(Artwork care of Karen Ramsay (www.karenramsay.com), profile photo care of brianlackeyphotography.com)

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Recording review - Massive Attack, Blue Lines (1991, reissue 2012)

The birth of trip hop is still fresh and relevant

Blue Lines was a seed crystal dropped into a super-saturated British music scene back in 1991. A new band with the unlikely name of Massive Attack first released a couple of singles: the spacy hip hop of "DayDreamer" and then the game-changing "Unfinished Sympathy". Soon, the band's unique mix of down tempo beats, trippy interludes, and introspective soul became the standard bearer for the new genre of trip hop. The slower rhythms provided an open structure where contrasting parts could be juxtaposed into innovative combinations, inspiring a generation of producers. Although it seemed like Massive Attack appeared out of nowhere, they were an outgrowth of Bristol's Wild Bunch soundsystem, who developed the foundation of the style by blending Jamaican dub, electronic grooves, and American hip hop.

Coming into adulthood at 21 years old, Blue Lines shows some age with old school beats, turntable scratching, and lower fidelity samples. But this reissue is not just a history lesson or faded memory; the album still sounds fresh and relevant. Its mashup mix of soulful vocals and dub rhythms continues to be a mainstay in modern pop music and several of the tracks foreshadow the lasting trends that would follow. The lazy, bass-driven funk of "Safe From Harm" could turn up on a recent release without sounding overly dated. The band would continue to develop in this direction, layering ever more complex combinations of soft synth fills over deep, moody riffs and soulful vocals.

Similarly, that early hit, "Unfinished Sympathy" may rely on an older style of rhythm loop, but the string swells and dreamy R&B groove feel timeless. It's easy to see why this did so well on the charts of the day. Turntable scratching and sampling provide a hip hop vibe, while the keys and strings pull the song towards synth pop. The combination has a chilled distance with an undercurrent of nervous tension. Shara Nelson's warm voice cements the two contrasting elements into a compelling track that works as well in the club as with headphones.

Massive Attack would later edge away from the more direct reggae dub feel of tracks like "One Love", but the tune packs a powerful punch. The sparse rhythm is stripped down to its barest essentials, lightly accented with scratching and a light organ riff. It casts a disquieting shadow on the lyrics. In another setting, "It's you I love, and not another/ And I know our love will last forever," might be just a pretty sentiment, but the dark music and Horace Andy's reedy quaver create a sense of menace.

Listening to that menace leads to understanding, both of the album and Massive Attack's name. Bluster is just wasted energy. Better instead to harness the power of inertia, set something big into motion, and watch the momentum bury everything. Just as the universe is dominated by dark matter and dark energy, Blue Lines is filled with a massive, unseen threat. We can only perceive the understated tension and breathless silence that gives each layered part a hefty weight.

The sole respite from the darkness is the cover of William DeVaughn's "Be Thankful for What You Got", which preserves the original's Curtis Mayfield soul sound under a patina of electronic percussion fills. The arrangement follows the same minimalist aesthetic of the other songs, but the more uplifting lyrics and Tony Bryan's warm vocals create an eye of comfort. In a world of conflict and threat, this reflective moment is sweet. Robert "3D" Del Naja later suggested that the song was too soft and retro for the album, but that contrast makes it all the more valuable. "Five Man Army" follows up with a rich 2Tone sound and trade-off raps, easing us back into the rest of Blue Lines' chill groove.

This reissue respects the band's stripped down approach by not tacking on any distractions. There are no remixes or other extra tracks. Aside from some mixing tweaks, the message is clear: "why mess up a good thing?"

(This review originally appeared on Spectrum Culture)

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