Sunday, September 5, 2010

Blue Lines (album) - Massive Attack

Now acclaimed as the first-ever trip-hop album, Blue Lines is a huge step away from anything that ever preceded it. It is an album fusing live and sampled hip-hop and soul instrumentation with low-key English rap and sung vocals, as well as unobtrusive scratching. An entirely low BPM-affair, Blue Lines is a staple for many pot smokers.

Rappers include the group's 3D, Daddy G, in addition to Tricky, whose voice was then unscarred by chronic ganga consumption. The main singers are Horace Andy and Shara Nelson.

The two best tracks are the title track and "Five Man Army". On both tracks the rappers seamlessly alternate and/or call-and-answer each other. "Blue Lines" is underpinned by a heavy bass-beat, simple hip-hop treble drums and claps, and a mellow synth riff. The concluding bar in which 3D's final line is allowed to progress without any instrumental accompaniment is heavily reminiscent of collaborator Neneh Cherry's "Manchild". Again, "Five Man Army" is largely an affair of rapping over slow-jam hip-hop and a memorable bass line. The interspersing of rapping reaches its pinnacle here. Tricky: "Her touch tickles/Especially on my tummy" Daddy G: "Now who's got the microphone?" Tricky: "Now who's honey?". The final half of the track is haunted by Horace Andy's refrains such as "Get away with your gospel/We don't like it" and "Money, money, money/The root of all evil".

"Safe From Harm", the opening track is mainly a bitter and passively-aggressive vocal delivery from Nelson, in which she insists that "You can free my heart/You can free my mind/Just as long as my baby's safe from harm/Tonight". 3-D inserts some low-key rapping such as the memorable "I was lookin’ back/To see if you were lookin’ back at me/To see me lookin' back at you". The whole track is laid over with a sampled fast-rolling bass line and slow-BPM kick drums, in addition to an occasional, front-of-mix funk bass melody. It's a plaintive yet urgent intro to the rest of the album. The second track, "One Love", has an even slower bass drum foundation, in addition to a catchy, liquid-smooth synth sample over which Andy sings about monogamy. This track halts the emotional intensity with which the album begins and leads into the smooth title track.

"Unfinished Sympathy" is the big, classic single from Blue Lines. It is an emotionally-wrought melodic vocal masterpiece from Nelson, including lyrics like "Like a soul without a mind/In a body without a heart/I'm missing every part". The samples and scratching seem secondary on this track, except in the long vocal-less outro where strings and piano skilfully complete the emotional devastation of Nelson’s intense vocals.

“Daydreaming” and “Lately” are continuations of Massive Attack’s revolutionary combination of soul/hip-hop samples, mellow rapping and Nelson’s vocals. They are smooth and down-tempo but not as emotionally exhausting as “Unfinished Sympathy”.

The final track, “Hymn of the Big Wheel” combines a didgeridoo-like accompaniment with break-beats, dominated by a beautiful melody sung by Andy. The lyrics are delivered as if from a place of peace above the tragedy and comedy of human life in general. “The Earth spins/On its axis/One man struggles/While another relaxes”.

This is the album that sparked one of the most innovative and fruitful movements of the 1990s, trip-hop. Innumerable acts, even now, owe their art to this seminal album, which is almost flawless. It is a must-have in any music historian’s collection.

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