- by Zach Johnson Rating: Release Date: Label:
Wikipedia defines the word “cool” as:
“An aesthetic of attitude, behavior, comportment, appearance and style which is generally admired”.
That’s all well and good, but the definition is far too ambiguous. The correct answer should simply be: “Mezzanine”. There, fixed it.
And, in this case, “Mezzanine” of course refers to the classic third studio album by the legendary trip-hop group Massive Attack, released way back in 1998. For those keeping score, that’s 21 years ago (just in case you weren’t already feeling old enough), which apparently is a sufficient amount of time for Massive Attack to launch a “Mezzanine XXI” tour to commemorate its release with full album performances in select cities across the globe.
Fortunately Chicago happened to be one of those cities, and considering the famed Chicago Theater was playing host (a majestic venue for almost any occasion, but a particularly enticing setting for this event), the opportunity to witness a performance of such a distinctive album in such an immaculate environment proved too compelling to pass up for this reviewer Wednesday night. Mezzanine is, after all, a fantastic headphones album that can be a deeply consuming listening experience with its sleek AF production, hypnotically smooth beats, dreamlike textures, and its subtly seductive atmosphere that is darker than the blackest night. Witnessing it live had the potential to be truly epic, and not only did Massive Attack deliver the goods on that front, but the sheer intensity and cinematic quality of their stage show was actually downright profound and even a bit viscerally overwhelming at times.
In fact, to say that their performance was aurally, visually, and cerebrally overstimulating might be a bit of an understatement, but whatever the case, what Massive Attack managed to put together for their approximately 90 minute set was nothing short of pure brilliance. First, let’s start with the music itself. The live incarnation of Massive Attack consisted of roughly 8-10 musicians, including 2 live drummers, 2 guitarists, a large standing bass (for “Exchange”), a DJ or two, a keyboardist or two, and of course a rotating cast of vocalists that included the usual suspects like Robert Del Naja and Grant Marshall, as well as integral guest vocalists Horace Andy (“Angel” and “Man Next Door”), and Elizabeth Fraser (“Teardrop” and “Black Milk”) of Cocteau Twins fame.
Opening their set with a cover of The Velvet Underground’s “I Found a Reason” (their 1st of many covers peppered into the shuffle that night), they cast a deceptively serene spell on the audience as generally picturesque/utopian images of 21st century urban centers played on the 3 gigantic projectile screens behind them. But then, after a particularly intense epileptic seizure-inducing light show accompanied by an industrial-sounding aural assault on the senses, things descended into the proverbial darkness with “Risingson” which was their 1st proper offering from Mezzanine that night. Throughout the evening, Massive Attack professionally executed stellar live cuts of all the songs from Mezzanine in non-sequential order, which had the effect of keeping everyone on their toes not knowing which song was next. Their live renditions stayed mostly true to the album versions, but some sections were expanded or occasionally spiked with a healthy dose of broodingly noisy intensity. And, as alluded to prior, they would also occasionally pepper in a few up-tempo cover songs (such as Pete Seeger’s “Where Have All the Flowers Gone” and Bauhaus’ “Bela Legosi’s Dead” just to name a few) that served as buffers/transitions within the broader Mezzanine mix.
All the while, when they weren’t bombarding the senses with different varieties of the aforementioned seizure-inducing light show (pretty sure I’m still seeing spots when I blink), arguably the most impressive thing about their performance was the intensely abstract and often disturbing videos that served as a backdrop and accentuated their deeply ominous sound to dramatic effect.
Some videos were more subtle than others, like seemingly nostalgic clips of Princess Diana, Kurt Cobain, bizarre stock-footage videos of people exercising, dancing, fighting in bars, protesting, mixed in with images of plastic products, factories, mass consumption, OxyContin, poppy fields, Apple computers in the 90s, buffered with Orwellian messages flashing on the screen such as:
“Once upon a time, data was going to make you free.”
“The machines were watching…human behavior became predictable”
“Suspicion is another form of control.”
As the show progressed, the videos seemed to get more and more disturbing, especially when they depicted war-torn areas and all the horrible realities that most people never have to see or experience…blood-stained concrete next to rows of body bags, people sobbing over the lifeless body of a dead loved one in a morgue, a looped video of a man getting gunned down, Donald Trump…you get the idea, the type of repulsive images that can really make you lose your faith in humanity. That said, it was all incredibly captivating, powerful imagery that frankly probably needs to be seen by more of the general population so people can actually see what war really looks like. The human toll is utterly devastating, and the fact Massive Attack depicted those harsh realities in such graphic fashion was commendable and valiant in my eyes.
But even with the abstract, often rapid-fire nature of the videos, it didn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out the interconnecting anti-consumerism, anti-war, pro-science, pro-immigration (or should I say pro-humanity) themes of these videos, and the overriding message that we are all basically living in a terrifyingly dystopian nightmare largely of our own making. Granted, most people that haven’t been living off the grid the past 3 years are at least vaguely aware of this, and we all have our various coping mechanisms, but the way Massive Attack were able to artfully piece together the absurdly disheartening state of the world in 2019 in such a riveting and visceral fashion was unbelievably impressive to experience.
Coupled with the brooding atmosphere of their music, it was a pretty fucking profound experience at that.
But they didn’t leave things on an entirely bleak note, as one of the final messages that flashed on the screen that night went something a lot like this (paraphrasing):
“Let’s leave the ghosts of the past behind, and build a better future.”
It’s a nice overly simplistic thought, but given the unstable and uncertain times we live in today, where even the objective fact-based science of a hurricane forecast can apparently be disputed/manipulated, it can’t help but feel like a far-off unattainable dream. Or at least that’s how this reviewer felt after sitting through Massive Attack’s intensely morose (but incredibly impressive) performance that night. But like all great art, it compels one to feel, compels one to think, and perhaps hopefully (and most importantly), compels one to act, to do their part (however small) to help right the proverbial ship and get the world at large moving in a less catastrophic direction again. It certainly had that effect on this reviewer and goes without saying it’s not every day you come away from an “entertainment” event feeling more spiritually and existentially enlightened. So kudos to Massive Attack for not just creating a fantastic musical experience, but also a fantastic and all-around compelling human experience.
Coming out of the performance has given this reviewer an entirely new level of appreciation for Massive Attack and Mezzanine in particular. Turns out Mezzanine is much more than just a very “cool” album, it’s also a pretty fucking profound one to boot.