10 April, 2019 • • 40.7MusicThe ArtsVisual Arts

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Haunted Futures

Marek Sullivan

 

 

Massive Attack
Steel Yard, Bristol
2 March 2019

I first came to Massive Attack through Mad Professor’s 1995 dub remix No Protection, which a friend lent to me on cassette. That album became the soundtrack of many bleary-eyed hangouts and 5am scarpers through the run-down suburbs of Sheffield city. It connects in my mind with Pot Noodles and the fuzzy glow round a sodium street lamp when it’s raining mizzle. But it wasn’t until 2001, when I opened the CD of Mezzanine for the first time and found its acid-orange disc nested inside like a piece of electricity, that I realized Massive Attack were made for me. I listened to the album on repeat, using a Discman plugged into a boombox with the volume cranked up til the speakers crackled permanently. I couldn’t believe music could be so slick and dark yet so organic, like the stag beetle on the album’s cover. It was a precise conjunction of sound and image—something Massive Attack clearly sought, and almost achieved, at Steel Yard.

For their Mezzanine tour, Massive Attack promised a “one off, personalized nostalgia nightmare head trip, covering the twenty-one years since the album’s release”. According to veteran chronicler Adam Curtis, who designed the visual backdrop, the show would tell “the story of the strange journey we have all been on over the past twenty years […] how we have moved into a strange backward-looking world, enclosed by machines that read our data and predict our every move, haunted by ghosts from the past”.

In the event, the show is not personalized per se, unless 14,000 people count as one person, but it is nostalgic and nightmarish. The setting, Filton Airfield, is bleak and magnificent. A vast hangar has been built on the central runway (the runway used for Concorde’s final landing in 2003), at a dramatic distance from the shuttle drop-off points. There is something apocalyptic about hiking towards the hangar’s purple hulk en masse, a chill wind blowing across the twilit tarmac to the new-build homes on the horizon.

The space inside is truly enormous, adding to the sense of occasion. Massive Attack rarely play their hometown, since they refuse to engage with Bristol’s only Massive-Attack-worthy venue, Colston Hall, due to Edward Colston’s historical role in the Bristol slave-trade. An indoor gig with Bristol’s prodigal sons is a hot ticket by any stretch; I have been told several times that this is “the gig of the year”. While the anticipation builds, smash hits from 1998 get the nostalgia flowing. Britney Spears, All Saints, Savage Garden, Fatboy Slim—it feels weird to realise there was a time when these were danced to unironically.

The lights go out and a synthetic rush of sound cuts through the room, coupled with a blinding strobe light. But the drama is deceptive, ironic in its own way, since it goes nowhere and is instead followed by a gentle, even pedestrian cover of Velvet Underground’s ‘I Found a Reason’. Meanwhile Curtis’s archival filmwork flashes up across five dazzling screens, alternating with sheets of pure colour and glitchy text. It begins with footage of a flying owl and a bird’s eye view of a Sims-esque, CGI city. We’re clearly in the domain of the ideological simulacrum and invisible top-down power, though it’s not clear which is the simulation—the city or the perspective afforded by the owl. This question will haunt the rest of a show in which illusion and illusions about illusions merge disconcertingly: at one point we’re told, in trademark Curtis-black-and-white, that “Conspiracies are a conspiracy to make you feel powerless”. Later, political slogans like “Venceremos”, “It’s time”, “For the many, not the few”, “Brexit means Brexit” succeed each other indiscriminately. Is the point that all political slogans should be transcended? Or is it the opposite—a critique of the flattening of ideology, and a call to pour faith into one cause (in line with Curtis’s message that “It’s about time idealism came back”)? Are some slogans truer than others? The ambiguity seems to be part of the point, though it’s not entirely clear how.

Robert Del Naja and Grant Marshall come on and off the stage through a setlist covering the whole of the album, with more covers interspersed between tracks, including The Cure’s ‘10:15 Saturday Night’, Bauhaus’s ‘Bela Lugosi’s Dead’, Pete Seeger’s ‘Where Have All the Flowers Gone?’ and Horace Andy’s own ‘See a Man’s Face’. The inclusion of covers is a stroke of genius, giving breathing space to the album’s claustrophobically dense structure, and allowing us to situate Massive Attack’s music within a much broader spectrum of references than the Bristol connection suggests. The covers also highlight the album’s uncanny tonal consistency, its rumbling basslines injecting a sub-topological stratum beneath the different genres on show, and providing a visceral backdrop to the political tumult depicted onscreen.

Surprisingly, Curtis’s material focuses more on the 1990s and 2000s than the 2010s. Footage of Saddam Hussein, Iraq, and primitive computer servers echoes earlier documentaries Bitter Lake and All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace, while Tony Blair playing guitar gets the biggest boo of the night (tellingly, even bigger than footage of Trump). These are central to the political narrative of the 2000s. But where are the big changes of the last decade? The inexorable expansion of social media, automation and AI? MeToo? The sharpened pessimism about climate change? The screen tells us “There are no enemies anywhere.” Is this propaganda or anti-propaganda? The only explicit reference to the bleeding edge of the moment is Mario Klingeman’s AI-generated portraiture, that slips and morphs over the screens like diabolical digital clay, fuzzying the boundary between recognition and alienation, Trump and Putin, and Putin and Lagarde.

It’s an extremely polished performance, with little scope for improvisation. Del Naja and Marshall do not address the audience once, which is a slight let-down for a show billed as a heart-warming return to roost. Otherwise it’s a flawless set, with ‘Dissolved Girl’, ‘Inertia Creeps’, ‘Angel’ and ‘Teardrop’ getting the biggest response. During ‘Teardrop’ thousands of phones—previously kept hidden in a testament to Massive Attack’s anticorporate and antipopular fanbase—suddenly appear, hovering over the audience to capture and livestream Elizabeth Fraser’s humming-bird vocals, like a parody of the thing we’ve been warned against. My friend joins in the fun, later posting a video to Instagram. Because, why not?

The show closes with a climactic version of ‘Group Four’, Curtis’s final message lingering on the screen like an afterglow: “We are caught in an endless loop. It’s time to leave the ghosts behind and start building the future.” Yet despite Curtis’s post-ironic optimism, the previous footage has reinforced the sense that this message is as much part of the problem as the solution, being an essential variation on Blair’s “Things can only get better”. No matter how hard one tries to break from the past, political hope is always mediated by the language of the dead. How can we leave ghosts behind when the future comes at us already haunted?

‘Haunted Futures’ is part of a Special Issue on Uto/Dystopias.

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Marek Sullivan is a former Editor-in-Chief of The Oxonian Review.