Two days shy of a full seven years after their last release, which was widely viewed as more of a solo effort from Robert Del Naja due to Grant Marshall's absence, Massive Attack have finally returned. A gap of that size, long even for the trip-hop spearheading collective (who have released only five albums in nearly twenty years), can make comparing new with old somewhat difficult; a lot can happen in seven years, and most of the fans who so eagerly picked up 100th Window back in 2003 are scarcely the same people today. This is why despite the broader sound and more dynamically used intensity, it takes a good number of listens before one can decide whether Heligoland, their latest, is better than 100th Window. And the slow growing quality, paired with the fact that Portishead put out such a stellar record a few years ago, has already resulted in the album not getting quite as much credit as it deserves; before its formal release, no less. Hopefully the trend will change soon enough, because while Heligoland certainly doesn't top the best in Massive Attack's catalogue, it's still easily good enough to stand next to them.
The return of Marshall, or Daddy G, doesn't take long to become apparent; the psychedelic gloom that dominated 100th Window is largely gone, relegated to a moderation which leaves Heligoland sounding far more upbeat and slightly brighter; though make no mistake, there is still a great deal of dark, menacing presence here, and its more modest portions make it all the more powerful. The album is already being compared to Mezzanine, but its sound is much more soulful, and sounds more akin to Protection. Another big difference is that much of Heligoland is more reliant on simple melodies, which renders the tracks as deceptively simple. The atmospherics are still there, but they sneak up on the listener; more often than not they creep in just as the initial hook is hitting its stride.
The list of guest vocalists is remarkable, and they are all unsurprisingly suitably chosen. While it may seem gimmicky having hipster band vocalists Tunde Adebimpe and Guy Garvey (of TV on the Radio and Elbow, respectively) on board, their songs don't sound like anybody else should have sung on them. Opener Pray for Rain serves as a great, morphing backdrop for Adebimpe's doomed sermon-like delivery, while Flat of the Blade finds Garvey expressing disorienting dread very well with an understated but highly affecting vocal. Damon Albarn has a contribution as well, Saturday Come Slow, with a great, 13 era Blur sound, though he sounds strangely Thom Yorke-like in the chorus. Mainstay Horace Andy, who has appeared on all five Massive Attack LPs, sings on Splitting the Atom and Girl I Love You, the latter of which preceded Heligoland by about four months in EP format. Girl is driven by great percussion and a killer bassline, which admittedly sounds slightly like a sped up version of Angel's, but still works to great effect. Also well used are the horn samples, which are relatively abundant throughout the album.
Naturally, there are also the female vocalists which Massive Attack has become known for as well; Martina Topley-Bird, better known for her work with Tricky, appears on two tracks; it's Hope Sandoval though, and her turn on Paradise Circus, that really stands out. The song is more or less bare, led by a basic piano and handclap, but her sultry vocals fill in any empty spaces with ease, and she keeps the composition sounding luxuriant until the production kicks in a little over halfway through; it makes one wonder why she wasn't picked to sing for them before now. The songs without collaborators, Rush Minute and closer Atlas Air, still have a bit of 100th Window's heaviness to them, but the livelier beats give them a much more compelling kick, which particularly helps the keep latter's meandering somewhat grounded.
Upon first listen, Heligoland is disappointingly underwhelming in places; where as everything they've put out before had beauty with the immediacy of a sledgehammer, there's a bit more subtlety present here. It doesn't take long to reveal itself, however, and while the unrelenting atmosphere of 100th Window had its positive points, it's refreshing to see them shifting it around some. It's pretty clear that their innovating days are over, but just because they're no longer pioneers doesn't mean that they've become derivative or unimaginative. They still have an outstanding sound to boast, and it's impressive that after twenty years they are keeping up not only with their few contemporaries, but the modern electronic scene they helped create as well. Heligoland may not be a masterpiece, but it's far from a letdown.