Although Massive Attack only released four albums in fifteen years, their musical ideas were usually ahead of their time, and set the tone for a lot of electronic music in the nineties. For instance, if you like Gorillaz, this compilation is really the blueprint for their fusion of rock, rap, and techno, as well as their use of different collaborators from album to album. Except Massive Attack were less flashy and more downbeat, and they drew just as heavily from soul and reggae as they did from those styles.
"Safe From Harm" embodies everything that they were trying to do. It has a powerful soul vocal at the centre, and contrasts it with repetitive, gravelly-voiced rapping from one of the band members. In the hands of Massive Attack, rap was very rhythmic and often fast, but never aggressive. They used it as just another way to set a mood. In this case, and in most other cases, the mood was one of impending doom. The ominous rapping suggested that danger was just around the corner, and the main vocal attempted to add a sense of lost innocence in the middle of this danger. Oh, and the song also has an incredible techno bassline, which made it popular in the clubs for a time. This combination of sounds may not sound revolutionary now, but this song alone basically created a style known as "trip-hop." It was also ripped off by just about everyone in the next six years. Even Bjork jumped on the bandwagon in her song "Army Of Me."
Massive Attack had a great talent for reinterpreting the past. Early on, they sent a demo tape to Horace Andy, a reggae singer who had already had a long and illustrious career in his native Jamaica by that point. The man offered to collaborate with them, and went on to do so on every one of the band's albums. Usually, he covered such reggae standards as John Holt's "Man Next Door" and his own "Spying Glass," but Massive Attack gave these songs totally new sounds, emphasizing the unease expressed in the lyrics with their moody production. Unfortunately, neither "Man Next Door" nor my own personal favourite "One Love" is included on this CD, but "Angel" is. This is one of the band's best songs. It starts with a slow, creeping bass line and a dreamy vocal introduction from Andy, but then suddenly breaks out into a crescendo of driving, distorted guitars sounding reminiscent of the Cure or the Sisters of Mercy, only heavier, more rhythmic and more powerful.
The band could make uplifting tracks too, once in a while, like "Unfinished Sympathy" from their first album, or "Teardrop" from their third, but they were more at home with dark, slow rhythms and lonely, romantic atmospheres. Even "Teardrop" sounds lost and vulnerable, due to a superb performance by Elizabeth Fraser, who had by then already received a lot of praise from critics for her singing in the indie band Cocteau Twins. The black flowers on the cover of this album are a good indication of the band's aesthetic. The song "Blue Lines" from their first album, in which the band members took turns rapping, with impeccable rhythm, has precisely that kind of yearning, rainy-day mood. Unfortunately it's not included here. However, "Risingson," a bitter variation on the theme of failed love, is probably the best vocal performance by the band's core members, and it is included.
As time went on, Massive Attack gravitated toward the more dissonant, rock-influenced sound of "Angel." Since the theme and feel of their music was basically the same as before, this wasn't really that big of a change, but it did lead to increasing creative differences within the band. By the time their fourth album came out, three of the four founding members had left. As a result, the album seemed like a bit of a retread, and wasn't very well received by critics. This compilation may be an attempt to repair the band's image and put the spotlight on their best work again. As you may have gathered, a lot of good songs are missing, and even the bonus disc in the limited edition doesn't have all of their B-sides. If it were up to me, I would have added a few more album tracks and left off some of the singles. Actually, when I was starting to write this, I wanted to say something like, "Massive Attack were ultimately a singles band," and as I was writing that I realized that it wasn't really true.
But anyway, the album is still very good, and it ends with a sign that the band may not be finished yet. "Live With Me" is the token new song on the compilation, but it's not only a good song, it's their best song ever. Once again, the band calls in a veteran soul singer, Terry Callier this time, to lament about another failed love against a backdrop of strings and slow beats, but never has this combination sounded as good as it does here. Except now everybody is that much older, so instead of professing undying love, the song implores its subject, "Come live with me."