Massive Attack’s Mezzanine is a big, scary demon composed of small details, ranging from 60s R&B to shoegaze. The following musical lead-up gives light to artists who have inspired Massive Attack, composed music that is pinned under the made-up “trip hop” by critics, and collaborated with them to help reach the stardom they achieved with Mezzanine.
DJ Shadow ‘Building Steam from a Grain of Salt’
Before DJ Shadow released his legendary debut album, Endtroducing…, he made his mark on electronic music by alternating the blueprint of Mo Wax records with his “In/Flux” single. Mo Wax Records is an acid jazz-turned-hip hop record label that brought the careers of tripped out hip hop heads like Dr. Octagon and DJ Krush to life. “In/Flux” is a simplified and easily-digestible example of Shadow’s angle of turntablism, a style of hip-hop created from vinyl samples and scratching. The tracks stands at twelve minutes in length and contains numerous tempo changes. “Building Steam from a Grain of Salt” takes on a similar form and contains a similar eeriness to Mezzanine, especially with the funky wah effects that break into the song around the three-minute mark. Overall, the song maintains a calming foundation with its gorgeous grand piano loop.
Cocteau Twins ‘Cherry-coluored Funk’
Every Massive Attack album features a different female lead vocalist, including Shara Nelson (Blue Lines), Tracey Thorn, Nicolette (Protection), and Sinead O’Connor (100th Window). Cocteau Twins’ Elizabeth Fraser assumes that role on Mezzanine and helped Massive Attack compose their most successful single, “Teardrop”. “Cherry-coloured Funk” accurately illustrates how her illusive but celestial vocals soothe your soul and stand as a singular entity within a track. Her performance may inspire some listeners like myself to think of the instrumental and vocal tracks as two separate pieces that require numerous listens to fully comprehend as a whole.
Portishead ‘Wandering Star’
The lurking darkness that dominates Mezzanine is very similar to Portishead, who pioneered their footprint in alternative hip hop and turntablism with their stunning debut album, Dummy. Both Massive Attack and Portishead, who are also friends, collaborators, and Bristol natives, frequently/mainly feature a female vocalist, use hip hop samples to challenge the status quo of dance music, and hate the term “trip-hop.” While Massive Attack sought to change the face of dance and hip-hop in Bristol, Portishead took a more avant-garde angle that blended ambient and experimental samples with depressing and introspective vocal performance. Beth Gibbons, the vocalist and lyricist behind Portishead, serves as a confident face to Dummy and sings of hopelessness and rejection in “Wandering Star”. She croons as if she is walking through an empty, lonely city without any hope of making it home safely. She calls this feeling a “storm in the morning light” in “Roads”, meaning a brighter and hopeful tomorrow if far from possible in her then-lonely and isolated state.
The Prodigy ‘Smack My Bitch Up’
When Massive Attack was writing Mezzanine, they were hanging out and partying with The Prodigy, who sit within in a similar genre but with more of a punk vigor. “Smack My Bitch Up” blends deep bass, crunching synths, an array of vocal samples to build a sound collage fitting for a rave. The Prodigy confidently backs this energy up during their live performances, something they still do today.
Gang of Four ‘Damaged Goods’
In numerous interviews, Massive Attack have discussed their relationship with their hometown, Bristol, and some of the qualms they have with it, from racism to simply not fitting in. This inspired them to make Damaged Goods the initial running title for Mezzanine, which was a nod to Gang of Four’s debut single, “Damaged Goods”. When Robert “3D” Del Naja was writing lyrics for was to become Mezzanine, he said they were frequently about “panic attacks, hangovers, morbid thoughts, and inexplicable actions.” The lyrics from “Damaged Goods” can directly relate these feelings — while Del Naja had come home to Bristol to be comfortable, he found it hard to interact and live in the city, similar to when Gang of Four’s Andy Gill sings “sometimes I’m thinking that I love you, but I know it’s only lust.”
The Cure ’10:15 Saturday Night’
The creepy guitar track that seeps into Mezzanine‘s “Man Next Door” just past the half-way mark is actually a slowed-down sample from The Cure’s “10:15 Saturday Night”, an element of the song that blows my mind. Massive Attack blends the sample perfectly with the melody of the track and pays tribute to the goth forefathers for the darkness.
Neneh Cherry ‘Inna City Mamma’
Massive Attack often cites Neneh Cherry as the reason for starting to record their music in the studio, ultimately to create their wildly successful, Blue Lines. Cherry is featured on the album’s closing track, “Hymn on the Big Wheel”, where she supports reggae legend Horace Andy with some bright backing vocals. Her solo career is much different from her performance here, and “Inna City Mamma” is an urban radio banger that probably inspired Aaliyah’s Age Ain’t Nothing But a Number. If it weren’t Cherry, we probably would have never heard Massive Attack!
Isaac Hayes ‘Bumpy’s Lament’
In 2012, Massive Attack curated a playlist of their influences for BBC 6 Radio, and this juicy track from Isaac Hayes soundtrack for Shaft was featured. The band’s first two albums, Blue Lines and Protection, make this influence most obvious, which are loaded with funky bass lines and an ambient coolness to make their songs fitting for the club or bedroom.
Tricky ‘Abbaon Fat Tracks’
Tricky was an active member for Massive Attack when they released Blue Lines and Protection. The band’s influence on Tricky’s solo career is evident in the beginning of “Abbaon Fat Tracks”, a song from his highly-celebrated debut, Maxinquaye, with an aggressive synth line that sounds like it’s eating itself. After a few seconds, it takes a smooth but insanely dark turn into an R&B track, making it evident the soul moods of early Massive Attack were largely inspired by him. The lyrics of the track detail a “cheap thrills” sexual interaction, where ugly noises and strange ways are explored and embraced.
Pink Floyd ‘On the Run’
When “On the Run” is taken out of context of Dark Side of the Moon, it takes on an entirely different and somewhat scary character. It just sounds like what you would hear if you were trapped in a black hole in space watching meteoroids zoom past you. Massive Attack included this track on the aforementioned BBC 6 Radio mix, mostly likely for its amazing headphone listening experience. The band often calls Mezzanine a “headphones album”, and “On the Run” and Dark Side of the Moon probably influenced the band to implement interesting subtleties to make listening a rewarding and intimate experience.
Massive Attack feat. Madonna ‘I Want You’
After achieving high success from Blue Lines, Madonna recruited Massive Attack to collaborate, and what resulted was this haunting and unrecognizable cover of Marvin Gaye’s “I Want You”. The foundation of the track is simple but glowingly emotional— Massive Attack surpasses the use of any overwhelming electronics and focuses on the intimacy between Madonna’s haunting vocals and its string arrangements. This mood is fits Mezzanine and could have seamlessly fit into the track list, but it also stands just as strongly as a single both Massive Attack and Madonna can be proud of.
When Tricky was an active member of Massive Attack, he was recruited by Bjork to produce her sophomore album, Post. While he didn’t take that offer, he still produced two songs for the record, one of the them being “Headphones”. During this time, Bjork and Tricky were romantically involved, and the chemistry that flows through the track makes that evident. As Bjork sings about a piece of music soothing her while laying in bed with her headphones, Tricky donates an aural massage with delicate synth and bass tones and builds a subtle backbone for her to sing over. Whenever she repeats a lyrical phrase on the track, he responds with his electronics and mimics her, as if he is contributing to a duet. Towards the end of the track, Bjork sings “I like this resonance; it elevates me. I don’t recognize myself; this is very interesting”, illustrating how invigorating it is to change and take on new musical characters. That’s something Bjork, Massive Attack, and Tricky can all relate to, given their diverse discographies.
The Velvet Underground ‘I Found a Reason’
Massive Attack samples “I Found a Reason” at the end of Mezzanine’s “Risingson”, a song that details a hazy, drug-filled evening in a club. The inclusion is very well-executed- while it could be assumed Lou Reed is singing about a lady in the original track, Massive Attack confuse you to believe Reed could be singing about cocaine or another drug, just as they are in “Risingson”. Regardless, “I Found a Reason” displays one of Reed’s most passionate vocal performances and is the sweetest note this playlist could end on.