Massive Attack
Blue Lines: 2012 Remix/Remaster

While the ’90s are often remembered as the era when Nirvana and its grunge brethren turned the mainstream onto the sounds of the underground, such a portrayal of the decade takes a narrow view. There was much more going on during those years, and fortunately, much of it was able to reach to an audience thanks to the alternative revolution opening new revenue streams. In addition to Nirvana’s Nevermind, the year 1991 produced My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless, Primal Scream’s Screamadelica, The Orb’s Adventures Beyond the Ultraworld, Blur’s Leisure, The KLF’s The White Room, and The Wedding Present’s Seamonsters, so there was a diverse array of stellar records coming out of England.

Massive Attack, who emerged out of the Bristol-based Wild Bunch soundsystem collective that had spawned Soul II Soul a few years earlier, also released an album in 1991, Blue Lines, their debut. Though it has retrospectively been labeled as “trip-hop,” at the time of its release, there was nothing like the album. While many emerging styles—grunge in particular—were regressive in essence, the music Massive Attack was creating was distinctly forward thinking. The group, which then included not only longtime members Daddy G and 3D, but Andy Vowles (a.k.a. Mushroom) and Tricky (a.k.a. Tricky Kid), had managed to merge the genres that interested them (hip-hop, dub, acid house), and adding live instrumentation, a British accent and dark undertone, created something unlike any of its influences.

Recently reissued as Blue Lines: 2012 Remix/Remaster, the record still remains distinctly unique—even after albums by Portishead and Morcheeba and solo records by Tricky mined similar territory in the subsequent years. The new edition’s moniker is a misnomer, though, as the record hasn’t been remixed in the manner one might think, but rather given a new sonic vibrancy that wasn’t available on a compact disc at the time of its release. Moreover, a DVD containing high res audio files is included for those who appreciate such things.

With the added fidelity, the audial engenuity of Blue Lines is even more startling. Leadoff track “Safe from Harm” throbs with deep bass hues, while the title track, with its laidback mix of samples, scratched guitar riffs and smoky rapping, is washed in a narcotic haze. Neneh Cherry and her husband, Cameron “Booga Bear” McVey, provided a place to record in their home and financial support, while Cherry lent her vocal talents to “Hymn of the Big Wheel,” the album’s uplifting denouement. The dubby beats of “Five Man Army” and Tricky’s thick vocal inflections set the prototype for what would be known as trip-hop, while “Unfinished Sympathy,” the record’s most successful single, revealed a mix of soulful vocals and frenetic beats that no doubt influenced Moby and other progeny.

Massive Attack made subsequent records that were as sonically interesting, but none that were (in their chronological context) as innovative as Blue Lines. That the record doesn’t seem anachronistic in 2012 proves its impact was felt and absorbed by all who heard it.
Stephen Slaybaugh