Friday, June 15, 2012

//MSC SPCL: An Eventual Assessment of the 100th Window

For a long time, I looked at Massive Attack's 100th window as that album that no one really likes. Deep down, I never really understood why. As time went on and all the music trendists left the Indie years, it has become increasingly clear, among today's electronic Dystopia, why Naja's 100th Window was far from the disappointment people claim it was and why it's closer to the sincere vision that could have been.

Massive Attack - Protection
Protection- from album of the same name and collected compilation

I listened to Mezzanine when I was around 14. Those were my somber years and I was starting to swim into a sea of lo-fi, chillout and lounge music- something that served as a safe-haven for my ears a midst the noise emanating from the cars pumping G-Unit's debut album or a mess of pseudo-punk garbage on television. But Massive Attack's 'Black Milk' and 'Protection' communicated something profoundly different from Groove Armada or Zero 7- it was the more rebellious attitude that I still live by today and built most of my work upon (including this website). I knew their music before I even knew who they were. By the time I was 16, I fully understood the difference between what people called Downtempo and what had previously been dubbed 'Trip Hop'. Massive's music was almost timeless, a very tiny blind glimpse into what an eternal life of marriage with the universe would feel like under constant intoxication. However, there was this one album that I never gave a listen to. This was the 100th Window.

'I like every album up to that point' Spouted a school teacher of mine. His sentiments were echoed as I looked around the internet. Even Pitchfork smashed right into it, giving it adjectives such as 'pompous', branding tracks as rip-offs of others' works or just downgraded versions of their own work. None of which was encouraging. Obviously, none of this discouraged me from listening to it anyway.

I'm going to be honest, I didn't know what to think of it at first. I guess I was too young for it or maybe I was still not over how bad Tricky's not-Maxinquaye albums were (which is a separate issue for another time). I had no context to allow a proper assessment of 100th Window. But now, around six years later- I finally get it.

Even as I replayed their previous records, I still listened to the black sheep of their discography. 'Small Time Shot Away' got a grasp of my ears first. You see, this was Del Naja's solo album, him a lone after a disruption causing pretty much the rest of the band (Marshall and Vowles) to just split, go into a hiatus or whatever. So the track is lacking the Hip Hop drums that I'm assuming was Vowle's Forte. It was also lacking the organic dub feels present in older albums- so I assumed Marshall usually handled most of that. So what's left? Thin glittering synths, deep bass, Del Naja's hollow voice and a drum machine/acoustic set combo so strangely crisp that I could easily mistake for being sampled out of a fencing tournament. In all, the track felt lonely, insecure yet incredibly sharp. To think that this is what Del Naja calls experimentation.

The other eight tracks aren't so different. They're all drowned in a mixture of metallic textures, bleeps, bassy undertones, the occasional Arab cinematics and vocals that sound terribly insincere. Most of the songs were about war or such. Something to do with England or something about bad things happening around the world (according to Sinead O'Connor) but it did not seem that was the point of the record at all. Del Naja expresses something quite unintentional with the way he built it all. He borrowed elements from all over the electronic Soundsphere but yet the expression stays rigid, tense and highly toxic. Everything serves as a distraction from the fact that at the heart of each song is anguish that not the bass from 'A Prayer for England' or the speedy cuts from 'Butterfly Caught' can convince us just isn't there.

This is him tackling on the dark intensity present in Mezzanine and making it the central theme. It's not Massive Attack and shouldn't have been marketed as so. It should've been strictly 3D or 100 suns or whatever he calls himself. This is him finally being the dominant force of the music, something that drove the others out of the band. The dark colors in his album is what I'd imagine touched the likes of Kode9, Goldstar or many others on the Hyperdub label. Its methods, sounds and loathing atmosphere are undoubtedly ahead of their time, even if the tools he used might've been taken from Radiohead, Bjork or whoever. It's production so geniously layered that it begs to question whether the parts were electronic or acoustic. Something that not even the emergent leaders of electronic sub-genres can master so tastefully.

This is a highly personal album, it shouts his need to want to touch upon others' works, to want the music to be impersonal, to strive into the darker corners of human psyche and as a result into his own mind. In an interview he said that the album's name comes from a theory that the hundredth window will be open for people to look in. Perhaps, at least unintentionally, this was a statement directed towards himself. That somewhere in these songs, you can catch a glimpse of what's going on inside of him. Or maybe it's the opposite, that perhaps the 99 are open, exposing him fully while that last one is covered in a dreadful veneer of humanist, anti-globalist concern. This is Del Naja's fear album.

Alas, what happened happened. His solo work was shot down and it became obvious that it couldn't please the fans. And eventually, Grant Marshall returned to patch up their differences and take the experience off Del Naja's personal journey and more towards something more organic. However, this doesn't mean that Del Naja took anything he made as a failure. A punk by nature, he only continues to dive more and more into rather rebellious and outlandish themes in the band's 2010 album Heligoland. The whole album is beautifully put together of organic tissue at a time when we expected them to reflect the incredibly synthesised and intense outfits of UK's scenes. Needless to say, the album quickly faded out of discussion.

Massive Attack today sort of blends back into a rather uncomfortable obscurity that worries its fans. In-between the electronic hype that surrounds major parts of the music scene today exist Grant Marshall and Robert Del Naja- who listen to the world with low-volume, knowing that they've been through it all creatively and mentally. It's definitely much faster nowadays, but nowhere near as heartfelt.