Album Review: Massive Attack - Mezzanine

I’ve been meaning to review this album for several years now and laughably missed my own deadline to cover it in time for its 20-year anniversary in late 2018. For Massive Attack’s Mezzanine it’s a case of better late than never, though. Like a number of other 1990’s British albums that have gone on to be regarded as all-time classics, it was released to little fanfare or drama. But Mezzanine is a sleeping beast that has well and truly withstood the ravages of time.

Mezzanine opens quite unlike any album I’ve heard before. A low vibrating bassline fades into play, before slow tick-tocking beats and scattered string samples kick in. It’s dark, creepy, insular and lends the opening 70 seconds a haunted feeling that the rest of the album never shakes off. Welcome to Angel. It chews up Horace Andy’s 1973 song You Are My Angel, turning the sentimental reggae number into something eery and deeply uncomfortable, before spitting it back out. Angel invokes a feeling of dread, yet it’s addictive, sensual and inspiring, building a wall of dense layered samples. You can actually feel the tension in the music as you listen to it. Remarkable.

Risingson builds on this creepy vibe even further, firmly taking us into a claustrophobic vortex of sound. A throbbing bassline underscores ghostly atmospherics, shredded guitar and wah-wah samples to a stellar effect. For me, Risingson is a sonic representation of a spider spinning a silvery web in a dank sewer. The track is about the Bristol club scene at the time and this is quite clearly reflected in its lyrics. 3D and Daddy G both rap from chorus to chorus, challenging each other, fuelling paranoia and suspicion. Almost unbelievably, Risingson samples the Dylan-esque folk song I Found A Reason by The Velvet Underground. I say unbelievable as it’s barely detectable amidst the furore of reverb and deep dub samples. On top of this, Daddy G directly references Pete Seeger:
“Where have all those flowers gone? Long time passing/
Why you keep me testing, keep me tasking/
You keep on asking.”

The impact of Inertia Creeps is astounding. Its placement on Mezzanine is crucial in retaining the consistent claustrophobic flow of the album.

– Michelle Dhillon

There is a slight respite from this darkness when we hit Teardrop, but a raw tension remains throughout this masterful number. Elizabeth Fraser of The Cocteau Twins contributes ethereal, childlike vocals that bless Teardrop with naivety, hope and wonder. This is interspersed with the sparse tick-tocking sample, which turns into a heartbeat. The beauty of this song lies in its simplicity. Massive Attack allow Fraser’s blissful vocals to dominate and build the atmosphere, a trick they pull off successfully throughout Mezzanine. Fraser stated in a later interview that, for her, the song is about her close friend Jeff Buckley‘s death. It’s horribly apt then that by the end of Teardrop, black flowers blossom and the love Fraser sings of falls apart.

Inertia Creeps beckons, its heavily percussive Turkish, or to be accurate, Çiftetelli instrumental samples recklessly colliding with the intro to Ultravox’s Rockwrok. Thunderous drums hurtle in, spiralling the whole track into oblivion. 3D picks his way through the mire, his lyrics meandering through however they can. He weaves a rather sorry tale of dysfunctional seduction in an unwanted relationship, but the overall impact of Inertia Creeps is astounding. Its placement on Mezzanine is crucial in retaining the consistent claustrophobic flow of the album.

Man Next Door is a cover of John Holt’s reggae song from 1968, rather ingeniously infused with John Bonham’s near-iconic drum riff from Led Zeppelin‘s cover of blues anthem When The Levee Breaks. Similar to their reworking of Angel, Massive Attack strip all the joy from Holt’s original and force the lyrics centre stage, with Horace Andy on vocals. Andy’s vocals are much slower and teamed with echoes, making the whole song dark, dense and gripping. When he sings: “I’ve got to get away from here / This is not a place for me to stay”, we can really feel the fear in his words.

There is a darkness on this album that doesn’t leave you when it ends. It lingers and stays with you, permanently. For that alone, Mezzanine is one of the greatest albums ever made.

– Michelle Dhillon

Although an awesome part of Mezzanine, Black Milk is essentially a reworked cover of 1972 track Tribute by Manfred Mann’s Earth Band. Massive Attack originally tried to pull this off as their own work, amending later album sleeves to credit the ‘sample’ to Mann after the latter tried to get an injunction to stop sales of Mezzanine until he was rightly credited. Naughty. Nevertheless, Black Milk is another sinister listening experience, with layers of samples and Fraser returning to add some supernatural vocals to the mix. Despite the controversy surrounding the track, you can’t deny it’s an inspired reinvention of Tribute.

Title track Mezzanine puts forward the notion of a floor between floors, a twilight zone or no man’s land. 3D and Daddy G reinforce this idea with their rap, which is all at once about something and nothing. “All these half floors/Will lead to mine/We can unwind all our flaws.” Musically, it retains and builds on the intensity of Black Milk considerably, with intimidating deep bass samples building up as the rap proceeds. There’s a sense of menace that increases with each verse and sample, the lyrics successfully painting a picture of underlying resentment and hatred between two people.

After Mezzanine, the furore surrounding the unacknowledged sampling of Manfred Mann led Massive Attack to a monumental decision – to abandon the use of samples for well over a decade. Was that a mistake? For me, yes. Mezzanine is like no other album that has come before, or since. It’s timeless and genre-defying, yet it’s also the best example of late 90’s trip-hop any British music act could have produced. Massive Attack’s use of samples and the sheer mix of musical genres they spanned was visionary, peerless and inspirational. They proved themselves as absolute masters of composition and reinvention. Like Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, there is a darkness on this album that doesn’t leave you when it ends. It lingers and stays with you, permanently. For that alone, Mezzanine is one of the greatest albums ever made.