Friday, March 22, 2013

Massive Attack Makes The Argument For Electronica From Women With Protection.

The Good: Moments of sound, Moments of vocals, mostly the title track
The Bad: Monotonous, Frequently incomprehensible or thuggish, Short
The Basics: Ponderous and dull when it is not being loud and rap-like, Protection is a disappointment to those with an appreciation for a broad musical spectrum.

I'm a pretty straightforward person in a lot of ways, especially with music. I don't put on affects and I like music that has something to say and does it well. So, when I first encountered Massive Attack - by catching their video for the song “Protection” a few months back - I was actually excited: they seemed to meet that basic criteria of having something to say and being very genuine and straightforward. I got my wake-up call from the band with Collected (reviewed here!). Still, I decided to give the group another try and I went back and found the album Protection.

After eight listens to this Massive Attack album, I think I am ready to make the most sexist generalization of my reviewing career: only women should be making electronic music. I grew up listening to albums that pushed the pop-techno borders, like Pet Shop Boys Actually (reviewed here!), but with Massive Attack, every track that is fronted by a female singer is palatable (at worst) and those fronted by the men of Massive Attack are either boring or thuggish in their sound. Okay, to be fair, perhaps the statement ought to be: Massive Attack should only make music when it is fronted by a female vocalist or is producing instrumental pieces.

With ten tracks, clocking in at 49:04, Protection appears to be mostly the work of Massive Attack with whomever they currently collaborate with. Unlike the liner notes to most albums, Protection does not state anything so directly as "Massive Attack is:." However, we suppose from the thanks and credits that Massive Attack is the trio of Mushroom, Daddy G, and 3-D who somehow correspond with (from the writing credits) Vowles, Del Naja, and Marshall (who are the only three consistent elements on the nine original tracks on the album). That trio created nine of the ten tracks on Protection (the final track is a live version of The Doors' "Light My Fire"). Massive Attack co-wrote nine of the ten tracks, though members of the band only provide vocals to three of the ten tracks. For the rest, they turn the singing over to Tracey Thorn (“Protection” and ""Better Things"), Nicolette ("Three" and "Sly"), and Horace Andy ("Spying Glass"). There are two instrumental pieces with pianos performed by Craig Armstrong ("Weather Storm" and "Heat Miser").

As anyone familiar with my reviews might be able to figure out: I'm having some trouble figuring out how much of the album is actually the creative work of the trio of Massive Attack and the only conclusion I think is fair to draw is that this is a remarkably collaborative band. While they take a co-producing and co-mixing credit, there seems to be nothing that the trio does all on their own. "Collaborative" is a great way for me to phrase it, I think. The only other way that comes to mind is "uncreative." Perhaps Massive Attack is just three guys who like playing with a mixing board and writing a few things, but they do seem to be somewhat deficient on either the follow-through or the polishing, so a lot of people outside the credited three are involved in all aspects of making Protection.

That said, the result is as mixed as the players. Consistent throughout the album are production sounds which include drum loops, samples and generally a synth and bass track to create music. Even “Protection,” which has an impressive poem to accompany the music, does not have the strongest melody to it. Instead, this is largely a collection of instrumental sounds put together, often with lyrics, to a murky club beat. One imagines smoky, sweaty places whenever this album is being played.

That said, it's not all bad. The title track, “Protection,” is an amazing song and it starts with t he lyrics. Opening the album with this song is somewhat deceptive, though, because it suggests to the listeners that the album might be a collection of musical stories that resonate with such deep lines as "This girl I know needs some shelter / She don't believe anyone can help her / She's doing so much harm, doing so much damage / But you don't want to get involved / You tell her she can manage / And you can't change the way she feels / But you could put your arms around her . . . I stand in front of you / I'll take the force of the blow / Protection" (“Protection”). the song is about reaching out, regardless of gender barriers or relationships and helping one another. It sounds amazing (Thorn provides haunting and excellent soprano vocals) and is an instantly memorable song.

Unfortunately, it runs right into "Karmacoma." Karmacoma is a more rap-like track (Massive Attack is, I am told, a pioneer in the musical genre of "trip-hop," which I suppose could be music to get stoned by) with heavier and very masculine vocals. "Karmacoma" is a track that I listened to several times before breaking down and actually looking up the lyrics. The whole idea of "music to get high by" is somewhat reinforced by the lyrics to this song, which consistently repeats the title and "Jamaica aroma," in between such pleasant lines as "Money like it's paper with faces I remember / I drink on a daily basis / Though it subtle cools my temper / It never cools my temper / Walking through the suburbs though not exactly lovers / You're a couple, 'specially when your body's doubled / Duplicate, then you wait for the next Kuwait" ("Karmacoma"). What's it about? Beats me: and I have a degree that includes training in literary analysis. The rappers seem to be stringing together any number of words that rhyme regardless of whether or not they have a statement to make.

This is pretty much standard for Protection, though "Sly" is a pleasant exception to that. With lines like "I feel like a thousand years have passed / I'm younger than I used to be / I feel like the world is my home at last /I know everyone that I meet / Somewhere in the music I can hear the bells / I heard a thousand years before / There's always more," "Sly" is deeply poetic and well-performed by Nicolette. The track has an almost Indian quality to it with her vocals reaching high and mixing beautifully with the soaring synthesizers. As well, the lines are clear and she does seem to have something to say.

The only other tracks that are even listenable on Protection are the two instrumental tracks and the cover. I am not certain the world truly needed a live version of "Light My Fire" set to a dance beat, but at least it has some originality to it and it sounds different from everything else on the album. It does take some creativity to remix a classic song and though this is not the best cover song I have ever heard, it is not bad.

The instrumental tracks, similarly, show some musical ability which is nice. The pianos on "Weather Storm" are musing and quiet against a produced drum track and bassline. They are reminiscent of tracks by Moby and they work beautifully to establish a mood that is consistent with the rest of the album, save that there are no garbled vocals overwhelming them. Similarly, "Heat Miser" is not bad and shows some musical ability.

Largely, though, these songs are collections of computerized electronic music sounds played at a slow tempo. This is exactly what one might expect the soundtrack to be in a film as it slowly pans through a crackhouse. For those of us not into that sort of thing, it's pretty boring.

The best track is “Protection,” the low point is "Spying Glass" with its radically computer produced vocals.

For other Artist Of The Month works, visit my reviews of:
Opiate - Tool
It Ain’t Easy: The Essential Recordings - Wilson Pickett
The King Of Rock: The Complete ‘50’s Recordings - Elvis Presley


For other music reviews, check out my organized Music Review Index Page!

© 2013, 2008 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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