Review #383: Mezzanine, Massive Attack

Karla Clifton
3 min readMay 4, 2023

#383: Mezzanine, Massive Attack

The first time I reviewed Massive Attack, I got stuck on the vibes. This time, I tried to really dig in.

The trio at the heart of Massive Attack, which RS credits with inventing trip-hop, started out as members of a Bristol art collective called the Wild Bunch. Frontman Robert Del Naja (aka 3D) actually started as the gang’s resident graffiti artist, which is extra fascinating because he is apparently colorblind.

Then there’s Daddy G (Grant Marshall) and Mushroom (Andrew Vowles). The three of them reportedly developed a testy relationship during the recording of this record. Mushroom was the most angry at the different direction that the group took, asking, “Are we a fucking punk band now?” Mushroom ended up departing long before they released their fourth record 100th Window.

And to some degree, I get it. Blue Lines is fairly cool and collected. Mezzanine is much, much heavier. Sorry, Mushroom, but I loved it. “Inertia Creeps” is all angry whispers and badass guitar, while “Risingson” has enough bwah sounds for a Linkin Park CD. Penultimate track “Group Four” is my favorite, a cryptic rock opera about a night shift worker that climaxes with a crushing guitar riff. Having worked a night shift, I can confirm that it feels just as weird as that song sounds. And maybe this is cheating, but my real favorite song is the non-album single “Superpredators,” which is all shrieking guitar, and basically nothing else.

Mushroom was wrong; they’re not a f***ing punk band, not exactly. But they do use a lot of tricks that other British punk acts use. For instance: just like the Clash, they often borrow from reggae. Hell, reggae legend Horace Andy sings on the creepy, shuddering opener “Angel.” They cover a reggae song, the Paragons’ “Man Next Door.” But they slow it down and inject sleeping pills into it, simultaneously lifting the drum track from Led Zeppelin’s “When the Levee Breaks.” The result sounds a lot like the original song, just wearing heavy eyeliner and smoking cigs. Sampling really is an act of magic. (Fun fact, they also sample Isaac Hayes on both “Exchange” and “(Exchange).”)

(That said, “Black Milk” got them in trouble over a sample from Manfred Mann’s Earth Band, which Daddy G did not clear. They settled out of court, but not before Mann made them delete the sample, resulting in the replacement song “Black Melt.” The original version eventually made it back onto the record.)

Just like their debut, Massive Attack has some excellent female features, and they make the most of them. But one of them was almost not to be! For the delicate harpischord-ridden “Teardrop,” both Daddy G and 3D wanted Elizabeth Fraser of the Cocteau Twins’ to sing, while Mushroom didn’t. In fact, he went behind the other two’s backs and e-mailed the demo to freaking Madonna. And she was interested! But alas, two out of three vetoed her, so we’ll never know what that track would have been like with Queen Madge leading. In any case, Fraser is perfectly angelic. “Dissolved Girl” features another soprano, the unknown Sara Joy, who sounds like she might be doing a Fraser impression, but rocks it all the same.

Ultimately, the most important thing is vibes. I’ve read some criticism of Massive Attack’s approach to sound on this album. One Rolling Stone review says that “Sometimes rhythm and texture are explored at the expense of memorable tunes.” For the most part, I didn’t agree; I felt that this is an album that you can sink into, that even though you can’t sing along to every song, you could feel what they were trying to do. The only time that sentiment rang true for me was on title track “Mezzanine,” which is sparse and blocky and maybe even a bit monotonous. It’s apparently the track they had the most trouble with, too.

Still. This record sounds like it was recorded in the future, but also deep inside a cave. Fittingly, it was encoded into synthetic DNA on its 20th anniversary. Yeah, I … don’t know what that means. Why would you do that? I guess because you can. Anyway, if anyone feels like converting Karla Clifton’s reviews into DNA, holler at me.

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