Love will tear us apart

"Our first two albums were studio-based; we just went in and ran about and sampled away. But for this one," says Massive Attack's Grant "Daddy G" Marshall of the sprawling, beat-noir masterpiece Mezzanine, "we wanted to make something more tangible, something that makes you ask 'who are these guys?'"

And indeed, it might also prompt this answer: Not anybody you'd wanna be stuck alone with in a room.

The beat-numb studio geeks of Massive's albums Blue Lines (1991) or Protection (1994), Marshall and core members Robert "3-D" del Naja and Andrew "Mushroom" Vowles may have been better deejays than frontmen. But this year's Mezzanine finds them ad hoc poet laureates of an album-long, half-imagined netherworld of sexual tension. With its darkly fatigued lyrical imagery ("Two undernourished egos/Four rotating hips") and menacing, autumnal glow, Mezzanine's a world away from the loping, hip hop-flavored, clubland anthems of the trio's past. As del Naja whispers on "Risingson," looking back on their club-culture past: "Toy-like people make me boy-like." Tasty-waves-and-a-cool-buzz-of-beats once made them the brightest stars of the genre formerly known as trip hop; noisy guitars and an if not pre-millennial, then pre-dawn tension now makes them the darkest stars of their own genre.

"This record makes people go, 'Hold on, these guys come from deejaying. But this isn't music for the dance floor, it's music you listen to on headphones while smoking a joint,'" adds Marshall. "Only you may not feel too good afterwards; in fact, you may take a razor blade to your wrists."

He's joking. But then again, given the turbulent making of Mezzanine, "suicidal" may be a more appropriate term than the Massives would want to admit. A main source of friction in the band was the decision to embrace rock elements from its post-punk past. "The Clash's Sandanista is my favorite album, because of all its musical styles," Marshall explains. "It's self-indulgent, but it works," which could also be said about Mezzanine.

"I was always into ska, new wave, the New Romantic guitar bands, Public Image Limited, the Pop Group," the 39-year-old (!) Marshall explains. "Plus, hip hop's so negative now."

Vowles, the b (with-a-capital-"B")-boy of the group, wasn't having it, though, and fought over the use of Blue Aeroplanes' guitarist Angelo Bruschini (who, one could argue, is responsible for Mezzanine's real revelation with his ebb-and-flow riffs and textures). The rap vs. rock battle, further addled by road "exhaustion," made recording tense.

But the raw emotion made its way into Massive's usually calculated beats. Evocative guitar squalls and soundtrack-y synth washes have replaced the hip-hop vernacular of record scratches and ends-in-themselves grooves.

"You can hear it on how slow and dirty 'Black Milk' is," says Marshall. "We took all our gear down to Cornwall out in the country, but we hated each other's guts; we'd be walking around on this beautiful waterfront, but we'd avoid each other."

Add to that situation vocalist Liz Fraser's own drama -- she fled to Bristol after the birth of her second child and the apparent breakup of her band the Cocteau Twins -- and you can hear why Mezzanine has a life beyond the finality of the dance floor. In fact, with Fraser's vocal, "Teardrop" is, if not the year's finest single, certainly the most harrowing contender for the title.

Guitars, fights, drama, "exhaustion"? Geez, Massive is starting to sound like a real rock band. And it's a concept that's taken some warming up to, given the group's perhaps overreverence for hip hop when it formed as a sound-system collective of deejays and rappers known as the Wild Bunch 15 years ago (a name, tellingly, that Massive put on its records until 1994). "In our first incarnation, we thought Bristol was the Bronx," admits Marshall with a laugh, "before we got real and started being true to what we were into."

Keeping it real before getting real, Massive's early efforts bore the imprint of the sound-system democracy, which carried over into early live shows. The band's first Detroit-area appearance in 1991, at Pontiac nightclub Industry, was little more than a deejay gig, with del Naja awkwardly delivering raps while Vowles and Marshall spun records. And while their sound-system ethic accounted for some fine moments -- 1991's "Unfinished Sympathy" and 1994's "Protection" are classics on and off the dance floor -- it also spoke to creative limitations. Says Marshall, "Our older material's a testament to our Wild Bunch days. But it all became a bit rigid. We were just deejaying, and having the beats on turntables became really restrictive."

For others, however, it was clearly more inspirational. Ex-member Tricky and former Massive studio engineer Geoff Barrow (of Portishead) took Massive's numbingly elegant beats and turned them into real songs for a real band, while Massive's stellar if sporadic singles became the blueprint for an entire beat-music-with-girl-vocal subgenre of bands from Lamb and the Sneaker Pimps to Mono and Morcheeba.

But by the mid-'90s, as beat-Basquiat Tricky turned from Massive guest rapper into pomo poet laureate and critical fave by adding raspy gender-bending rhymes to a bluesy deconstruction of Massive's sample-collage pastiche, Massive relegated itself to producing -- working with Madonna on her cover of "I Want You" for a 1995 Marvin Gaye tribute record. A telling, if Pyrrhic, victory: Massive had the sound, but Tricky, it seemed, had more to say.

What role exactly the Tricky-Massive Attack rivalry had in the latter's transformation from beat-makers to guitar-positive, goth-friendly songsmiths is debatable. Certainly the hoarse whispers and post-dance floor psyche are Tricky trademarks, but to Massive's credit, Mezzanine boasts a musical depth that Tricky's Tom Waits-ish, lo-fi funk can't touch. There are just as many real instruments on Mezzanine as sampled ones, after all, thanks to Massive's touring band being brought into the studio for the first time. Besides Bruschini, sometime-vocalist and '70s reggae legend Horace Andy is now a full-time member, and Fraser may even take up long-term residence in the Massive camp, now that she's in the Bristol neighborhood, and might (Marshall stresses might) join the tour that brings them to Pontiac this Friday.

Always the bridesmaid, never quite the bride, Massive Attack has always been in danger of becoming as famous for its A-list of ex-members as for its own work. Besides Tricky, producer Nellee Hooper (Soul II Soul, Madonna, Bjork), and even the glum-a-go-go Portishead graduated in one form or another from Massive's ranks over the past 10 years.

But by updating its "keepin' it real" ethic with a persona equal parts hyperreal, unreal and surreal, Massive is at last a contender for pop stardom. Marshall, however, has a perhaps less music-biz-savvy reason for the transformation. "I really see how we are now as getting back to something more organic, which is really something that goes way beyond us. I mean, yo-yos are big in England right now, because, after video games and everything, people want to get back to something that's simple and organic."

He then adds that, for this tour, Massive Attack protege Lewis Parker will open the shows with a deejay set; "keepin' it real," jokes Marshall in a b-boy drawl. Hobey Echlin is a freelance writer. Send comments to [email protected]

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