Stirring only every half-decade or so, Massive Attack tend to move at their own pace: unhurried, deliberate, wary. They have, however, just released an intriguing new four-track EP of collaborations, Ritual Spirit, with the promise of another EP and an album to come later this year. If you listen closely, you can hear the distant throb of a tectonic dubplate shifting slightly.
Ritual Spirit’s headline news is a song called Take It There. Despite the lack of a tune, it is cagey and whispered in the classic Massive mould, and features the wholly unexpected return of Tricky, the rapper who spun off acrimoniously from Massive Attack to become a troubled star in his own right.
Massive main man 3D (known at border crossings as Robert Del Naja) hasn’t traded verses with Tricky since 1995 – the year eBay and Kendall Jenner were born. At this first of three sold-out Brixton gigs – the culmination of a sold-out UK tour – a tiny bit of everyone in attendance is half-hoping that maybe Tricky just might turn up and sing it. And maybe some other songs. It would confound expectations. He only lives in Paris.
Massive do play one of Tricky’s old hits tonight – the nagging, sultry Karmacoma – reused on Tricky’s own debut solo outing, Maxinquaye, as Overcome. But there is no fond reunion on offer. Instead, there unfolds a chiaroscuro (well, given the brooding mood, mostly scuro) of nostalgia, deja vu and renewal, as Massive toggle between old glories, their 21st-century catalogue and their guest collaborators.
Massive have always leaned hard on their faithful vocal stalwart, Horace Andy. Tonight the reggae veteran is greeted like a star signing missing from the pitch for half the season. He sings Girl I Love You, from 2010’s Heligoland album, with customary grace, as the tally of casualties from the Syrian conflict and children’s drawings of brutal conflict play out behind him. The guitar and keyboards go a little more Arabic than I remember on the original song, a touch that unblocks a duct or two around the eyes.
Then there’s Martina Topley-Bird – arguably the branch from which all those breathy R&B singers like FKA Twigs have flowered. Having duetted with Tricky back in the day, Topley-Bird joined Massive on their last outing, Heliogland; she is kept busy, tasked with the Liz Fraser role in Teardrop as well as her own songs. Teardrop’s crescendo climaxes in a blaze of light and a release of tension from the crowd.
Also present is guest singer Azekel, whose dulcet falsetto brings a new note of male sweetness into latter-day Massive Attack’s fairly unremitting rumble’n’mutter. Even better, though, are Young Fathers, the tour support band, who not only get a passionate 45-minute set to themselves beforehand, but also sing two tracks in the encore. If you are looking to take positives from the EP, the Mercury-winning trio (expanded to a foursome tonight) are it. There is an obvious simpatico between the two groups’ politics, their mix of sources, their two-tone makeup. Their collaboration Voodoo in My Blood – on the EP, in the encore – is noticeably more percussive and energised tonight than much else around it.
Surprisingly often, you find yourself tuning out Massive Attack’s music and focusing on the visual spectacle. The group’s LED projections have grown just as significant as their soundtracks, with progressive politics, Facebook-fear, numbers, search terms, corporate logos and the refugee crisis photography of Giles Duley playing out across the back of the stage. At the end, there is a plea to donate to the UNHCR.
The greatest of the hits they play tonight – Safe from Harm, starring guest vocalist Deborah Miller as Shara Nelson, a role she has been reprising for some years – is thus transformed. You expect it to be about the tides of displaced humanity being washed up on the shores of southern Europe, but Massive use it to catalogue the architectural and cultural treasures destroyed by Islamic State and the forces allied to them, from Timbuktu to Niniveh. Either way, it’s enormously moving.
On the one hand, you cannot fault the synergy of Massive’s portent-laden music, and the sorry state of the world that the United Visual Artists’ backdrops reflect. On the other, I saw Massive play in 2010 and much of it is familiar: the departures board visuals, the transcript of conversations between drone pilots (“Err, do not engage the mosque”).
What this wounded world needs, you’d think, is a way out of the darkness, or a chance to dance, which Massive’s recent music doesn’t exactly provide. What started off as the paranoia-made sound of too much weed being smoked in a threatening environment – the Bristol nightclub scene in the 1980s – became, in the hands of the Bristol scene, a genre – trip-hop, music you could move to, albeit at half-speed. It is hard to understate the importance of Massive, whose three albums of the 90s – Blue Lines, Protection and Mezzanine – remain beautiful and groundbreaking works of peculiarly British genius.
But around the turn of the millennium, Massive shed two founder members, Mushroom (Andrew Vowles) and Daddy G (Grant Marshall). And even though Daddy G has returned to the fold, and is (huge drum roll) actually helming the next EP, Massive Attack remains the 3D show: guitar-heavy, crying out for melody. Somewhere along the line, this hugely pivotal figure in British music has mislaid his lightness of touch. Let’s hope he finds it again come album time.