100/10: Massive Attack’s 100th Window –10th Anniversary

February 10th marks the 10th anniversary of Massive Attack’s controversial and extraordinary album, 100th Window.

100th Window

The group, a trio comprised of Robert “3D” Del Naja, Grant “Daddy G” Marshall and Andrew “Mushroom” Vowles, had essentially imploded during the intense recording sessions for the previous album, Mezzanine. After 1997, when Mezzanine dropped, Mushroom had left the band entirely, while G was slowly but surely drifting away.

Mezzanine: intensity very much pictured

Mezzanine: intensity very much pictured

D was driving the whole thing, leading the post-Mezzanine sessions with fellow Bristol band Lupine Howl, creating long, guitar-heavy workouts that sounded like Mezzanine 2.0. But the years were passing, and the magic wasn’t happening for D. By 2002, it was just D and longtime collaborator Neil “no nickname” Davidge in the studio, creating the digital dreams and textures of what would become 100th Window. It call came together in a sudden six month period during 2002, and in September of that year, D announced that 100th Window would be released the following February, 2003.

D in the Butterfly Caught video

D in the Butterfly Caught video

Even though it was for all intents and purposes created by just D and Davidge, 100th Window is possibly the most “Massive Attack-y” Massive Attack album. It revealed that D’s vision was in a lot of ways the soul and consciousness of the band’s/brand’s sound. Despite the inexplicable reviews that labeled it the band’s darkest and coldest album yet, 100th Window is in fact an incredibly warm and gorgeous album, full of Del Naja’s digital lullabies, beautifully layered textures and atmospherics, where all the instruments and sounds and even the vocals were hypnotically choreographed and manipulated into a distinctively Bristolian yet utterly otherworldly landscape that existed in a mesmerizing dream-time.

G and D

G and D

It had menace, of course. It evoked flickering neon lights in deserted tower blocks on the edge of lonely cities late at night. It had relentless, messed-up beats. It glitched and stuttered like neurons firing when you’re deep asleep. Naturally, the basslines were… massive: sinuous, streamlined, slinking, beating like alien hearts. Sometimes the album was simply beautiful and pure.

It worked whispering to your soul via headphones, or blasting earth-shaking beats in front of 20,000 people.

It also saved me. It came out the day before a cataclysmic event in my life, one which reset everything, ending life as I knew it up to that point, leaving me in a new, empty wasteland. For a long time, there was nothing. I couldn’t watch movies, or TV. Or read books. Or listen to music.

What came back first was writing; that was the life raft that saved me. Words came out of the darkness and took my hands and showed them how to make more words. And then came 100th Window, which I’d been holding onto, waiting for a time when I could really hear it. I listened to it, over and over again, writing furiously all the while, as all my emotional systems came back online. I listened to it as the sky turned magic hour dark blue and held in a twilight stasis, the light lingering in the west until dark finally claimed it, bringing stars. It became the soundtrack for the rest of the year, as I used writing to change my life, to change everything. I remade my world while 100th Window still played, still kept consuming me and my imagination and my soul.

It’s a set of tracks to lead you out of darkness. The title came from the admittedly paranoid (and classically Massive Attack) idea that no matter how impregnable you think your defenses are, something can always get through (if you put bars over 99 windows, someone will break into the 100th window). But it works the other way too. You may think all your paths are blocked, that nothing can get you through this. But even if 99 paths are blocked, the 100th is there waiting for you to take it, follow it, and find your way to wherever you need to be.

Thank you, Robert Del Naja and Neil Davidge, for creating this extraordinary piece of music.

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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.

the first post…

So here it is, the inaugural post on “dreaming between the lines” (thank you Flaubert), my first foray into the world of blogs… I should probably start by explaining what all this will be about. To put it simply, I’ll be writing about writing. Helpfully, I’m a writer, of novels, stories and screenplays, and I’ll be exploring thoughts about writing, theories, ideas, philosophies – manifestos – as well as sharing tales of my own experiences as I try to gain my way into the citadel, the promised land of publication. I’ve had a small taste of this so far, with stories published in two anthologies (Bristol Tales, Watermark). The story published in Bristol Tales is the first chapter of a novel, which I will be sending out into the writing world in the hope of finding a lovely agent… Having completed numerous and brutal edits, I now have the fully realized version of that original dream…