Is a mediocre Massive Attack album better than not getting a new Massive Attack album at all? That is the question "Heligoland" raises as, make no mistake, this is a mediocre album, the bands worst at that.
Coming seven years after "100th Window", an album that divided critics and fans, I was expecting a lot more from "Heligoland". This is a much more laid back affair than previous efforts, but it is hard to believe this is the same act that recorded the masterpiece that was "Mezzanine", simply one of the greatest albums ever made in the electronic music realm. I personally thought "100th Window" was a fine follow-up, "Heligoland" is a much weaker album than even that.
Not wanting to write a knee-jerk reaction when it was released back in February, I've given this album eight months to settle in and it still leaves me cold. The aggressive beats of the past are gone, most of the songs just seem to drone on and on with little happening within them. It is one thing to call the music "difficult", it's another when it is as lifeless and bland as much of this album. Tracks like "Saturday Come Slow" featuring Damon Albarn and "Babel" featuring former Tricky vocal foil Martina Topley-Bird, sound like unfinished ideas or leftovers that never would have passed quality control on past works. "Pray For Rain" featuring Tunde Adabimbe of TV On The Radio is the worst offender, a near seven minute dull drone of boredom that goes nowhere and opens the album with a dramatic thud.
I've never been a huge fan of albums that feature numerous guest vocalists on each track. It is hard to maintain any level of cohesiveness and "Heligoland" suffers here as well. Hope Sandoval (Mazzy Star) delivers the best track of the guests here, the deviously soothing "Paradise Circus". The song keeps just enough tension beneath its surface to leave a feeling of unease, despite the lovely strings and piano line. It's not just the best guest spot, it is the high point of the album.
Things work better when the members of Massive Attack themselves stay out front. Robert Del Naja (aka 3D) takes the lead on the menacing "Rush Minute" as well as album closer "Atlas Air", while he shares vocal duties with Daddy G (Grant Marshall) and long-time collaborator Horace Andy on "Splitting The Atom". Horace Andy's driving "Girl I Love You" is another track that works, proving things would have been much better here had the band not handed so much over to guest vocalists.
Here's hoping there is something left in the tank for Massive Attack. They've produced too much great music to completely write them off. But I can't objectively look at "Heligoland" any other way than as one of 2010's most disappointing releases.