Bristol collective’s moody, and still majestic, masterpiece.
A 20th- anniversary reboot for an album surrounded by turmoil, but which turned out to be the Bristol band’s final high-point.
As dark, complex and weirdly fascinating as the morphed beetle that graces its cover, Mezzanine marked a decisive shift for the Bristol trio whose era-defining debut Blue Lines briefly put their native city at the centre of UK club culture. But as so often, inspiration came at a price. Core members Robert “3D” Del Naja, Grant “Daddy G” Marshall and Andrew “Mushroom” Vowles had built their reputation on serpentine, dub-infused epics. For Mezzanine, however, 3D in particular had other ideas. “I wanted to take a more aggressive approach,” he commented later. “To go back to the punk approach to making music, instead of looking at American hip-hop, old soul and jazz.” This turned out to be anathema to Mushroom, who quit soon after the album’s release. Even the recording sessions had taken place in shifts since they were unable to bear being in the studio at the same time. Yet marshalled by co-producer Neil Davidge, the music somehow transcended the acrimony, its experimental forays into post-punk and electronica a deliberate rebuff to the dinner party-friendly trip-hop sound inspired by Blue Lines and its 1994 follow-up Protection. Like an OK Computer for the post-rave generation, Mezzanine’s fractured intensity was more likely to give unwary diners indigestion. Bolstered by the addition of former Blue Aeroplanes guitarist Angelo Bruschini, opener Angel set the dystopian tone, its mournful melody emerging wraith-like from a primordial drum-and-bass loop lit by flickers of distortion, reggae veteran Horace Andy’s baleful warning that “she’s on the dark side” suggesting this was the kind of spirit out for vengeance rather than salvation. The haunted mood bleeds into Risingson, a mutant hip-hop evocation of Class A paranoia, and the shimmering lament Teardrop. Built around a spiralling harpsichord riff and skin-prickling performance by Cocteau Twins singer Liz Fraser, recorded on the day she heard of her former lover Jeff Buckley’s disappearance, it remains one of Massive Attack’s most powerful and affecting recordings.
Yet for all the brooding emotions, it’s the way the album shifts gears rhythmically that gives it real traction, from the still-astonishing Inertia Creeps, with its clanking post-industrial beat and Middle Eastern strings inspired by a Turkish belly dancing club, to Exchange’s slow-motion funk, reworked from Isaac Hayes’s Our Day Will Come, and the coiled intensity of Group Four, a cryptic meditation on the modern surveillance state playing 3D’s twitchy night watchman off against Fraser’s lonely dreamer. Newly remastered, the original album’s sonic detail comes into even sharper focus and there are various visually spectacular special editions, including a Banksy-worthy spray can that contains the album audio converted into a DNA sequence. But the real draw in musical terms is a set of unreleased remixes by dub scientist Mad Professor, six of which were originally intended for a companion album akin to 1995’ s No Protection. Each one is a fascinating departure from its original source, with Angel (Angel Dust) paring the original down to a skeletal skank and Teardrop (Mazaruni Dub One) re-imagined as a cosmic ambient soundclash. Given the turmoil that surrounded Mezzanine, it’s not surprising Massive Attack haven’t operated at the same level since. 3D recorded the disappointing 100th Window on his own and only reunited with Daddy G for 2010’ s Heligoland, a patchy semireturn to form. Yet the album’s radical aesthetic has proved an enduring inspiration to others, from Goldfrapp’s ice-cold synth-pop to Burial’s eerie dubstep. Complex, challenging and utterly compelling, even two decades on Mezzanine resonates with a power that’s all its own. RUPERT HOWE Listen To: Angel | Inertia Creeps | Teardrop | Angel (Angel Dust) | Teardrop (Mazaruni Dub One)
Massive Attack (from left, Robert “3D” Del Naja, Grant “Daddy G” Marshall, Andrew “Mushroom” Vowles) in 1998: “For all the brooding emotions, it’s the way Mezzanine shifts gear rhythmically that gives it real traction.”