Let’s start by going out on a limb here and pointing out the amusing parallels between the formula behind Massive Attack’s pioneering trip-hop and some of the briefly more marketable 90s electronic pop clowns like C+C Music Factory and the Real McCoy—specifically, the Jekyll-and-Hyde combination of Robert Del Naja’s mumbled back-alley baritone pseudo-raps and the somewhat more melodic leads, all with keyboard-laden backdrops hinting at fairly inept visions of the future. Remember that all of the above, roughly speaking, were contemporaries of movies like Hackers and The Net, artifacts from an awkward digital puberty where you’d get only one button on a mouse, if you even knew what one was in the first place.
Flashing forward 15 or so years, insofar as Heligoland still tries to be a Massive Attack record, the results are remarkable: “Rush Minute” and “Atlas Air” can stand alongside anything else this band has ever released. But those are also the only two fronted by Del Naja, and when he gives the keys to the van to guest lead vocalists like Tunde Adebimpe and Damon Albarn, it all falls apart. Neither is prepared to carry his band’s legacy for even four minutes—the foreboding songs are usually made even more upsetting by all the confusing amorphous edges, for one thing, but these guys just enunciate too damn clearly.
This is not a new approach, of course—the hired guns have previously given us killer songs like “A Prayer For England” and the immortal “Teardrop,” and even though Heligoland hits more than it misses, the upsetting part is that it feels for the first time like Massive Attack is standing on the edge of a precipice, ready to tie their lines to performances by outside artists and recklessly hurl themselves over into a simple rubber-stamping role. For all that morose soothsaying about the bleak Blade Runner existence bearing down on us, and all the effort they expended laying a foundation from which to address it, it seems that their own future didn’t quite shape up as expected. Maybe that wouldn’t be the end of the world, but it’s certainly one of those things that make you go hmmm.