Heligoland is an enormous departure from the sleek and polished 100th Window; this is Massive Attack’s rawest album yet. The album has a bare and jarringly crude sound of an impoverished punk band. With swanky production all but absent, Heligoland features live instruments more prominently than on any of the band’s other records. The drums sound unwrought and bass guitars have an unrefined clang, especially on the album’s rare plush techno cuts (“Babel” and “Rush Minute”), giving them edge.
Although Mezzanine is known for its edgy sound with its cascading guitars and crunchy drums, there is a kind of sophistication to its manic instrumentation. Heligoland, on the other hand, is totally sparse in comparison. The music has a minimalistic quality, which in addition to its unrewardingly undercooked sound, makes it Massive Attack’s most difficult record, despite its relatively uncomplicated songs and the unbelievable list of guest singers that is worth drooling at.
The selection of singers lending their voices to this disc – Tunde Adebimpe, Guy Garvey, Damon Albarn, Martina Topley-Bird, and Hope Sandoval – sound naked and strong. Their choice is befitting for the music that expects to have little personality of its own, but gives freedom to the singers to take it whichever way they wish to, with their own individual brilliant singing and idiosyncrasies.
The only kinship of Heligoland to earlier Massive Attack albums comes from “Splitting The Atom,” “Girl I Love You,” “Rush Minute,” and “Atlas Air,” tracks sung partly or wholly by one or more of the original band members, Grant Marshall (who returns after a one-album hiatus) and Robert Del Naja, and unofficial group member, Horace Andy. However, even with the familiar electronic sounds of these cuts, they still come saddled with campy beats and seem denuded, sharing the unfinished sound of the rest of the record.
This album’s curious eccentricities divorce it from the rest of the Massive Attack catalog. But this doesn’t take away the band’s core dark and introspective sound that is so near and dear to them. Massive Attack knows how to keep their music unique and different, getting their attempts at experimentation right all the time with their records. Heligoland might be another standout in Massive Attack’s career of fabulous albums, but it is not the band’s best work either.