When the Tingle Becomes a Chill

"Okay Tricky baby. Gimme postapocalyptic. C'mon, pout for me baby. Pout! Beautiful.": U.K. hip hop's prophet of gloom returns with Angels With Dirty Faces.

Mezzanine, the Massives' latest, follows the same blueprint while attempting to scale down the superstructure. The disappearance of the group's merry idealism is immediately apparent in Mezzanine's unnerving claustrophobia, a mood perhaps inspired by the publicized fact that main Massives 3D, Mushroom, and Daddy G can barely stand each other these days. The music bears the marks of creation in cramped isolation; tracks get suffocated in their dense textures and crowded beats. Amid surfeits of sound, the Massives back themselves into their own separate corners, start building walls, and end up sealing themselves in their own tiny tombs. Dub and funk get lost in favor of sludgy, plodding grooves, while 3D and Daddy G get confrontational and paranoid.

Even the usually droll dub-reggae legend Horace Andy sounds menacing: Over the roaring guitars of the conflagrationlike "Angel," he turns an assertion of love into a rapid-fire threat against an apocalyptic angel who "comes from way above" to "neutralize every man on sight." While Tricky still traffics in pre-apocalyptic brooding, Mezzanine explores the onslaught and the aftermath, concerned more with the practical problem of staying alive than with fretting about the future or pledging allegiance to love.

Throughout Mezzanine, former Cocteau Twin Liz Fraser's feathery vocals float above the torrents of sound. Her weak delivery wilts the otherwise gorgeous "Teardrop," as Frazer struggles with limp lines such as "love is a fair" (which could be "love isn't fair"--I can't tell). When her quivering, inscrutable vocals come up for a breather, she evokes clichéd images of the bleakness and futility of love: black flowers blossom and a tiny tear falls into a raging fire, as Frazer tries to decide if she's melancholy, lonely, or just plain bored.

Mezzanine marks Massive Attack's realization that they're better paranoids than utopians; newly convinced that love won't outlive the apocalypse, they're focused on survival. Mezzanine forces the listener to fight along with them; the threatening sounds feel like walls pushing in at you from all sides. One way out is to see these sonic tombs as cocoons--a place to hide, safe from harm, during the danger. The first time the Burt Bacharach derivative "Exchange" appears, with its bright beats and breezy flourishes, it feels like a mirage. Its reappearance at album's close--uplifted by Andy's glowing vocals--becomes the gorgeous sunrise at the end of Mezzanine's nuclear winter.

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