“Claustrophobic”: Somewhere in the disheveled histories of Massive Attack, Tricky, and Portishead, this became the critical buzzword of trip-hop. Don’t believe me? Log on to Google, type in “Massive + Attack + claustrophobic,” and watch what pours out. Though usually applied as a compliment, “claustrophobic” nonetheless became somewhat obligatory—like tossing “pre-fabricated” into an *NSync or Britney Spears review. Claustrophobia is defined as “an abnormal fear of confined spaces.” So when writers calls Massive Attack claustrophobic, are they saying the music itself is scary because it sounds confined? And if so, how? And why would anyone want to listen to something like that?
In fact, one early defining characteristic of Massive Attack was their determination to flit about in as many different styles as possible, to run amok all over the place—in non-confinement, so to speak. On 1991’s Blue Lines and 1994’s Protection, the Bristol trio carved away at ideas from reggae and dub, hip-hop, soul music, lite jazz, and ambient (all the usual post-Soul II Soul suspects), and once in a while—in the rockin’-bells rhythm of “Unfinished Sympathy” and the Dusty Springfield swoon of “Protection”—they made you forget about the grocery list, too. But like so much trip-hop that followed Blue Lines‘ blueprint, the group’s dawdling pursuit of “all over the place” often wound up stranded nowhere in particular.
As any masochist will tell you, though, confinement has its uses. And on 1998’s Mezzanine, Massive Attack simultaneously extended their palette and honed in on an unmistakable sound. Replacing tepid excursions in jazz and soul with squalling guitar noise and roiling kettle drums, they augmented (occasionally even smothered) the “black” in their music with a large dollop of “dark.” A cover of John Holt’s “Man Next Door,” for instance (featuring their resident rocksteadyist, Horace Andy), banished nearly all traces of the original’s reggae lilt and proceeded to stomp like a John Bonham funeral march. Mezzanine is basically a really excellent goth record, though at least as much in an architectural sense (“steep roofs, windows large in proportion to the wall spaces, and, generally, great height in proportion to the other dimensions”) as in a Sisters of Mercy sense.
More stuff about buildings: The title of 100th Window, the new Massive Attack record, is taken from Charles Jennings and Lori Fena’s The Hundredth Window: Protecting Your Privacy and Security in the Age of the Internet. According to Amazon.com, the title derives “from an allegory relating castle windows to potential security holes.” Fittingly, the music here exists in an enclosed world of its own—an almost self-imposed confinement. Which isn’t to say small. In terms of square footage, 100th Window is spacious; it sounds like it was recorded in a basilica or—you guessed it—a castle. Dub-wise, however, space is virtually nonexistent; not only are there few dramatic dropouts, but there’s also less room to breathe than ever. Even in the album’s most quiet moments, songs rarely waver in dynamics from their liftoff point.
There’s a third kind of space to consider here as well: outer space. The arrangements tend toward the atmospheric, dreamy, and (watch out—trip-hop buzzword alert!) “cinematic,” constructed from a blend of arpeggiating synthesizers, feedbacking guitar, heaps of reverb, a warped, Eastern-sounding violin, simplistic breakbeats (both hard rock and hip-hop), and of course, MA’s trademark motorific bass. Most of the melodies, voices, and words come off fairly nondescript at first, and “Small Time Shot Away” and “Butterfly Caught” rely much more heavily on intonation than enunciation. Thus they translate initially as a blur, or a distraction.
Even Sinéad O’Connor mostly comes across as just another layer in the sound. Alternating vocal chores with Horace Andy and Robert Del Naja (the only remaining permanent member), she follows in the footsteps of Tracey Thorn and Elizabeth Fraser by adding a detached, soft-focus hue to the mix. Sinéad does, however, lay it on pretty thick in “Prayer for England,” which, in its harsh condemnation of war, child abuse, guys in frocks, or something, comes off a bit clunky amid 100th Window‘s insular, dispassionate moods. Too bad, ’cause otherwise the track is slammingly effective techno-metal: brooding, throbbing, and murky.
I haven’t tried to place 100th Window in the context of what else is happening in trip-hop at the moment, in part because it’s harder than ever to put a finger on what trip-hop is. As one of the more ambiguous musical genres to emerge out of hip-hop’s multiplex, trip-hop has made its mark in pop music through the liquefying processes of infiltration and mutation, as opposed to a more headline-friendly tactic of domination; it never took over the world, but rather, imploded across the landscape. Kid A, the Gorillaz, Phrenology, some of Timbaland’s more outré dark-pop hits (“Oops,” “Get Ur Freak On”), and the whole arty Def Jux complex all owe a debt to the musical abstractions splattered on the canvas a decade ago by Tricky and Massive Attack. Strange, then, that in such an environment—where doing many things all at once is the norm, the freakier the better—Massive Attack have returned with a record that is positively narrow in scope. 100th Window will strike some listeners as a retreat, or as having nothing at all to do with trip-hop. Which it doesn’t—and therefore does.