Saturday, July 16, 2011

Sound of the Underground: Massive Attack’s “Mezzanine”

Perhaps it’s the unexpectedly cold, rainy summer weather that has infected Vancouver, and also London, Seattle, Portland and even LA. Perhaps it’s the run of MI5 episodes in the last few wet, rainy evenings. Perhaps it’s the effects of the triumphant Shpongle show this past week. Regardless, the Blogger cannot stop listening to Massive Attack’s classic Mezzanine album.

 Released in the spring of 1998, Mezzanine was a radical departure from the Bristol trip-hop outfit’s prior output of trance-y but danceable beats. This disc gathered distorted guitars, fuzzy bass lines and muffled high-hats into a down-tempo setting. The new sound unveiled on Mezzanine is that of lush sonic layers, built organically to create a sinister and almost disturbing effect. This is the album that creeps up on you and doesn’t let you go. Sonically, Mezzanine conjures up images of meetings between government informants and secret agents in underground car parks to exchange sensitive intel. It’s no accident, perhaps, that tracks are named after potential code names for spies and there are two tracks named “Exchange”. It’s dank, ambient and decidedly British industrial music. For all intents and purposes, the album could have been subtitled “if you’re feeling sinister” (the title of a Belle & Sebastian album which was released in the same era).

The Blogger had so looked forward to this record at the time that he purchased the rather expensive imported version from Germany, just to get the now sought-after original gatefold packaging that has since gone out of print. (The disc remains available in standard jewel box and in MP3 format.) He was not disappointed.

The disc is one of the most perfectly constructed and engineered records of all time. Each track builds on the previous one, layering instruments and taking them away to create different effects. This is an album you could play end-to-end and not have to skip any tracks. “Angel” is the muted opening, but one that builds its power with a stop-and-go rhythm that doesn’t assault the listener all at once. “Risingson” is its ice-cold stepbrother, one that gives way to the majestic centerpiece “Teardrop”, still the album’s most popular track. “Inertia Creeps” could be perfectly tied into the image of being shackled to a table and tortured, but beautifully, rhythmically so. “Mezzanine” is the sound of an interrogator whispering threats of further harm to his captive: this is the dark cousin to one of Massive Attack’s earliest singles, 1991’s “Safe from Harm”. The album ends on a muted note, the downbeat “(Exchange)” that acts as a release from the dark and into the light. In totality, the album sonically starts at midnight for a clubber and appears to end with the vertical rays of the sun at 6 am, just when the wearied reveler emerges into the light (although the disc is 60 minutes, not 6 hours, long).

The sound was revolutionary and the album was enthusiastically embraced by the techno-savvy European audience. The disc topped the British charts and was a best-seller in almost all of continental Europe. Mezzanine earned the band five Brit Award nominations and won them the MTV Europe Award for Best Video. Given that techno was popularized at the time thanks to the massive worldwide success of The Prodigy and Chemical Brothers, the album charted no higher than #60 in the United States. Perhaps it’s the lack of the super-charged hyper-speed that caused it to fail despite several musical publications declaring it one of the greatest albums of the year. Or it was simply too revolutionary for its time, at least for these shores.

The disc was also revolutionary as it was one of the very first albums that were streamed and ready for purchase online in MP3 format. Keep in mind that in 1998, Napster was the wave of the future and the iTunes store was but a twinkle in Steve Jobs’s eye. Therefore, to use your dial-up or one of those new-fangled ADSL connections to get the album was at the time an innovation that paved the way for the (post-?)modern practice of commercial downloading.

In concert
The album’s legacy, thankfully, has grown in the decade since. The Wachowski Brothers and their musical director recognized the sound as a perfect fit for their then-adventurous film The Matrix and used “Dissolved Girl” in the soundtrack. The singles “Angel”, “Risingson” and “Inertia Creeps” have been used in numerous adverts and even included in TV shows like The West Wing, amongst others, to underscore more unsettling episodes, or simply to create sinister effects. Most famously, the album’s lead-off single “Teardrop” has been used in its instrumental form for the long-running medical drama series House and has at least given the band some name recognition to a mass, if not massively appreciative, television audience. At the band’s May 2010 show in Stanley Park, Massive Attack proved that the album could still hold their audience rapt, as the singles “Angel” and “Teardrop” were met with appreciative applause. Suitably, the outdoor concert took place in the pouring rain. It was blissful.

With apologies to Girls Aloud, Massive Attack’s Mezzanine is the true sound of the underground.