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.

Californication: “…the truth is what you need to finish this song…”

In Love Song, the sixth episosde of Californication‘s fifth season, creator and showrunner Tom Kapinos wrote a soulful, wistful and melancholic look at missed opportunities, love and authenticity.

Samurai Apocalypse (portrayed with insane style and panache by RZA) ordered his Santa Monica Cop screenwriter Hank Moody to write lyrics for budding songstress Kali. As Hank forced Kali to delve deeper into her memories, he got lost in his own, giving us black-and-white flashbacks to the moment when Hank and Karen first decided to stay in L.A.

(Whenever Kapinos shows us Hank and Karen’s past, he writes scuffed and dirty emotional riffs that move you. These episodes are rock-n-roll ballads, bluesy guitar solos, romantic, whiskey-soaked tales of all that could have been, and all that might yet be, if no one f**ks it up.)

As Hank re-lived this moment in time, while drawing lyrical inspiration from Kali’s increasingly painful memories, the theme became abundantly clear:

What makes your writing truly yours, what makes it really sing… is you.

Your soul. Your authenticity. Your truth. Nothing less than the absolute revelation of what you really, truly, need and want. Getting to the truth of who you are and why you do what you do. What drives you, what do you dream of? What makes you want those things, and what will you do — and give up — to get them?

Find the truth about who the f**k you are and how you fit into this world. Because you do fit into this world, even if you don’t know how yet. Some people know right away. Some take thirty years, some fifty or more. It’s OK. Your life is all about you, m***erf***er. Act accordingly.

Nothing you write will be good until you inject yourself into it. It’s what Dave Grohl talked about at the Grammys when he said music isn’t what happens inside a computer. He wasn’t ranting against technology itself, against any of the tools of making music; he was ranting against soulless music, which can just as easily be made with a guitar as an iPad. And the flip side is true: soul will always come through, must always come through, however you make your art.

Consider two extraordinary and seminal albums: The White Stripes’ Elephant, and Massive Attack’s 100th Window. The first made only on equipment dated pre-1963 (it’s a Jack White thing), the second made on laptops and in digital worlds, with songs and textures that couldn’t exist before 2003.

Both have beauty and soul, in different ways: Elephant is rough, heavy, pounding and wild, while 100th Window is hypnotic, evocative and dreamlike. Both are true and truthful, and it doesn’t matter how they were recorded or how we listen to them: the souls of the people who created them shine through, make them real; making them connect.

Whether you write poems, stories, novels, songs, or scripts, you need to make them yours, write them your way. Quentin Tarantino kept getting told that True Romance wasn’t written properly, that this wasn’t how scripts are done. He said, f**k you, because this is me and this is mine. Then he made Reservoir Dogs, and Tony Scott shot True Romance, and then came Pulp Fiction. Tarantino-esque became its own literary style and took over pop culture. All iconic & unique writers do.

Ultimately, being a writer, being any kind of artist, is all about you being authentic. That will shine brightly; the rest will follow.

So find your truth and finish your song.

Then let the world hear it.

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.

Empire State Of Mind / falsetto prophecies

It takes a certain state of mind to never settle, never accept; to always move onwards, deconstructing the past to make something never seen before. A certain kind of ruthlessness. To be new all the time is a fierce position to take. Constantly remaking your world is not an easy thing. Writers, painters, musicians, TV execs, all face the challenge of reinvention; sustaining relevance. Take Californication’s third season: it’s darker and more complicated, rougher than before. Its beautiful soul, in the form of Natasha McElhone, has drifted to the periphery of the show, at least for now. Without its soul it is lost somehow but still has its wayward charm, despite the rawness, the darkness. You fear for it, like you would fear for a charming alcoholic with a bottle of whiskey in hand. The intelligence and wit are there, but with more of an edge, a presence of rage beneath the surface. It’s like a Kris Kristofferson blues, a Warren Zevon comedown lament. Like days ending. The sky darkens, the night brings rain, whispering on the surface of our minds. Massive Attack’s new EP is that whisper. It’s a remixed promo for a forthcoming album – remixing the future this time – a pensive set of tracks. Beauty and loneliness in peripheral vision, half-dreaming. It’s a quiet yearning, an aching that never seems to stop. Much less quiet, disrupting the night with sound and fury, is Jay-Z, whose Blueprint 3 was recently released to a roar of critical approval, and the #1 spot – his 11th. It’s a monument to the relentless pursuit of being the best, the newest, the one and only contender; the Ali of rap, the Beyonce of pop. The album is like a triple-triple-espresso in every beat, like the sentences in James Ellroy’s latest opus, Blood’s A Rover; brutal, condensed violence, densely packed yet overarching, epic – it has much in common with Blueprint 3. This Jay-Z of novelists went so deep into the darkness of his characters to feel them truthfully that he lost himself in a breakdown. It’s the ongoing theme – the danger of journeying into the dark for art. Fortunately Ellroy made it back; truly a giant of American fiction, of any fiction – looming over the literary landscape. The U2 of fiction, towering like the Alien Claw set on U2’s current tour. The monstrous structure rising out of Giants Stadium like a mothership about to lift off, past the intense line of the Manhattan night skyline ripping the night alive, heading away from NYC into a shimmering oceanic density of thousands of glittering lights. The entire structure rippling thousands of times a second with light roaring majestically into space. It’s philosophically astute, this Spaceship set. It shocks you out of your usual ways of experiencing and your perceptual expectations like Olafur Eliasson’s Weather Project, opening your mind to the pure, unmediated experience; what you “know” set aside in favor of what is. Exhilaration, over the top, like the skyline, too beautiful to be real; an empire state of mind. All writers need this state of mind over their own literary kingdoms. We need to build our spaceships and not be afraid to take off. Vision. Vertigo. The two often go hand in hand. Creating the blueprints for the future to rise alongside the skylines we’ve already made. Always hustling, looking for the greatest line, the most perfect four minute song, or riff, or story, or novel. Each one must be the best, better than the last, better than the rest. “I move onward, the only direction, can’t be scared to fail in the search of perfection,” raps Jay-Z in On To The Next One. What joins them all is the bold vision that deconstructs what went before and refashions the future according to their creativity, their souls. Like Lady GaGa deconstructing pop to build the mezzo architecture of Paparazzi, then deconstructing Poker Face into a metallic heliosphere and her own unprocessed voice, dizzyingly, exhilaratingly pure, her naked voice the most beautiful it has ever sounded, as though through the metal and light she’s revealing her soul to us with eerie intensity. Like the Weather Project, like U2’s mothership, the lights and fury and sheer unexpectedness of it all shock our perceptual framework sideways and then we experience unmediated exactly what the artist wants us to. With Lady GaGa, it’s her lonely, lovely voice that strips back the meaning of the song and rebuilds it again. U2 do it with I’ll Go Crazy If I Don’t Go Crazy Tonight, utterly dismantling the song and retrofitting it into a pusling techno behemoth that could only exist beneath the Claw. Ellroy does it in Blood’s A Rover, attacking and restacking his narrative style. This might be the mark of the truest artist; they can fragment what came before into something new and beautiful, then deconstruct and remix their own creations into futuristic, stripped back yet magnificent new versions. Striving for the new, finding a new visual, verbal or musical language, a new language of movement in choreography; new ways of moving us and touching our souls. Like Michael Chabon’s Trickster In A Suit Of Lights, the exuberantly talented mischief-maker who exists in the spaces between the things we know. Bono embodies this literally during Ultraviolet towards the end of the show, in his suit covered with red laser-like lights, hundreds of red lines piercing the blue otherworldy glow around him with chaotic geometry. The Trickster looks for the action in the borders between things, the places where new directions take form; this is where U2 dwell, more experimental and progressive than many give them credit for. After two straight-up rock albums, they returned with a quietly ruminative piece, from which they launched one of the biggest rock tours of all time, journeying around the planet in their Spaceship/Alien Claw creation, bringing out of the hushed quiet of No Line on The Horizon the behemoth of the 360 tour. True tricksters (in the best sense) of hearts and minds.
“I’m going in for the kill, I’m doing it for the thrill…” La Roux
This played before the U2 show, as the sun set beyond Giants Stadium, a cool breeze flowed around the massive set and 84,000 people slowly appeared, the crowd intensifying as the sky grew dark and Muse unleashed their stadium-sized post-apocalyptic bombast via screaming, squalling brutal guitar riffing, Matt Bellamy’s falsetto prophecies ringing out loud and clear as the band roared out from beneath. Then the lights went out, U2 lit up, and for 2 hours and 15 minutes, the future came back through a massive rift in the time-space music continuum, spinning and flashing wildly, a close encounter with a future state of mind, an empire state of mind.

one path through the wilderness

In The Living Mountain, excerpted in Ali Smith’s fascinating anthology The Book Lover, Nan Shepherd describes the moment when flowing water becomes frozen: “…the struggle between frost and the force in running water is not quickly over. The battle fluctuates, and at the point of fluctuation between the motion in water and the immobility of frost, strange and beautiful forms are evolved.” She could have been describing the process of writing. In the process of evoking a particular truth, new truths emerge, in the capturing of “the moment of equilibrium between two elemental forces,” the writer and the world. The moment of fluctuation becomes the moment of equilibrium as the writer makes the choices, transforming the endless torrent of beautiful possibilities into something new and unusual; finding its one true form; or at least, the form that is true in that moment. It’s tempting to say the process is never truly over. As writers we observe our chosen world flowing around us while we stay still; when the moment is right, we reach out to feel, and to bring something of that world back to the page. The wild rush of life in motion is given permanence, a lasting shape in words. It’s a process that we return to, that we obsess over, giving form to dreams. As Neil Davidge, one of the fundamental figures behind the group Massive Attack, has said, “I’ve locked myself away for days to stay in the same emotional place, capture something, and see a piece of music through to the end. You’re always chasing what you imagine in your head, so you just keep going.” The elemental forces: reality and creation. In the song Life Itself from his recent album Working On A Dream, Bruce Springsteen evokes the first of those forces: “You were life itself, rushing over me, life itself, the wind in black elms…” He wants us to feel the reality of the character, and so he takes that wildness and gives it a smooth form, choosing just one of the infinite ways he could have used; taking one path through the wilderness.