There's no denying it; like Gap clothing, New Labour and the OJ Simpson trial, Massive Attack will always be seen as a Nineties phenomenon. But after spending an entire decade reinventing urban music and basking in the awe of critics and fans alike, the British group might want to forget about the 10 years that followed. Their only major release was 2003's 100th Window; the despairing, minimalist work that garnered some of Massive Attack's first poor reviews was essentially a solo album by the collective's only remaining member, Robert "3D" Del Naja. But while many hailed the news of the founder member Grant "Daddy G" Marshall's return as a chance for the trip-hop pioneers to rediscover their vitality, others asked how the group would remain sonically relevant now that all their ideas have been so widely appropriated. The answer seems to be collaboration.
After the cold isolation of 100th Window, Massive Attack have returned with an album that almost feels crowded. It includes Blur's Damon Albarn, Martina Topley-Bird, Elbow's Guy Garvey, Mazzy Star's Hope Sandoval and TV on the Radio's Tunde Adebimpe. But rather than just treating the guests as session musicians, many of the songs bear collaborative fingerprints that go beyond the vocal performances. As a result, Heligoland is a far better album than it might have been. Still, despite containing a number of impressive works, there's still nothing here to rival the likes of Teardrop or Unfinished Sympathy.
The opening Pray for Rain closely resembles Adebimpe's previous work, with rolling drums and paranoid tones that would fit well on TV on the Radio's last album. Beginning with a slow pulse, then building to a hypnotic swell before fading back into nothing, there are also similarities between this track and Angel, which kicked off Massive Attack's 1997 album Mezzanine. Babel is reminiscent of the fellow West Country trip-hop veterans Portishead, who also pulled off a long-awaited return in recent years, not to mention In Rainbows-era Radiohead. Albarn makes a remarkably fresh and sincere sounding vocal turn on the uplifting Saturday Come Slow. However, it is the appearance of the group's long-time collaborator Horace Andy on Splitting the Atom and Girl I Love You that really reminds the listener that this is a new Massive Attack album.
Although Heligoland's roster of big names might seem a little daunting at first, Del Naja and Marshall avoid being over-reliant on their partners. But although it gels surprisingly well for such a varied affair, it all seems slightly forgettable. Unlike Portishead, who took their time off to reinvent themselves, Massive Attack seem to have been permanently scarred by their experience on 100th Window and have reverted back to more familiar territory (albeit with some impressive friends in tow). Although that means Heligoland explores a little less new ground than their previous efforts, fans of the group are unlikely to be disappointed by the sounds contained within it.