By Joe Gorecki, Deputy Music Editor
At times alienating, at times exhilarating, Massive Attack have used the 21st anniversary of the ground-breaking, band-breaking album Mezzanine to make a show intensely relevant in 2019, writes Deputy Music Editor Joe Gorecki
Massive Attack’s Mezzanine XXI tour has stood in defiance of the typical ‘group returns to a classic album for an anniversary’ formula which nostalgically presents the album front-to-back in the same order people have been listening to it for years.
In their bespoke arena at Filton Airfield for their homecoming shows the group turn this on its head, reordering the 21-year-old album entirely and including a slew of unexpected covers, the first of which, the Velvet Underground’s ‘I Found A Reason’, disarmingly opened the concert while anachronistically utopian imagery filled the huge screens above the band and beside the stage.
Massive Attack have become known for intensely visual shows which use images superimposed over their songs to make political statements, with their 2016 tour making extensive use of photographs by Giles Duley to raise awareness of the Syrian refugee crisis.
This time Robert ‘3D’ Del Naja, a visual artist in his own right, has teamed up with Adam Curtis (of HyperNormalisation fame) to create an alienating and often overwhelming audio-visual experience that slowly draws out the continuing relevance of album’s paranoid outlook and dispelling ideas that anniversary show might be in any way nostalgic.
Images of the Iraq war, Donald Trump, celebrity culture and surveillance capitalism give the impression of a world that is if anything more cynical and paranoid now than it was 1998. As the set began to descend to the dark depths of ‘Risingson’, the first song from Mezzanine the group played, you knew you were in for quite a journey.
One of Massive Attack’s defining legacies has been that despite being so tied to the 1990s, their music doesn’t sound of the 90s and dated: If the themes of the album were ahead of their time, then their music and their distinctive ‘sound’ were even more so.
Mezzanine took a distinctly rock-inflected post-punk turn compared to the group’s previous hip-hop influenced albums and these influences were reflected in some of the group’s more disorientating covers including by The Cure and Ultravox. At times these really came out of nowhere but occasionally the element of surprise really paid off, such as Pete Seeger’s ‘Where Have All the Flowers Gone?’ which poignantly soundtracked a series of visuals documenting the ongoing opioid crisis.
However, it really was the album Mezzanine that stole the show. All the songs of the ground-breaking album were played including seldom-performed deep cuts. A real highlight of these was seminal downtempo track ‘Exchange’, the reverberating double bass roared through the arena. This segued neatly into one of the track’s inspirations, regular Massive collaborator Horace Andy’s ‘See A Man’s Face’, the band clearly enjoying the dub-laden detour which provided some of the most outwardly joyous parts of the gig.
What set the group apart was always its collective nature which allowed for continuing collaborations with guest vocalists. At the Steel Yard gig were Andy, himself, and the Cocteau Twins’ Elizabeth Fraser, who has not toured with the band since the album was released. The pair both gave powerhouse performances throughout the gig with ‘Angel’ and cataclysmic set-ender ‘Group Four’ as respective stand-outs.
Even ‘Teardrop’, the song the audience had been waiting all night for, still managed to surprise. Pitched up a key, what was perhaps the song from Mezzanine sounded acutely different but also, somehow new. Without any visuals, just an array of spotlights cutting through the haze towards the audience, Elizabeth Fraser’s voice still able to convey a spectacular clarity 21 years on.
The ‘Steel Yard’ venue was maybe one of the more curious aspects of the gig. A spectacular space erected only for the two Bristol nights of the Mezzanine XXI tour, the space seemed like a dry-run for a future Filton arena; all the more curious as the ‘Steel Yard’ basically was ‘the big shed in a car park’ Del Naja accused the arena plans of being just last summer. The unvarnished industrial aesthetic matched the tone of the album, however, although the sound took a couple of songs to start sounding as it should.
While the album is still full of bad memories for the band, somehow Massive Attack have been able make a stunning rebuke to their critics expecting a cynical, anniversary-based cash-in. What the audience experienced was a show that reconfigured and reconstructed Mezzanine into something new: Perhaps the gig’s greatest success was to prove that the group still have the ability to surprise.
Featured Image: Joe Gorecki / Epigram
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