Trip-Hop's New Plateau

Bristolians Massive Attack have never gotten their due in North

America.

In the four years since their last album, Protection, the

"trip-hop" phenomenon they've spawned (but aren't at all limited

to) has

gone through the inevitable cycle of media infatuation and fatigue

typical of all such trends, yet the overall results of the genre -- to

these ears -- make up perhaps the strongest body of work in '90s

popular

music. From ex-Massive Attack collaborator Tricky to Portishead to

The

Aloof (whose brilliantly-bleak Sinking remains inexplicably

unreleased in North America) and lesser lights such as Sneaker

Pimps and

Morcheeba, trip-hop has developed a broad sonic spectrum that

bodes well

for the genre's continued development.

And now Mezzanine, which, when rock-critic types begin to

look

back at the history of trip-hop and its related musics, will no doubt

be

seen as a landmark album, both a consolidation of past gains and

a

signpost toward future developments. The most immediately-

noticeable

difference with Mezzanine lies in its visceral, live feel, as

contrasted with the dryer studio sheen of Protection and the

group's stunning 1991 debut, Blue Lines. Perhaps

appropriately,

as the millennium approaches, the MA sound is now heavier,

darker, more

foreboding: the band's inherent dub, reggae and rock influences

are

pushed to the forefront, with woofer-blowing basslines, choppy

guitar

riffs and slamming drums taking Mezzanine further on up

and out.

"Angel," the album's ominous opening track, is a case in point:

while

continuity is provided by the voice of permanent MA guest vocalist

(and

reggae kingpin in his own right) Horace Andy, here he has to fight

to

stay afloat as the slowly-building music finally hits a crunching

crescendo and threatens to overwhelm him, finally easing off in

what can

only be termed a musical draw in which the listener is the winner.

The

U.K. hit single "Risingson" also hits hard, with core MA members

Robert

"3-D" Del Naja and Grant "Daddy G" Marshall trading off their

patented,

whispery, neo-psychedelic raps. "Toy-like people made me boy-

like,"

hisses 3-D, while basso-voiced Daddy G responds with

snippets of

old pop songs: "Where have all the flowers gone, long time

passing," he

laments.

A seething brand of tension lurks throughout Mezzanine,

perhaps stemming from the fact that the band was going through

some

heavy, post-Tricky changes during the album's recording, leading

Daddy G

to characterize their squabbles as

Pink Floydian in scope. "Inertia creeps, moving up slowly," 3-D

warns on

the burbling "Inertia Creeps," which wriggles and winds its way up

your

aural canals and into your subconscious, ready to reappear at

those odd

moments during the day when you, too, might feel as hopelessly

enmeshed

in the societal straightjacket of work and obligation, as does the

singer. See you on the dark side of the moon,

indeed.

One might be allowed to feel slightly cynical at the inclusion of

alt-rock goddess and Cocteau Twin Liz Fraser on an album

designed to be

"massive" in North America, but hey, she's only recently moved to

Bristol, so a collaboration with the city's musical royalty is really a

natural development. Fraser's trademark Celtic cooing on the new

single,

"Teardrop," is typically alluring -- her voice is anchored here by a

hypnotic, dub-like beat, while on the

near-epic "Group 4," she finds herself trading lines with a

particularly

sinister-sounding 3-D.

Sara Jay contributes some cool, soul-inflected

vocals to the slinky slo-funk of "Dissolved Girl" -- which

nevertheless

finds its musical resolution in a near heavy-metal din -- while the

golden-throated Horace Andy returns for one of the album's

highest high

points, the dub-rocker "Man Next Door," which details the

difficulties

of finding calm in a world fraught with interpersonal strife and

makes

an impassioned plea for some old-fashioned peace of mind.

The wonder of Mezzanine -- and of Massive Attack in

general --

thus lies in the inspired form of eclectic collaboration through

which

the core group (rounded out by musical director Andrew Vowles)

expresses

itself, somehow never losing its identity. Massive Attack have

returned

to stake out a lofty vantage point from which to survey the

competition

below. If this is the band's rockiest, most accessible album to date,

it's also their best, and that's a "tricky" combination that few

musical

outfits ever pull off.

Mezzanine is not only one of the top albums of the year, it's

one

of the finest of the entire decade.

Attention Mr. Adrian Thaws and all the rest: the ball's now firmly in

your court(s).