Massive Attack in 3Arena, Dublin, on Sunday 24th February 2019
Book-ending Massive Attack’s ‘Mezzanine’ run-through in 3Arena are two seemingly unambiguous messages of hope. The latter is delivered in one final, bold slogan on the large visual screen behind the band, the former via Lou Reed and The Velvet Underground. “What comes is better than what came before”, sang Reed in 1970, and as Robert ‘3D’ Del Naja and Grant ‘Daddy G’ Marshall kick off the set with I Found A Reason, it seems on reflection that a sense of optimism is the last thing we should feel. Tonight, we experience the band’s third album through the filter of the last two decades of political turmoil since its release. That final message, in stark monochrome: “WE ARE CAUGHT IN AN ENDLESS LOOP. IT’S TIME TO LEAVE THE GHOSTS BEHIND. AND LOOK TOWARDS THE FUTURE.”
There are two distinct elements to tonight’s set. Firstly, the music. An eight-strong band, two drummers, the primary tracks and a selection of covers whose samples informed the album proper back when Massive Attack were in a state of disintegration (‘Mezzanine’, downbeat and apocalyptic, was the last release by the original founding trio). It’s during those covers that the set is at its most striking – the abrasive, new wave routs of Bauhaus, The Cure, and Ultravox’s Rockwrok.
Secondly, there are the visuals, three dominating screens displaying a mash-up of scenes from the mundane to the disturbing – toy factory workers, Tony Blair, Saddam, Fergie, Britney; car-crash celebrity, war mongers, exploiters and exploited…recurring themes through the set. Pete Seeger’s Where Have All the Flowers Gone? begins with a heavy, lingering scene of grief, while the faces on the visual screens during Inertia Creeps morph and mutate in an acid nightmare; Trump into Putin into Britney and back, evoking Chris Morris more than Massive Attack. The hypnotic instrumental loops of Exchange are intercut with footage of a bunch of skins in a nightclub. Too much fighting on the dancefloor. Here, and often, the band recede into darkness to let the images labour their point.
The visuals are designed to add gravitas to the music, but more effective in this respect are Elizabeth Fraser and Horace Andy on each of their successive vocal turns. Angel builds in power and repetition with Andy at the helm, subtle inflections eclipsing visual stimulus. In a technological intrusion of a different hue, a multitude of mobile phone screens ascend during Teardrop. A spontaneous cheer goes up in one of the spaces in Fraser’s ethereal falsetto. Fraser, though, appears oblivious, lost in song.
The night is typified by contrast. Where Andy and Fraser give outstanding turns, Marshall and Del Naja are more workmanlike, the latter in particular almost reticent to emerge from the shadows. The band is powerful, but almost invisible, the visuals overwrought and heavy-handed. The retelling of ‘Mezzanine’ – the interpretation of original and cover alike – is authoritative, the socio-political point laboured and blunt; the subtlety and sublimity of the album offset by visual diatribe.
It’s hard to know where Massive Attack are steering their audience with the message, but in hindsight it seems to be towards a darker place than the set at first seemed to suggest. In 2019, Massive Attack’s third album has become a soundtrack to a bleak sermon on capitalism, consumption and oppression. The music is as affecting as ever, the message more leaden. “WE ARE CAUGHT IN AN ENDLESS LOOP”. Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. We’re all fucked.