Nearly exploded into oblivion by the British Royal Navy after World War II, and eventually made habitable for birds and vacationers, Heligoland is an archipelago of two islands forming a distant province of Germany. Its odd, fragile history makes it a perfect namesake for the fifth studio album from electronic-music pioneers Massive Attack, the group and the music now as reclusive and insulated as the seven-year wait fans endured to hear it. (No, the Danny the Dog soundtrack doesn’t count.)
Heligoland finds Massive Attack founding member Grant Marshall (Daddy G) properly assisting Robert Del Naja (3D) on production and instrumental duties for the first time since 1998’s Mezzanine. They oversee a set that rarely recalls the trip-hop they first helped build. Excluding songs like Paradise Circus,” where Hope Sandoval floats on a bed of dub- and string-filled tropicalia, Massive Attack play music that coaxed the term “gothic soul” out of our esteemed editor-in-chief.
To reach that goal, Massive Attack employ a shambling, jam-band approach to their music. Their lyric elements and sonic arrangements seem thrown at studio walls to see what sticks, resulting in dense, shapeshifting songs first heard in 2003’s underrated 100th Window. Bjork travels this road often, and there are moments where Heligoland sounds like a Bjork album—the assassin’s tale “Flat of the Blade” could have fit in on Volta, right down to the dime-store Antony Hegarty impression by Elbow’s Guy Garvey, while “Atlas Air” has a high BPM rate foreign to most Massive Attack albums but not to, say, Post.
For this we might thank (or blame) Mark “Spike” Stent, a frequent Bjork producer/mixer who helped mix Heligoland, but it’s not like you can’t actually find Massive Attack in here. “Pray for Rain” pulls in TV on the Radio’s Tunde Adebimpe on an epic suite critiquing blind faith. “Girl I Love You” could become one of their Horace Andy-sung classics, book-ending the menacing admiration of “Angel” from Mezzanine, and “Splitting the Atom” is a dour, throaty financial horror story from Andy and the core duo in fine Protection fashion.
There’s a humorous greeting-card sentiment out there that goes, “I’m so far behind, I must be first.” Massive Attack seem to sense, or even expect, that the converse is true: They’re so far ahead of everyone else in the electronic game they must be at the back of the pack, preparing to lap it. It’s not ego tripping if you can back it up, and while Heligoland is painfully isolated from Massive Attack’s origins in the hybridized pop of Blue Lines, it provokes just as much curiosity.