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Broken Glass

 

Massive Attack: 100th Window

Virgin, 2003

Rating: 3.5

 

 

Posted: February 23, 2003

By Laurence Station

The winnowing of Massive Attack, from the core trio of British trip-hop pioneers Andrew "Mushroom" Vowles, "Daddy G" Marshall and Robert "3-D" Del Naja, is all but complete. Creative difference sent Vowles packing after Mezzanine, the band's 1998 masterpiece. Marshall was the next to take a break, deciding to spend more time with his family. That left Del Naja, still called 3-D but clearly left with but one dimension at his disposal. Collaborating with arranger/producer Neil Davidge for the second straight release, Del Naja basically retreads Mezzanine, and the wear and tear shows. There's little here that wasn't done better and more purposefully last time around. And thanks in part to the lyrical and vocal presence of Sinčad O'Connor, Massive Attack's revolving muse of the moment, 100th Window proves the least impressive album in the formidable group's catalog. Considering the expectations for a classic each time out, however, it still makes for a solid, smartly crafted effort -- just not a very inspiring one.

For all of Massive Attack's innovations -- from essentially creating what would come to be known as the trip-hop sound to adding cinematic shading to an electronica dance beat -- the group has followed a fairly rigid formula. Feature a prominent (and often secondary) female vocalist, toss in a few songs by Jamaican singer (and band mainstay) Horace Andy, and a little fluid rapping (courtesy of Tricky on the first two releases), and mix it all together against a dense, often subtly menacing sound collage of samples, live instrumentation and intricately programmed beats. Much like the steady drop-off of band members over the years, the rotating talent pool of guest vocal chanteuses has irreparably thinned. The band's clockwork infusion of arresting sirens (Shara Nelson on Blue Lines; Nicolette and Everything But the Girl's Tracy Thorn on Protection; Cocteau Twins singer Elizabeth Fraser and then-newcomer Sara Jay on Mezzanine) contributed immensely to the kitchen-sink alchemy that made previous albums so exciting (not to mention groundbreaking). O'Connor, while possessed of a strong, distinctive voice, simply fails to blend into the Massive Attack sound as well as those prior songbirds.

As a result, her three vocal contributions fail to inspire the same level of attention. "What Your Soul Sings" boasts carefully plucked strings, a metronomic beat and New Age-y harmonies, and simply lacks teeth; it's placid, a criticism one could never convincingly make about previous Massive Attack efforts, no matter how hypnotic or druggy things became. "A Prayer for England" is a straight-up protest song that would be more at home on an O'Connor solo effort; the vocals are pushed out front and the message (peace, love, understanding) aggressively reiterated throughout. O'Connor fares best on "Special Cases," where her vocals are mixed on par with the heavy beat, the lyrics less obvious and forced. It's the lone track where Massive Attack pays respect to its laudable history of top-drawer female singers.

Del Naja and Andy handle the remaining vocal duties, with decidedly mixed results. "Name Taken" and the impressively layered "Everywhen" display Andy in fine form, his voice meshing seamlessly with the hypnotic beats. Del Naja shines on "Butterfly Caught," offering abstract lyrics against a steady, shimmering drum beat, while "Future Proof" conveys the requisite amount of tension as Del Naja evokes the sensation of getting on a plane (in our post-Sept. 11 world) and attempting to dampen his apprehension by getting as high as the aircraft's altitude. "Small Time Shot Away," on the other hand, is listless, barely registering above bland elevator music. And the closing "Antistar" boasts real potential, but meanders, ultimately droning on without achieving an equitable amount of emotional release.

Indeed, it's emotion that's decidedly lacking (aside from O'Connor's grating polemic) throughout 100th Window. The propulsive, cinematic tension of Mezzanine is nowhere to be found; the daring hodgepodge of rap, soul, dance and ecstasy that fueled Blue Lines and (to a lesser extent) Protection, decidedly absent. For a Massive Attack effort, it's simply bereft of fresh ideas. Factor in the shrunken talent pool, and the fact that the album holds together at all is a noteworthy achievement. But this is a Massive Attack record, and fair or not, it must stand or fall against what has come before. Sadly, it doesn't even come close.

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 5.0: A classic
 4.0-4.9: Stellar work
 3.0-3.9: Worthwhile effort
 2.0-2.9: Nothing special
 1.1-1.9: Pretty bad
 0.0-1.0: Total disaster

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