Happy 20th Anniversary to Massive Attack’s third studio album Mezzanine, originally released April 20, 1998.
Certain albums demand to be listened to at a certain time. For me, Massive Attack’s Mezzanine (1998) needs to be listened to at night when the darkness and atmospherics held within can induce a mix of chills and excitement.
For a band that had grown in popularity and critical acclaim for their laid back, soulful blend of dub, electronica and hip-hop—captured to thrilling effect on their first two albums Blue Lines (1991) and Protection (1994)—Mezzanine was a decidedly darker adventure, even by trip-hop standards.
The album doesn’t start in as much as it creeps in through your stereo, invading your space with beautiful doses of menace and hypnotic grooves. Album opener “Angel” is a brooding mix of heavy, brothy bass and taught snapping beats set against dub distortion and fuzzed out guitars. Deliberately sparse, the song is a bleak reworking/reinvention of guest vocalist Horace Andy’s own song “You Are My Angel.” But whereas his 1973 original is a swaying reggae song of hope and love, this is filled with obsessive dread. Including samples from The Incredible Bongo Band’s “Bongo Rock,” the track builds in intensity before exploding in a flurry of splashy cymbals, tom fills and reverb a plenty.
With its exploration of the dark depths of Bristol’s club scene, “Risingson” feels almost claustrophobic as the sonic walls heave back and forth before closing in on you. A hazy and imperturbable production mixes interpolations of Dennis Pinnock’s “Dennis The Menace” with brief sample snippets of The Velvet Underground’s “I Found A Reason” in a way that adds to the aural trip. With atmospheric synth beds that saw their way through the track, “Risingson” is akin to a waking dream state where reality blends and morphs with every passing bar dragging you deeper into a murky subconscious.
Guest vocalist Elizabeth Fraser of Cocteau Twins fame gives the album a moment of reprieve with a sweet, angelic vocal that lends “Teardrop” a light and airy feel. A musical meditation on desire, the song would be the breakout track on the album, thanks in no small part to an intriguing, couldn’t-look-away music video.
“Inertia Creeps,” with its threatening beat and pulsating synth, plunges you into the depths of a toxic sexual relationship that just claws away at your soul. Whereas “Teardrop” is light, “Inertia Creeps” is pure darkness. There’s a sense of pressure that weighs on the track that adds to the grit and helplessness it conveys.
“Exchange” plays through like a cleansing wave built around an Isaac Hayes sample and is a welcome palate cleanser, so much so it is reprised as the album closer replete with vocals.
With whisper like vocals from Sara Jay, “Dissolved Girl” follows a similar construct to “Angel.” It has a sense of urgency underpinning it and whilst it begins with the feeling of rays of warm sunlight breaking through clouds, things quickly shift into a spiraling cacophony of distorted guitars and on-the-edge drumming before looping back to a moment of calm. However, for the second half of the song, things change and the brewing sonic storm still threatens to break through once more.
“Man Next Door” is a dubbed out cover of Jamaican reggae artist John Holt’s “I’ve Got To Get Away” and in tune with the rest of Mezzanine shifts the track to a slower trot, painting it in darker hues. The result is, once more, gloomier and borderline menacing.
In one of music history’s most costly use of (uncleared) samples, “Black Milk” is built entirely around an extended co-opting of Manfred Mann’s “Tribute.” Whereas on the rest of the album, samples are used to embellish moments in a song or form part of its foundation, “Black Milk” was a direct lift. This resulted in an out of court settlement that saw Massive Attack shy away from sample use in the future. Ironically the song itself is one of the lesser tracks on the album despite Liz Fraser gracing us once more with her dream inducing vocals.
“Mezzanine” with its slow boil attack and disheveled distortion, and the sprawling, shape-shifting modern lament of “Group Four” bring the album to an overwhelmingly satisfying conclusion, along with the revised take of “(Exchange).”
Bleak. Blurry. Beautiful. This is Mezzanine. Perhaps the defining album of the trip-hop era. It exhibits Massive Attack at its apex production wise and in songcraft, showing how the use of, and cross-pollination between, samples should be used as an element of songwriting and not the root cause (with the exception of “Black Milk”). Its dark embrace is one worth giving into and allowing yourself to be lost in. It will forever take me back to late nights spent working when the music seemed to stir a collective desire for creativity. It’s charged with energy and primed to awaken the senses in a way that few albums in the later part of the 1990s dared to do.