by stuart mccarney
If Mick Jagger or Keith Richards ever quit The Rolling Stones, it's absolutely inonceivable taht the rest of the band could continue to play under The Rolling Stones moniker. But if your band is Massive Attack, you can do whatever you damn well please.
Of course, there are a few tricks to operating outside the music industry's standard modus operandi: 1. You must never consider yourself a band in the first place - you are a 'sound system', a loose configuration of musicians where the music, not the musicians, takes precedence; 2. When in doubt, refer to rule 1.
That at least seems to be the line from Robert '3D' Del Naja, the creative force behind Massive Attack's impressive fourth album, '100th Window.' A dense, at times impenetetrable collection of characteristically dark electronica, murky bass and transcendental psychedelia; '100th Window' was co-produced by 'Mezzanine's' Neil Davidge and is notable for the absence of founding members Grant 'Daddy G' Marshall and Andrew 'Mushroom' Vowles.
Grant was ostensibly AWOL during recording due to the birth of his son, while Vowles - Del Naja's best mate - officially left the band in 1999 after their gruelling 'Mezzanine' world tour. THere are suggestions the hip-hop inspired Vowles was unhappy with the guitar-driven, new wave sound of 'Mezzanine,' reportedly calling it a "fucking punk record."
Del Naja's response is careful, but his subtext explicit: for Del Naja, the creative process is paramount and his vision is uncompromising.
" 'Mezzanine' was a vision I had in terms of making it new wave and moving away from 'Protection.' I suppose my vision each time has been not to work entirely to a blueprint, to challenge myself and put myself out there. And to do that is difficult because you're moving further away from your point of reference each time and the past becomes more obscure.
"It's difficult for a band to hold onto its past and its path - if it's past is based on sampling in a very DJ, hip-hop sort of way. To move forward musically you have to relinquish a lot of that and try new things out. That was my agenda."
It's an agenda fuelled by a need for reinvention and a fear of repetition, but it is also one borne of experience.
"I think most bands will have one or two people who have strong visions that will guide and influence the way the music comes about.
"Very few bands can exist in a democracy. You'd have to be all very confident, very balanced, very functional if you were gonna do that."
The process of deconstruction that preceded the release of '100th Window' was protracted and torturous. Recording commenced in mid-2000 with Lupine Howl (ex-Spiritualised Jason Pierce's combe), but the sessions were abandoned with 85 hours of music on file.
"The stuff with Lupine Howl was about big, long, sweeping guitar-based psychedelic jams," recalls Del Naja. "It was brilliantly played with some amazing musicians, but I felt it was just too much like 'Mezzanine'."
Del Naja regrouped in the studio with Davidge, but the impact of the line-up changes and the lack of a coherent musical direction took their toll. Massive Attack was itself under attack.
"It was going nowhere and we weren't happy. I was just thinking of going away and leaving Massive Attack alone for a bit, 'cause I was sick of it. At that point G stopped coming to the studio altogether. He left me and Neil to either go and do something else or start writing something we really believed in. We did that on out own and it was hard work. It's a very isolated place, but at the end of the day, someone had to do it. Otherwise, there'd be no album now and I'd be travelling the world or working on a film soundtrack or something else. But it wouldn't be Massive Attack."
What Del Naja required was a return to basivs, to "the one simple idea that inspires you to write a whole song". Hereing lies the triumph of '100th Window.' For all its intricate arrangements and its myriad of electro beats and bleats, a sense of space permeates the album. The atmostphere may be paranoid, the oxygen levels low, but there's still plenty of room to breath. It's also a compelling reminder that great songs - irrespective of genre - are simple beasts born of a great riff, a spine-thumping drumbeat, or a single, propulsive loop.
Lyrically, the songs on '100th Window' are fragmentary and oblique self-examinations of Del Naja's relationship with drugs, sex and people. Not that you'd decipher that from a lyric sheet.
"I equally like very strong messages in songs, and some people do have the ability to write like that. I write lyrics that are utterly bizarre because I think it's about the exploration of it. If you believe in what you're saying then you don't have to know exactly what it means. I remember listening to Come Together on the Beatles album 'Abbey Road' when I was a kid. I used to love the lyrics 'cause they were so bizarre. I love that fact. It has a constant value to me."
Sinead O'Connor replaces 'Mezzanine's' Liz Frasier as featured vocalist on '100th Window.' She contributes to three songs, including first single Special Cases and the albums centerpiece, A Prayer for England. It's a potent attack on people who allow the children of England to be abused. It is the album's most powerful and direct statement and an impassioned cry for tolerance and healing.
Del Naja, a vocal opponent to war with Iraq, subtly confines his anti-war sentiments on the album in the use of Arabic strings.
"We wanted to use Arabic string sounds to create some layers that were joining East and West in a harmonious way, as opposed to the East and West culture clash we've become surrounded by.
"I've always been interested in Eastern CUlture and it's a shame that every time it's discussed in the West it's with either contempt or paranoia. I find that really depressing 'cause there's some amazing cultures and countries out there.
Del Naja also reveals that fellow anti-war activist and Blur singer Damon Albarn makes a surprise, uncredited guest appearance on '100th Window.'
Damon did a falsetto vocal alongside my vocal on One Shot Away, but we ended up using it as a kind of harmonic instrument in the chorus. I've done a lot of things with Damon that I've really enjoyed, but on this particular occasion, because of the voices, we thought it might sound a bit like a novelty thing, and that isn't what mine and Damon's relationship is about."
Massive Attack have seen some incredible shows during their most recent Australian tour. While winding his way around the country, Del Naja used some of his down-time to reflect on the Massive Attack of old.
"I dream about Mushroom, you know, I've had it a few times, various dreams, and they're not cathartic dreams about the past, they're enquiring about the future. I remember some of the conversations. We're talking about touring, we're talking about realistic, real things.
"The lead me to believe that hopefullthe there's a future where we can work together again - where it's not just confined to nostalgia."
'100th Window' may be a Massive Attack album in name more than in spirit, and its genesis bleak, but Del Naja's hopes that Vowles will maybe return to the fold are not unfounded. Mushrooms do, after all, grow in the dark.