Recently I wrote an article about Portishead, a group from Bristol, who were pioneers of the trip hop scene. In this article, I will write about another group who were at the forefront of the trip hop scene, and who did as much to popularize, and develop trip hop as a musical genre. That group are Massive Attack and the album is their debut album Blue Lines released twenty years ago in 1991.

Massive Attack were founded are a trip hop duo who were founded in 1998 in Bristol. The members of Massive Attack met when members of Bristol musical collective The Wild Bunch. They were DJs Daddy G and Andrew Vowles and former graffiti artist, turned rapper Robert Del Naja. The Wild Bunch were innovators, being one of the UK’s first sound-systems, being hugely successful in the club scene in the Bristol area.

When Massive Attack started out, in 1988, they were a trio, involved in producing music. Their first release was Any Love by Carlton McCarthy. The track was released independently. However, with help from Neneh Cherry, Massive Attack signed a record deal with Circa Records in 1990. This meant Massive Attack had to produce six studio albums, and a best of compilation. When you consider the terms of the deal now, this was quite a long term deal, with both parties locked into an agreement that could last the group’s career. What would happen, if, as proved to be the case, Massive Attack proved to be hugely successful? Would the terms improve? Or would they be locked into a deal that was not as beneficial as a shorter term deal that could be re-negotiated, or contained break clauses. I suppose, artists in their haste to sign a record deal, do not consider these things. What is most important to artists is producing albums, and getting their music released. Later Circa Records later become a subsidiary of Virgin Records.

Massive Attack have always been perceived as a group who pushed musical boundaries, and who were always open to experimenting on their albums. They have constantly sought to challenge orthodox musical theories. This is apparent when you listen to their music, they have written songs that do not have choruses, something that was seen as diametrically opposite to most musical theory. Listen to the sounds on their albums, you will hear effects used to change the dynamics and sound of instruments. The use of distortion on guitars, the way they the use effects to highlight dramatic high-points within string sections or orchestral sections. Another example is their use of samples and loop. The final production process sees Massive Attack use technology to it best effect. They are masters of editing and mixing, transforming the musical soundscapes, into a masterful mix, that has no equals. Massive Attack have always been willing, and looking to introduce new ideas and technology into their music, to help it evolve, and move on to the next level, always leading and pioneering, never following.

Blue Lines was Massive Attack’s first album for Circa Records, released in April 1991. It was a huge success, reaching number ten in the UK album charts. Massive Attack were helping in the recording of Blue Lines by Neneh Cherry and Cameron McVeigh. Part of the album was recorded in Massive Attack’s house. The album featured a number of different guest vocalists, including reggae legend Horace Andy, and an old friend from their Wild Bunch days. Their friend Neneh Cherry also sang backing vocals on Hymn of the Big Wheel. One of the songs on the album was Unfinished Sympathy, which is a fantastic track featuring a hugely complicated string arrangement, which Will Malone scored. Unfinished Sympathy was recorded at the famous Abbey Road studios. 

On Blue Lines release, what struck many critics and record buyers was the variety, and range of influences of music on the album. If you listen carefully, the album is a fusion of dub, reggae, hip hop, electronic music, classic 1970s soul. It cemented Massive Attack’s as musical pioneers, and saw electronic music move towards a more downtempo, laid back sound. On the album sampling, rapping and breakbeats all feature, on various tracks. Blue Lines was critically acclaimed on its release, and has since gone on to be seen as one of the best albums released in the past twenty years.  

Having released such a successful debut album, the pressure was on Massive Attack when they recorded their second album. The pressure was increased now that Shara Nelson had left Massive Attack, to be replaced by Everything But the Girl’s Tracy Thorn. No problem. They recorded and released Protection in September 1994, and it was a huge success, reaching number one in the UK album charts. It is seen as one of the best downtempo, or chill out albums ever, and is an essential part of anyone who loves chill out music’s record collection. So well thought of, Rolling Stone magazine included it on their Coolest Albums of All Time List. Like Blue Lines, Protection included a number of guest artists including Tricky on vocals on the track Karmacoma, and Craig Armstrong on piano. Protection was remixed by DJ Mad Professor in 1995, and released as No Protection.

Four years would pass until the release of Massive Attack’s next album. April 1998 saw their third album Mezzanine released. The album was produced by Neil Davidge. Unlike their previous two album, the sound was a change from their laid back sound. Mezzannine had a darker sound, and featured both ambient and abstract sounds. On the album, were a plethora of samples, including Led Zeppelin, Manfred Mann and Isaac Hayes. Manfred Mann sued Massive attack for the use of a sample from one of their yawn inducing tracks Tribute. Andy Vowles would leave the band after Mezzanine, citing creative conflicts. A number of guest artists would feature on Mezzanine, including Horace Andy and former Cocteau Twin, Liz Fraser. The album was a huge success worldwide, reaching number one in the UK album charts.

In February 2003, Massive Attack released their fourth album 100th Window. The only original member of the band involved in making the album was Robert Del Naja. 100th Window is the first Massive Attack album not to feature samples. Gone are the jazz influences and stylings of previous albums. One difference from Mezzanine is that the album is not as dark, and has a brighter sound and feel to it. As usual, a number of guest artists featured on the album, including Horace Andy, Sinead O’ Connor and Damon Albarn. Like previous albums, 100th Window reached number on in the UK album charts.

The last album Massive Attack released, Heligoland was released in February 2010. Heligoland  was the first Massive Attack album for seven years. In the interim period, they had been concentrating on soundtrack albums, releasing three between 2003 and 2010. These were In Prison My Whole LIfe, Battle In Seattle and Trouble the Water. Seven years was a long time between albums, and musical tastes and trends change, sometimes quickly. The release of Heligoland would be a test for Massive Attack, to see if they were still as popular as previously. They enlisted a huge number of guest artists to feature on the album. They would include Mazzy Star, Guy Harvey of Elbow, Damon Albarn and Adrian Utley of Portishead. To publicize the album’s release, eight low budget films were released online. The album was received well, and sold well. Unlike previous albums it only reached number six in the UK album charts. However, the album was later certified gold, and Massive Attack’s seven year hiatus had neither affected their popularity, nor their reputation as a pioneering and groundbreaking group. Incidentally, Massive Attack still have one album to produce from the six album deal they signed twenty-one years ago. 

Having told you about the history of Massive Attack, I will now tell you just why their debut album Blue Lines such a special, groundbreaking and fantastic album. Blue Lines opens with Safe From Harm. The track begins with drum beats, bass and then Shara Nelson makes an appearance, singing the vocal beautifully. Nelson’s vocal sits in front of the drum beats, and are interrupted by a spoken word sample, one that punctuates the track, adding to the atmospheric feel of the track. This is highlighted by the spaciousness of the drum beats, samples and scratches used throughout the track. Although on of the faster tracks on Blue Lines, it is a great track to begin a great album.

The second track One Love, sees the groundbreaking and innovative music continuing. Massive Attack really lower the tempo, to a pedestrian level, the track settling at sixty-eight beats per minute. On this track, there are scratches and samples aplenty, accompanying reggae legend Horace Andy’s moody vocal. One Love is track to chill to, one that still sounds as good, twenty years later.This track shows how Massive Attack used a combination of creativity, sampling and studio trickery, to produce a masterful downtempo classic.

The title track, Blue LInes, sees the tempo increase and the style change. Blue LInes has a minimalist feel and sound to it. Adrian “Tricky” Thaws raps in front of crunching drum beats, scratches and a very melodic backbeat. Tricky’s rap makes the track, the words are both clever and contain humor. It is a simple, yet effective track, one that has its roots in American hip hop. Although only the third song on the album, each track has been very different. What follows, takes the album to a new level.

Be Thankful For What You’ve Got is, by far, the best track on the album. The song is a cover version of a song originally written by Tong DeVaughn and was a huge hit for him, reaching number four on the US Billboard Hot 100 chart. It is a glorious track, which features a great melody, and some really catch hooks. Tony Bryan’s vocal brings the song to life, giving it almost a classic 1970s’ soul sound. His vocal is augmented by the hammond organ that plays in the background, the occasional scratch, and the backing vocalists who compliment Bryan’’s voice beautifully. I have always loved the original, and when I first bought the album approached the track with trepidation, as the song was one of my all time favorites. Thankfully, I was not disappointed, Massive Attack took a classic song, and gave it a new dimension, a new twist, and in the process, have produced a fantastic track, the best on Blue Lines.

Five Man Army sees the track begin with a rap, the drum beats crunch, prominent in the mix. Percussion plays around the beats and vocal. Then Tricky sings a vocal. Joining the mix comes Horace Andy, in the background at first, then taking centre-stage, just when the track begins to a have a reggae feel and sound. This is a great track, one that draws influences from reggae, hip hop and jazz, it is melting pot of styles and influences.

Shara Nelson returns to vocal duties on Unfinished Sympathy. This is the second best track on the album. It is a masterpiece of a track, featuring a lovely lush string arrangement and an outstanding vocal performance from Nelson. The sound is big, loud and glorious. I cannot criticize the track in any way, the vocal and string section is exquisite, as is the piano, drums and percussion. Truly, an outstanding track, the best original piece of work on the album.

On Daydreaming Massive Attack share vocals with Shara Nelson. This is a good contrast. Massive Attack rap their part of the track, the lyrics heavy on social comment and even parodying Topol’s dreadful If I Were A Rich Man. Nelson for her part, brightens up the track, her voice soaring, and falling, articulating the lyrics beautifully. The contrast between the two vocal styles, is part of what makes the track work, the other thing is the insightful, intelligent lyrics, which tell of a broken society in the UK. Twenty years on, what has changed? 

Lately is the penultimate track on the album. Nelson again sings the vocal. She sings the vocal behind lush strings, crisp, crunchy, drum beats, and a funky bass line. It is a slower track, one with an abundance of space. The crackly sound that continues through the track, brings back memories of scratched vinyl, and the scratches, are like punctuation in the music, and the scratches are used sparingly adding to the track’s ambience. This track is definitely, one of the albums high-points. 

Blue Lines closes with Hymn of the Big Wheel. The track has a dark and atmospheric feel and sound at the start. You wonder where Massive Attack are going with the track. When the track takes shape, Horace Andy gives his best performance on the album, and is accompanied by Neneh Cherry on backing vocals. His vocal is loud, clear and passionate. He is backed by and some intriguing rhythms, you find yourself trying to distinguish the sounds, you pick out drums, synthesizers, percussion yet other sounds elude you. So you end up sitting back, and letting the track’s beauty engulf you, saddened when the track and album ends.

One thing that struck me having listened to Blue Lines a number of times since I decided to write this article, is just how fresh the album sounds. If you had not heard the album before, and someone let you hear it, many people would think that it is a new release. This is testament to Massive Attack, they were innovators, pioneers of dance and electronic music, miles ahead of other artists. One has to remember that was their debut album, and Blue Lines shows a great deal of maturity. The album is almost flawless. There is not a bad track on the album. How many other debut albums can you say that about? Usually there are one or two tracks on a debut album that let it down, not here. The other remarkable thing is that often when an artist or band produces an outstanding debut, often they never scale these heights again, that was the peak of their career. Massive Attack went on to equal, if not better Blue Lines with their next two albums Protection and Mezzanine. On these albums, they were striving not only better their previous albums, but to evolve, and reinvent themselves. That is no mean feat, to be able to do that. 

If you don’t own a copy of Blue Lines it is well worth buying a copy, it is a great album, packed full of fantastic, innovative music. It is an album that still sounds fresh, twenty years on, it still sounds as good as it did when it was released. Should you decide to buy another of their albums to accompany Blue Lines, I would recommend protection or Mezzanine, both of which are great albums, and like Blue Lines, are albums you will listen to over and again. Standout Tracks: Safe From Harm, Be Thankful For What You’ve Got, Unfinished Sympathy and Lately.


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