Calling Massive Attack a band seems hasty, they aren’t the kind of guys to finger pluck in harmony together in the traditional sense of the term. Meeting as members of a (somewhat) mythical ‘club’ called the Wild Bunch, the boys started a spin off production trio that has since spanned 3 decades in various forms. Back with new music and currently touring their mixed multimedia spectacle, Massive Attack are Rug Lane’s “Group” of The Month.
Picture the UK late 80s/early 90s, the charts were being dominated by the likes of Prince, Belinda Carlisle’s “Heaven Is A Place On Earth” and bands coming out of the UK included Duran Duran, Eurythmics and U2. Having been together for only 2 years, Robert “3D” Del Naja, Grant “Daddy G” Marshall and Andy “Mushroom” Vowles who had been a heavy part of the Bristol club scene, signed to Circa Records in 1990 where they were committed to delivering six studio albums (including a compilation album) - a huge contract for the time. Geoff Barrow of Portishead was interning at the studio where the group recorded their debut album Blue Lines in 1991 with the popular “Unfinished Sympathy”. They used vocalists Horace Andy and Shara Nelson who were both former Wild Bunch cohort and MC's Tricky and Willie Wee, for songs on the record. Their cohesion of spoken song style (or sprechgesang as it is also known) with guest vocalists and ‘Brit sample production’ became a trademark sound for the group. They fused down-tempo hip hop, soul, reggae with other eclectic references to form their own musical style.
In 1994 they brought in Everything but the Girl's Tracey Thorn as a vocalist and released their second album Protection. It was in this period that Portishead's Dummy and Tricky's Maxinquaye albums were also released and and the term "trip hop" was coined and the media started to refer to the "Bristol scene" as a new and emerging area. Tricky was again featured on the second Massive Attack album but soon after decided not to collaborate again as his solo career was taking off.
The band started their own label in 1995 called Melankolic where they signed a number of artists and adopted a philosophy that allowed the artists to make their albums in the way they wanted.
As the 90s rolled on it became increasingly known that the trio were struggling to work collectively as tensions between them rose. In the lead up to the third album, the band had to work with their co-producer Neil Davidge individually and it was reported Vowles was unhappy with the degree of the post-punk direction in which Del Naja was taking the band. Vowles reached boiling point in 1999 and bitterly left the group as the other two made an ultimatum to end the group if he didn't leave.
Their third album Mezzanine, released in 1998, featured single "Risingson" and the hit Teardrop" sung by Cocteau Twin's Elizabeth Fraser (and accompanied by an obscure animated singing fetus video clip). Mezzanine was the band's most commercially successful record and went on to win a Q Award for Best Album as well as being nominated for a Mercury Award the same year (with Gomez taking out the award).
In 2001, Marshall left the band although started touring again in 2003 and 2004 and returned to a studio role in 2005. Around the time Marshall left, Del Naja, with Davidge, friends and band members of Lupine Howl camped down in Ridge Farm studio. It was these sessions that led to a fourth Massive Attack album that was classified as more of a rock direction for the band with no covers or samples featured on the album. Enlisting Sinéad O'Connor and Horace Andy for vocal contributions, and collaborating with Mos Def on the track "I Against I", 100th Window was released in February 2003 and although received well overseas, the album was not as critically well received in Britain as the previous releases. "I Against I" is also notably the only track from the sessions that feature a writing credit from Marshall.
With some difficulties throughout 2003 including the arrest of Del Naja (that was later dropped), the 100th Window tour schedule was heavily interrupted. Despite that, the band's album sold over a million copies. Del Naja and Davidge were offered a score for the soundtrack of Danny The Dog director Louis Leterrier soon after the release of 100th Window which kept them busy.
When Marshall started back in the studio in 2005 he worked with a production duo, Robot Club, in another studio, feeling that he would be more free to develop tracks in the way he wanted. At the same time Del Naja and Davidge were recording with a number of different singers as well as creating a track named "Twilight", for UNKLE's War Stories album. As per their contract, Massive Attack decided to release their obligated compilation album Collected in 2006 and included a second disc, made up of previously released non-album songs and unreleased sketches.
Del Naja and Davidge continued to score soundtracks, and in 2007 worked on In Prison My Whole Life (featuring a track with vocals by Snoop Dogg), Battle in Seattle and Trouble the Water. Del Naja also wrote an instrumental "Herculaneum" which featured in the film Gomorra and won an Italian award for Best Song. Del Naja and Marshall picked up a special Ivor Novello award for Outstanding Contribution to British Music soon after.
In 2009 Davidge, Del Naja and Marshall worked on finishing their fifth album, incorporating bits of the work Davidge and Del Naja had done in Damon Albarn’s studio the year before. In August that year their new EP, Splitting the Atom, was announced and released in November titled Heligoland, after the German archipelago of Heligoland. "Weather Underground" had been its working title. TV on the Radio's Tunde Adebimpe added vocals to the opening track, "Pray For Rain", with Damon Albarn and Hope Sandoval also contributing to other tracks.
For many years now Del Naja and Marshall have been defined as one of a handful of few politically engaged music groups, actively contributing to global discussions on war, politics and human rights. In 2007 they hosted a charity benefit for the Hoping Foundation, a charity for Palestinian children. In 2008, they curated the UK's Southbank Meltdown Festival, a performance, cinema and art week on London's south bank - with little on their CV to suggest much experience it should be added. "Yeah, it's every boy's treat but it comes with a price...You're following up a lot of really great curators and you don't want to be the first to fuck it up." (Del Naja, The Independent). For the festival they worked with human rights lawyer Clive Stafford Smith and his Reprieve organisation which uses the law to enforce the human rights of prisoners.
They highlighted the use of music in torture in their 2010 video for the song "Saturday Come Slow", featuring Damon Albarn, and in the same year donated the income from a car commercial to the clean up campaign after the BP oil spill disaster and all proceeds from their EP Atlas Air for the first week for War Child, a charity the band previously supported when they contributed to the HELP album. They’ve played shows in Israel and Istanbul, thrown unofficial parties with Thom Yorke at the occupied UBS building in London in support for the international Occupy movement and caused some surprise by endorsing independent millionaire George Ferguson for the Bristol Mayor elections in 2012, citing the need for a mayor who would help facilitate creative projects to the city. In recent years, Del Naja and Marshall visited the Bourge-El Barajneh refugee camp in Lebanon to meet with Palestinian volunteers at an educational centre where they then donated all their profit from the show in Byblos to.
In 2013, Del Naja's ran a solo art show in London, featuring pieces that spanned over a twenty year period and many he had created for Massive Attack. Each piece, reinterpreted especially for the exhibition, was hand-printed and finished. In the same year he also created and designed an eight-night festival with filmmaker Adam Curtis. Curtis's film, unofficially titled The Plan, was featured and projected on a huge screen surrounding the audience, while music from Massive Attack was intertwined throughout the film. In the words of Del Naja, it was a “collective hallucination”.
Del Naja helped develop the the iPhone application "Fantom" was which was released in January. The app lets users hear parts of four new songs by remixing them in real-time, using the phone’s location, movement, clock, heartbeat, and camera. Massive Attack then released a new EP, Ritual Spirit, which included the four songs released on Fantom. The EP was written and produced by Robert Del Naja and long term collaborator, Euan Dickinson. It is their first release since the 2011 Four Walls / Paradise Circus collaboration with Burial, and the first time since 1994 that fellow trip hop musician Tricky featured on Massive Attack content. Artists such as Scottish hip-hop group Young Fathers, London rapper Roots Manuva and singer Azekel also featured on the EP.
In July 2016, Massive Attack previewed three new songs: "Come Near Me," "The Spoils," and "Dear Friend" on Fantom and released "The Spoils", featuring vocals from Mazzy Star front-woman Hope Sandoval, and "Come Near Me" featuring British vocalist Ghostpoet a few days later. The music videos were also released soon after with actresses Arta Dobroshi and Cate Blanchett featuring in them.
Del Naja, the graffiti artist turned rapper, is also caught up in the never ending rumour mill about the real identity of street artist Banksy. It’s been said he works alone, other rumors suggest Banksy is in fact a group of artists with Del Naja leading the pack. Rumours fired up in 2016 when freelance journalist Craig Williams put two and two together that a number of Banksy pieces had coincided in cities around the globe at the same time Massive Attack were in town to play a show. Some coincidence it seems, although Banksy and Del Naja both deny the rumours. "He is a mate as well, he's been to some of the gigs. It's purely a matter of logistics and coincidence, nothing more than that." (Del Naja).
Some see them as lazy - an album every 6 years but it's the work they do in between releases from political activism, collaborations, art projects and film scores that define these musicians as some of the greatest spanning three decades. Touring again, Del Naja and Marshall pour a lot into their shows, making it obvious they don’t want to be doing the same thing day in day out. Mixing almost 30 years of music, art and film, they keep themselves interested as much as their audiences. Their current shows are iterating the state of the world and this bubble we’re yet to fully burst “Now the whole world is consumed by the internet and the internet consumes us, so it’s very different. I think, right now, this particular iteration of the show, is more saying …“We’re all fucked. We’re all fucked. Wouldn’t it be nice if these utopian tech companies could save us? But that’s not likely to happen, so we’re all fucked". (Del Naja, The Guardian).
Catch Massive Attack on Sunday November 19 at Clockenflap Festival.