SAM TAYLOR looks at the new EP from the Bristol band.
Although no track here has as immediate an impact as the likes of Teardrop or Paradise Circus, Massive Attack’s first release since 2010 shows a band still on top form.
The first of two planned EPs, Ritual Spirit, follows an emerging trend of artists attempting to bypass the conventional platforms of releasing music. Before it was available in physical or download form, the music was obtainable on an app called Fantom. Fantom uses data from your mobile phone to create personal remixes based on ‘the time of day or night, your location and your surroundings as captured by your device’s camera.’ For a band who are agitated by the consumption of digital information, projecting a rolling list of intimate Google searches during live shows, it is hard not to interpret this as a statement – and a distressing one at that. It is unnerving to think that even music, a un-invasive medium that allows many to express themselves, can be used to mine into our private information so that our mood can be dictated.
The bleak implications of this app are evident in the music contained within. Ritual Spirit maintains the dark, ominous tone that is a staple of Massive Attack’s sound, while also marking a subtle shift in style. Most notably, the first three tracks are far more uptempo than the usual half-time, trip-hop lag. Rhythmically it is more layered and intense, generating a greater sense of urgency compared to the overall brooding feel of Mezzanine.
That said, the single ‘Take It There’ wouldn’t sound out of place on their 1998 tour de force. With the godfather of trip-hop, Tricky, working with the Bristol band again for the first time since 1995, this one had to be more laid back. Tricky’s heavy-breathing, spoken verses eerily overlap with Robert Del Naja’s delayed vocals to a typically sinister effect. This is aided by a minimalist but effective guitar accompaniment that creates a strong atmosphere with just a few notes. Its simplicity is elevated by the quality of its production. As with all of their material from the past 20 years, it is consummately well arranged. The outro is arguably too long, but then Massive Attack have never seemed worried about being concise. In and out in three minutes is just not their style.
Tricky is one of four artists to feature on Ritual Spirit, with Roots Manuva, singer-songwriter Azekel, and 2014 Mercury prize winners, Young Fathers also lending their talents to the album. It is fascinating to see what each different artist brings to the record. Roots Manuva’s style is reminiscent of Ghostpoet, with his restrained, stop-start delivery contrasting with the high energy of Dead Editors. His voice is well chosen, though it is the pervading bass and frenetic electronic beats, crackling like popping candy in the ears, that really own the track. The only shame is that you can’t quite make out all Roots Manuva is saying – but the snippets you do catch are deft and poetic.
The title track is the most likely to pass you by. The guitar melody and synth bass verge on being too oppressively dour for the casual listener. Azekel’s softer, more melodic approach certainly does lift the tone but again there is a lack of vocal clarity. What holds your attention above all is the creative blend of rhythms created by layers of pads, conga drums, and handclaps – a good illustration of how the EP varies from their previous works.
Young Fathers are the artists to leave the biggest mark on the mini-album. Their pulsating, chant-like harmonies are the easiest vocals to really hook onto and work brilliantly over Voodoo In My Blood’s hypnotic, tribal drumming. The song also offers a shocking departure in that, incomprehensibly for a Massive Attack song, there is a major chord change. Of the four, Voodoo In My Blood is the most riling and bewitching.
As with the vast majority of Massive Attack’s music, consistency seems to be the key. The trip-hoppers do not often release new music, but when they do you know it’s going to be well-considered and of high quality. Ritual Spirit EP is business as usual.