South-West Sound: Jason Cowley Traces the Career of the Troubled, Unique Collective That Changed the Face of British Dance Music

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Who are or what is Massive Attack? At times it seems to be less a band or a group than a kind of movement, with a large cast of associate and affiliate members and an ever-changing line-up of musicians, producers, DJs and vocalists. If there is a central system of control, it probably revolves around Robert Del Naja, who has appeared on each of the four Massive Attack studio albums and has overseen the selections for Collected, a new greatest-hits compilation that includes previously unreleased material. And if there is a base, it is Bristol, even though many of those who are in or have worked with Massive Attack no longer live in that vibrant, multiracial city.

Yet through all the changes in personnel, and for all the various singers who have worked with the Massives, as they are more colloquially known, the sound has remained unmistakably the same. Their first album, Blue Lines(1991), established a template, and it remains one of the most influential records of the past 20 years. Its fusion of electronics with rap, dub, hip-hop and reggae vocals, its bleak lyricism and evocation of urban alienation and paranoia, its use of sampling, and its dense, multi-layered sound have been widely imitated but never bettered. As the founding member Grant Marshall (aka Daddy G) said, here was "dance music for the head rather than for the feet".

On subsequent albums, the mood and the sound fractured and darkened; everything seemed to slow down, as personal relations became strained and the Massives began to experiment less with dance rhythms than with more somnambulant electronic backbeats, inviting the likes of Tracey Thorn (of Everything But the Girl) and Liz Fraser (of the Cocteau Twins) to sing on selected tracks for the albums Protection (1995) and Mezzanine (1998). The title track of Protection, featuring the soulful Thorn, with its mournful, looping, trance-like electronic underbeat, is, for me, the best of Massive Attack. Ambient dub, trip-hop--whatever you call it, this was late-night, post-rave, spliff-slowed mood music with its own peculiarly beguiling atmosphere of confusion and loss.

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Massive Attack emerged in the early 1990s from a Bristol-based group of DJs and musicians called the Wild Bunch sound system. As a group, the Massives were multiracial, like Bristol itself, with its deep history and problematic connections to the slave trade, its inner-city deprivation and cultural diversity. The group was interested, too, in a range of musical styles, from dub to jazz to electronica, and in how they could be combined or collapsed into each other to create a new kind of contemplative urban dance music. The early Massive Attack was, broadly, a trio: Del Naja, Grant Marshall and Andrew Vowles. They were supported by the producer Nellee Hooper of Soul II Soul; the reggae artist Horace Andy; and the rapper Tricky, who went on to release one of the best and most disturbing albums of the Nineties, Maxinquaye (1995). In addition, there were the soul singer Shara Nelson and the multi-instrumentalist/sound engineer Geoff Barrow. …