hip Hop and soundsystem culture to the masses as Massive Attack burst out of the Bristol scene to join Portishead as key instigators of the sound that came to be known as Trip Hop. As the decade developed the significant differences of style and sounds of the genre’s best-known acts would pry the definition apart at the seams though the bands ‘Protection’ would stand as a testament to the understated Hip Hop beats and mixed live and sampled instrumentation that would forever come to define the genre.
Yet even by that point the creative energy of the band, alongside that of their peers, was kicking back at the pigeonholing as they dropped the Dub remix album ‘No Protection’ alongside Mad Professor, itself a gem of the remix genre. By 1997 tensions within the band had begun to grow due to extensive touring and broadening creative differences, particularly between Robert “3D” Del Naja and Andrew “Mushroom” Vowles, the lead writers and producers of the trio that also included Grantley “Daddy G” Marshall. Pushed in particular by Del Naja’s vision, the band pursued a darker, more Rock orientated sound inspired by the Post-Punk of Wire and Gang of Four. During a fraught recording process working with producer Neil Davidge, individual band members would work one-on-one with their producer on track sections, passing pieces back and forth while spending as little time together as a group as possible. Slated for release in December 1997, the album was delayed into the following year as Del Naja continued to strip tracks down for repeat remixing, feeling he hadn’t quite got to the intended final product. On release, the album was a hit, led by the single ‘Teardrop’ which peaked in the Top Ten.
For an album that is deep, bold, and at times abrasive, the opening track ‘Angel’ begins almost imperceptibly. As the now infamous sub-bass line begins to build, only those with high-quality speakers or the volume turned way up are likely to catch the opening trio of notes. Soon joined by a stripped-down beat, the rhythm section provides a slowly developing base for abstract flashes of sound; first a delayed and reverberating cymbal, the screech of what sounds like a bow on an electric violin, a hint of feedback from an electric guitar. Soon Horace Andy’s vocals intone “You are my angel…”, the title of his 1973 track that ‘Angel’ draws so heavily from. Flipping the script on the Roots Reggae original, ‘Angel’ plays on the “dark side” slowly developing and building until a crescendo of soaring electric guitar chords develop into jagged fuzzed chops and then on into mirroring the bassline. Nothing like the Hip Hop and Soul influenced tracks of their earlier albums, ‘Angel’ is a bold introduction to a darker, edgier, tension-filled sound.
Built with a predominance of live instrumentation, Massive Attack borrowed from the writing habits of peers Portishead as they recorded guitars, bass, keys and more and turned them into their own samples to be looped, cut up, and reshaped to form the eleven-track album. That’s not to say the band abandoned sampling other artists completely, though while samples of familiar Hip Hop and Trip Hop fair like The Incredible Bongo Band and Isaac Hayes remain, they’re also joined by samples of The Velvet Underground and The Cure. At its rockiest, on ‘Dissolved Girl’ featuring a bittersweet vocal from Sara Jay Hawley, a distorted, high gain electric guitar riff is doubled, dropped out of the mix in exchange for a pounding Hip Hop drum break before looming back threateningly before finally subsiding. Swapping out the loud-quiet-loud structures of early 90s Grunge for loops and breaks more fitting to Dance and Hip Hop, the band plays with constantly shifting dynamics alongside stark contrasting timbres.
Of the new directions and innovations of sound the band pursued on ‘Mezzanine’, few stand out more than the foray into Balkan çiftetelli on ‘Inertia Creeps’, a song about a failing relationship from Del Naja. Inspired by nights out in Istanbul, the track couples jangling Post-Punk guitar chords with a beat featuring pronounced tom-toms while North African rhythms punctuate. Maximalist to the point of claustrophobia, the track reverberates with angst.
Brimming with static and heartbeat percussion, ‘Teardrop’ is dominated by a revolving, looping harpsichord riff and rich piano chords beneath Cocteau Twins’ Liz Fraser’s floating vocals. The album’s most famous moment, the track transformed the band into Festival headliners with tracks that worked on stage as well as on record. One of the lighter tracks on the album, it nonetheless plays with the contrast between Frasers' gossamer vocals and the insistent, slightly off-kilter rhythms to create an enveloping sense of the uncanny.
The album highlight however, comes in the form of another Horace Andy fronted number that reinterprets an old Reggae track, this time John Holt and The Paragon’s ‘I’ve Got to Get Away’. Retitled ‘Man Next Door’, it builds on a fractured drum sample of Led Zeppelin's ‘When The Levee Breaks’, itself a cover that became a defining Hip Hop sample used hundreds of times by the likes of Beastie Boys and Dr Dre. Slowed down from the original upbeat Reggae track, ‘Man Next Door’ is languorous and stifling, pausing only to sample the guitar from The Cure’s paranoia-soaked hit ‘10:15 Saturday Night’. Where their previous release had been remixed into Dub versions by Mad Professor, here on Mezzanine the band took the Reggae tradition of versioning and smashed it together with Hip Hop sampling to produce a forebodingly dark contemporary take on Post-Punk. More than that, Horace Andy lays down an exemplary vocal take rich in pathos that ensures the track is laden with emotion.
Dark and deep, ‘Mezzanine’ is an album whose sub-bass and snatches of distorted guitar imprinted itself on audiences moving away from the breezier days of the early to mid-90s. Soon the album would appear prescient as the 2000s began and the world shifted towards a darker mood post-9/11. While still resolutely influenced by Dub and Hip Hop, Massive Attack expanded their palette into a new timbre of guitar-based music and expanded the emotive range as they explored darker and more opaque realms. Rather than lean further into Soul, Hip Hop or R&B, ‘Mezzanine’ instead seemed to draw influence from Nine Inch Nails’ ‘The Downward Spiral’, channelling tracks like ‘Piggy’ and ‘Closer’.
In terms of career turns, ‘Mezzanine’ attracted new listeners and expanded the band's fame at the cost of founding member Vowles, who left the group soon after the album was released. Heavier and more ambiguous than their previous releases, the dark sub-bass-driven sound can be seen as an influence on the initial rise of Dubstep and the atmospheric work of Burial and James Blake, as well as the Post-Punk influenced Hip Hop sound of Young Fathers. Having crafted one of the defining albums of the early 1990s with ‘Blue Lines’, Massive Attack flipped the script, dropped the warmth and went all in on gloomy depth to close out the decade on an album that has also gone on to be a classic.