Massive Attack have no need for the past. They would rather drag us kicking and screaming into the present to recognize how messed up things have become by not heeding its warnings.
On a tour celebrating 21 years since the release of their landmark record, Mezzanine, the Bristol, England trip-hop group (featuring Robert "3D" Del Naja and Grant "Daddy G" Marshall) treated their classic songs as if they were still a fitful, evolving force, while paying tribute to the bands that inspired them and the songs they sampled along the way.
No one on stage said a word to the audience throughout the 100-minute show, with the visuals of documentary filmmaker Adam Curtis left to engage and incite the sold-out crowd during and between songs. "Once upon a time…Data was going to make you free" his text claimed ominously at the start of the show. Now look where we've ended up.
Del Naja, Marshall, and their ace five-piece backing band crafted a squall of feedback amid a flash of strobe lights as they took the stage, before images of a prosperous future city filled with excess at every turn filled the screen behind the band. Oh, and clips of the paparazzi helping Britney Spears find a lost memory card too. This was an unsettling art-house film augmenting a rock show.
Rather than taking a victory lap, Massive Attack linked the past, present, and future of music with nods to other acts who’d helped inspire and shape their own groundbreaking sound. The set opened with a tender cover of the Velvet Underground's "I Found A Reason," which flowed smoothly into the song that sampled from it, "Risingson." And a rollicking take on the Cure's "10:15 Saturday Night" was followed immediately by "Man Next Door," which used elements of the Cure's song within its menacing pulse.
Reggae legend Horace Andy was on hand to provide his rich vocals to "Man Next Door," "Angel," and his own song, "See A Man's Face," while also providing a clear reminder of the strong influence dub and reggae had on Bristol's trip-hop scene and Massive Attack's sound in particular. In addition to Andy, Cocteau Twins Elizabeth Fraser was also in the house, adding her diaphanous vocals to "Black Milk," set closer "Group Four," and the stunning "Teardrop." She also gave the moody, rather bleak performance a much needed elegance as well, saving the chaotic sights and sounds of the show from being overly forceful and claustrophobic.
"If you liked that, you will love this," the screens teased, taunting our dependency on social media as well as the shadowy algorithms that dictate our creative consumption. During a potent version of "Inertia Creeps" (which samples from another cover offered up during the set, "Rockwrok" by Ultravox) Curtis' film took full aim at the pharmaceutical industry, with an endless stream of drug names filling the screens as the song reached a full boil. No one was spared from ridicule and blame within the films, as ruthless dictators of the past gave way to images of Trump, Theresa May, active shooter clips, frightening surveillance footage, and the ravages of war.
All this with Massive Attack's songs, and covers of Bauhaus' "Bela Lugosi's Dead" and Pete Seeger's "Where Have All the Flowers Gone," serving as a soundtrack to these apocalyptic images of death and destruction. The images and the music provided a direct link between the social unrest of the past and the hate, racism, greed, and corruption of our modern day, leaving you with no easy answers and more questions than you walked in with.
The show truly became transcendent during its final half hour, with Andy's impassioned vocals on "Angel" giving the song a restless heart while the menacing rhythms of the track swirled around the room. After not singing since the early part of the set, it's a hard ask for Fraser to rejoin the band for a song as delicate and soaring as "Teardrop" and nail it straight away. So it understandably took her a verse to get her vocals fully warmed up again, but when she locked in halfway through the song took flight and became a thing of pure broken beauty.
A (thankfully) brief cover of Avicii's "Levels" was an abrasive sonic excursion that briefly derailed the momentum of the close of the show (again, trying to link their sound with the future of music). But Fraser quickly returned to join Del Naja on a raucous, churning version of "Group Four" that ended the set with an abrasive jolt. And without so much as a wave to the crowd or a group bow to soak in the ovation, the band were quickly off leaving us all to make our own sense out of what we just witnessed.
"Memories of the past cloud our vision of the future. It's time to start leaving the ghosts behind" the screens commanded, and indeed this wasn't a nostalgia tour by any means. Massive Attack still sound like the future. Now it's just up to us to make sure our modern way of life finally catches up to them before things fully go off the rails.
Random Notebook Scrawl: The only notes I have next to "Angel" is "THIS FUCKING RULED!!!"
I Found A Reason (Velvet Underground cover)
10:15 Saturday Night (The Cure cover)
Man Next Door
Bela Lugosi's Dead (Bauhaus cover)
See A Man's Face
Where Have All The Flowers Gone (Pete Seeger cover)
Rockwrok (Ultravox cover)
Levels (Avicii cover)