Massive Attack – Blue Lines

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Blue Lines is unlucky. It couldn’t rely on the huge influence it had for lasting critical acclaim. Everyone talks about how outdated this is and they’re right. Pretty much any work of Trip-Hop that came after this pushes the genre way more forward. You don’t have to look too far. Just listen to some Tricky, Portishead and UNKLE and you’ll find artists with a wider vision, a more diverse palette of influence and more conceptual depth. Their concepts are also so different that they hold Blue Lines back from being outdated.

Trip-Hop has a lot in common with other 90’s genres such as Gangsta Rap, Nu-Metal and Industrial Rock. It’s full of darkness, sexuality and general pessimism. The approach may be more artistic, but the negative moods remain the same. Blue Lines is the opposite. Instead of drawing abandoned and heartless landscapes, it’s enjoying life.

In truth, you shouldn’t compare it to other works in the genre. Even the influence have different filters. Massive draw from the smoother side of Hip-Hop and from the pleasant, easy side of Soul. ‘Easy Listening’ describes best the album. The breaks are slow, but funky and still hard. The rapping is so laid-back there are no rhymes to follow. Barring the oddly aggressive “Safe From Harm”, the singers sing about the virtues of love and being thankful.

Many artists have tried to make an album like Blue Lines. A lot of rappers made this type of ‘smooth rap’, but no one does it like Massive Attack. Unlike rappers who focus primarily on impressing you with rhymes (that are boring anyway), Massive Attack put more emphasis on mood. “Blue Lines” is better than anything by A Tribe Called Quest because of how precise it is in getting the atmosphere right. The break is rolling with a perfect balance between banging and not being too loud. The hushed rapping fits with the vibes. They’re not out to impress you. They’re chilling with you to the beat.

Maybe what people mean when they say the album is ‘outdated’ is because of how unambitious it is. The unassuming title-track makes it obvious. Unlike later producers who made huge statements with their albums, Massive Attack are trying to create good vibes here. Nothing here sounds revolutionary, like a new sound that inspired a lot of people. “One Love” is just a reggea song with more a Hip-Hop beat. “Unfinished Sympathy” is what happens when a Soul singer meets some Hip-Hop producer.

Yet this unassuming, unambitious nature doesn’t ruin the album’s quality. It’s only unambitious because its aim is to create nothing good vibes. The album is perfect when you hang out with a few friends not doing anything big, or when the party is at its end and most people have gone home. The atmosphere is still social and danceable, but slower and content rather than happy. It’s shocking to think this was released so early. This album was available for everyone, and smooth rappers couldn’t imitate it?

Blue Lines is an oddity in the Trip-Hop genre. It’s out of place in the canon because of how different then approach is. It may not be as deep as Mezzanine or far-reaching as Psyence Fiction, but there are few albums like it. Sure, there’s a lot of smooth Jazz and smooth Soul and smooth Rap. Massive Attack combines all these for an album that perfects the calm and social atmosphere. Forget about genres. It’s such a pleasant album that I can’t imagine anyone not finding something to like here.

3.5 blue lines out of 5

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I See Stars – Treehouse

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I See Stars produced one of the finest metalcore songs in “Ten Thousand Feet”. It was an astonishing achievement. While it wasn’t catchy, it had deep textures using Trap music, a dynamic but focused structure, a beautiful melody and a strong candidate for heaviest breakdown ever. If the song is about a plane crashing, the breakdown at the end is the aural equivalent. There’s a similar, brilliant breakdown here in “Mobbin’ Out”.

They can make good heavy music, but their reliance on heaviness was always their undoing. After transforming into an artistic Trancecore band, the guitars always drowned out the vocals. You kept waiting for a beautiful texture or for a bass drop only to have the guitarist chug all over it with the dude screaming nonsensical lyrics. One song like “Ten Thousand Feet” is enough, but when the dance section of “NZT48” is barely a minute long despite being the band’s finest hour, it’s clear they’re is holding themselves back.

The departure of the screaming vocalist and the guitarist was a blessing. No Trancecore band will benefit more from getting rid of their heavy side. I See Stars’ charm wasn’t in the contrasting between loud noises and electronics. It never was much of a contrast, and their aesthetic put them closer to Celldweller than Issues. Treehouse is an opportunity to expand on their electronic side, but it doesn’t really do that either. This is the band’s most accessible and artistic record. If it was made by another band, it would be acclaimed as Indie Rock’s clever take on Trancecore.

The roots of Trancecore are here, but the approach is completely different. Trancecore/Metalcore is party music. It’s about slamming, having a great chorus and screaming profanities. I See Stars were more sophisticated about this than others, but “Ten Thousand Feet” still relied on the fun of the heaviness. They don’t go full EDM on Treehouse. Rather, they become softer, focusing more on beauty and vulnerability. Considering “Murder Mitten” is one of their best songs, this shouldn’t be surprising.

What is surprising is to hear such tenderness over breakdowns and wobbles. “Break” is the album’s defining moment. The chugging riffs with the wobbles are ready for a DJ set, but the context is different. There’s something so pretty and cute about Devin singing “Did your heart let someone in?” over twinkling electronics. It’s almost like they’re moving towards Midwest Emo. When the guitars hit again, it’s not so much ready for partying as it is the sound of the song’s subject breaking.

Wobbles and dance beats appear, but the departure of the loudest members lets the band experiment with a new kind of electronic. The sounds more warmer, more fragile. It has more in common with Skrillex’s soft work. The album’s obligatory detour into pure electronic territory isn’t a club banger. “Walking on Gravestones” is a slow dance track with chopped vocals. It’s more gloomy than Skrillex’s soft tracks, tackling that sort of nostalgia you feel at the end of a great social event knowing you probably won’t see those people event.

There are some heavy moments here, but now the band is liberated they sound even better. “Mobbin’ Out” is the closest they come to their old style, but even that song is bizarre. It has the fragility of the album, with verses sung over beautiful soundscapes. It all builds up like an EDM track to two different breakdowns with bass wobbles. What’s bizarre is that between those breakdowns, you still get the emotional resonance. In a way, it’s a misstep. It’s too heavy and fun to be beautiful but too beautiful to be in a party playlist. Still, it’s fun enough. “All In” is inspired by Trap without actually containing any Trap beats. At first it’s too much of a tease, but hearing semi-rapping over breakdowns is pretty cool.

In their previous efforts I See Stars forgot about catchy hooks. Their melodies were pretty, but not immediate. This is the same story here, but that’s okay. The melodies may not be immediate but they’re beautiful, especially when Devin lets the gentle side of his voice out. Pretty much every song here has such a moment that sounds so cute – “Light in the Cave”, “White Lies”, “Calm Snow”. They return to the teen atmosphere of The End of the World Party, only now it’s wide-eyed but scared. If that album was about a party full of weird people, this is the aftermath – when relationships fall apart and you sometimes have to say goodbye

Treehouse is a beautiful rock album. For once, the band doesn’t just tease something. It’s no longer a good Metalcore record with some EDM interludes or soundscapes. The band has a different promise this time, and they deliver it. Breakdowns, for a change, aren’t just heavy but add weight to an album full of beautiful melodies and soundscapes. I See Stars aren’t a part of any scene now. They combined their influence with a specific vibe they want and made an original album that anyone who likes guitars will find something to enjoy here. If this was a debut album by a new band, it’d get massive hype.

4 portals out of 5