thrilling to the soul / the light of dreams

Listening to Massive Attack’s latest album Heligoland for the first time brings to mind David Lynch’s description of what it feels like to see visual effects done on the set in front of the camera, rather than added in postproduction: “thrilling to the soul.” It’s that first moment of experiencing, when everything seems like new light reflecting on the surfaces of your consciousness. The director’s camera catches the light in front of the lens, just as we capture the experience of hearing something new and wonderful that we’ve never heard before. Lens flare of the soul. Heligoland is another step forward for the Bristol band whose whole existence is predicated on fundamental evolution with each album: changing their game just as they change the music game around them. The leaps between albums have been, well, massive. From the youthful, playful soul-hip-hop mash-up of Blue Lines, to the smooth, monumental, melancholy soul of Protection, to the dark, noise-core tortured surveillance-paranoia soul of Mezzanine, to the beautiful, cascadingly digital choreography of soul and light of 100th Window, Massive Attack have delivered radical evolution with each cut, with one key through-line: soul. The sort of authentic soul that could only have been born in the city that is the shining heart of the West Country: Bristol. The music of Massive Attack has the city glow in its sky, even as it lurks in the shadows of surveillance cameras, clubs, sexual adventures, and other dark corners of the mind. Their songs can be like the confrontational architecture of a radical, futurist new structure in an old city, but the light in the sky beyond is the light of dreams. This latest set of tracks is not the leap into hyperspace that their previous work has been, but they have set high standards. For any other group, this album would be a quantum shift. For the Massive, it’s a significant departure, and a wildly brilliant leap forward, but it’s more of a conceptual evolution this time around: a hymn to clean lines, the shining clarity of slinky grooves and sonic layers, and a profound sense of intimacy. These songs, these vocals, sound right there in front of you, right there in your heart and in your soul. The sonic choreography and manipulation are still there, and still light years beyond what any other group are achieving, but they have coupled it with a beautiful, direct soul. Psyche and Flat Of The Blade are two tracks with uncompromising, electronically enhanced backgrounds and emotion-soaked vocals that murmur and whisper in our ear, full of memory and regret, alternately wistful and yearning and lost, using vocalists Martina Topley-Bird and Guy Garvey  to poignant effect. Saturday Come Slow takes this new simplicity and purity still further, pitching Damon Albarn’s plaintive cry over a deceptively clear arrangement of folky guitar and swelling majesty in the distance: do you love me, he asks, over and over again; what may as well be any writer’s fundamental question to their readers. Atlas Air, which closes the set, is one of the highlights, foregrounding Robert Del Naja’s whispering sinsisterism over hypnotically evolving basslines and dreamlike atmospheres. This album is full of moves they have never made before, as well as familiar reflections from earlier efforts. But on its deepest level, this is something else, a new landscape forever altered. It’s what all writers, all creative artists, might aspire to: changing the game with each creation, thrilling the souls of readers, viewers, listeners: experiencers. We can only hope that we can translate our dreams with such purity and authenticity that those who hear our dreams believe them.

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