100th Window aside, Massive Attack have long been remarkable for their ability to define themselves via a revolving door of unique front-of-stage personnel; the personal styles and vocal mannerisms of Shara Nelson, Tracy Thorn, Horace Andy and Elizabeth Fraser have been as integral to the character of the seminal tracks they have fronted, as has the behind-the-scenes sampling and programming.
Now with prodigal founder Grant "Daddy G" Marshall ending his self-imposed sabbatical, Massive Attack is again a duo; with a host of new and returning vocalists, and production credits for Damon Albarn, Portishead's Adrian Utley and Tim Goldsworthy, it appears that 3D and Daddy G are not only rediscovering the power of collaboration, but also making up for lost time.
Time, and more precisely the passing of it, is also a factor sonically. The Wild Bunch skulk and swagger has mellowed to an age-appropriate simmer, content to let the discomfort seep in through lyrical suggestions of financial crises and personal demons, and the group has moved from sample-driven beats and electronica to the warm immediacy of live instrumentation. You can see the dust rising from the drum skins on "Pray for Rain," hear the string-on-fret squeaks during "Saturday Come Slow" and watch rapt as the synthetic structure woven around Horace Andy on "Girl I Love You" collapses into an orchestra pit full of drunken hornsmen, like a less adventurous take on Radiohead's "National Anthem."
The coterie of new collaborators suggests that the duo have been listening to more contemporary alt-pop than Radiohead, though. TV On The Radio's David Sitek and Tunde Adebimpe settle easily within the electronic drone and thrumming bass of "Pray for Rain," Tricky counterpart Martine Topley-Bird provides the coquettish quirkiness that has marked her excellent solo work, and the deconstructed hip-hop step and cartoonish vocals of "Splitting the Atom" could easily be a Gorillaz outtake. (It's unsurprisingly penned by Albarn.) The mournful tone of Elbow's Guy Garvey is an outstanding addition to the ensemble; his drawn-out phrasing and hummed chord harmonies pour like molasses over the pulses and jagged skittering of "Flat of the Blade."
Heligoland takes its name from a pair of islands off the German coastline, one inhabited and one deserted, separated by an ancient flood. From the Wild Bunch soundsystem to Heligoland has taken 25 years and five albums, not bad going for the self-proclaimed "lazy Bristol twats." It may be a long way from where they started, but with Heligoland Massive Attack have crossed the metaphorical divide back to the mainland, and left behind the barren wilderness.