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Massive Attack - 100th Window

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Artist: Massive Attack

Album: 100th Window

Label: Virgin

Review date: Mar. 27, 2003

Growing Panes

In late 2000, Massive Attack announced that they wouldn't be releasing a follow-up to 1998's Mezzanine in the foreseeable future. This decision was couched as a protest of sorts: they felt British music was in a "piss-poor" state and didn't want an album of theirs out in stores sharing the shelf with products by lesser, creatively challenged artists. While these were perhaps justified sentiments, they inevitably raised the level of expectation surrounding the group's overdue fourth record.

Another two years on and you could have been forgiven for thinking that the album was never going to see the light of day. Sporadic reports hinted at a fraught recording process: the departure of Mushroom back in late '99 forced 3D and Daddy G to re-think their sound; then it was claimed that they had a whopping 85 tracks in the can; this number was apparently whittled down to 15 or so, with 20 versions of each track; in 2001, 3D said they'd lost their focus and had essentially started over; finally, in summer 2002, it emerged that Daddy G had gone on a sabbatical and wouldn't feature on the record at all. None of this augured well.

Unfortunately, in light of both the band's rationale for holding back new material and the amount of work obviously done over the last few years, 100th Window is something of a letdown.

For most artists, this album would be a significant achievement--but we've come to expect more from Massive Attack; their landmark debut Blue Lines provided a genre-blending blueprint for the trip-hop generation of the '90s and beyond, while the dark masterpiece Mezzanine showed the Bristol collective's ability to reinvent itself and to chart entirely different musical territory. But just as Massive's second release, Protection, was in many ways a weaker version of Blue Lines, 100th Window rehashes Mezzanine with less compelling results.

Similarities are immediately apparent in the moody, textured atmospherics, the crawling beats, the ocean-trawling basslines, and the overwhelming feel of claustrophobia and menace. This time around, though, it sounds like 3D, the only surviving member, has holed himself up in a darker, smaller, even more claustrophobic room, virtually jettisoning rap and hip-hop as well as scaling back the range of melody and moods that's characterized some of Massive Attack's finest moments in the past.

Showing continuity with Mezzanine's "Inertia Creeps," there's a pronounced eastern groove snaking its way through 100th Window, especially on the four tracks featuring 3D's vocals. 3D doesn't rap here or even really sing. Rather, he slurs drowsy fragments, adding further fluid layers to the brooding whole. "Future Proof," with its tabla sound, works reasonably well, as does the tense "Antistar," which eventually expands with swirling hypnotic strings; elsewhere, however, the tracks tend to lose their shape and fail to hold your attention.

In keeping with the band's established MO of enlisting female singers, Sinéad O'Connor makes an appearance here. One of the things that worked so well on tracks like Mezzanine's "Teardrop" was the contrast between Elizabeth Fraser's angelic voice and the austere sonic ambience that surrounded it. O'Connor's voice is certainly distinctive and it lets a few shards of light into Massive Attack's dark and heady sonic spaces but it lacks the emotive power of previous female singers and fails to establish that unique contrast. Neither does it have the warmth of some of the more soulful vocalists Massive have employed.

Some of that missing warmth is rekindled by Massive Attack stalwart Horace Andy, particularly on "Everywhen." Even so, his vocals here lack their characteristic crooning vibrato, which made a track like Mezzanine's "Angel" so memorable.

100th Window is less immediate than its predecessors, almost entirely characterized by a mood of downbeat introspection that often just washes over listeners rather than engulfing them. Although there aren't any grand moments in the league of "Unfinished Sympathy," "Safe from Harm," or "Protection," the closest contender is "A Prayer for England." This moderately rousing number sung by O'Connor breaks with the introspective mood and actually aspires to being "about" something; it seems to deal with the child abduction and murder cases that have plagued the UK recently and derives much of its emotional impact from that very raw context. On first listen, it's great, but then it strains and buckles under the weight of O'Connor's priestly earnestness. Obviously, the song's subject is no laughing matter but when you listen closely to O'Connor at her most self-righteous, delivering an awkward incantation to "Jah," it becomes painfully funny.

Massive Attack have always been in a class of their own so it's hard not to judge this album by the band's own lofty standards; by those criteria, 100th Window is disappointing.

By Wilson Neate

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