Massive Attack photographed in London in 1998.
Massive Attack photographed in London in 1998.
Martyn Goodacre/Getty Images

Looking Back on Massive Attack's Classic 'Mezzanine' Ahead of 20th Anniversary Tour

by Ron Hart
December 04, 2018, 6:26pm EST

Upon its release 20 years ago on April 20, 1998, Massive Attack's third LP Mezzanine nearly ended the union of Robert "3D" Del Naja, Grant "Daddy G" Marshall and Andy "Mushroom" Vowles. In fact, not long after it hit the streets, the man they called Mush would leave the renowned trip-hop ensemble altogether, with Daddy G bowing out temporarily shortly thereafter.

"Mezzanine was a pretty sketchy album in terms of the way we worked, because the band, as reported a lot at that time, were not getting on," the album's producer and fellow Bristolian, Neil Davidge, told Sound on Sound magazine in 2003. "So I'd be in the studio working with one of the members and someone else would come in, then the person I had been working with would leave and I'd have to change the track I was working on because they didn't want to work on that track, they wanted to work on something different. Sometimes I'd be working on perhaps four different tracks in one day, which was a pretty messy way to work."

Yet what resulted in that perceived mess turned out to be what many consider to be Massive Attack's greatest album, despite the absence of the group's secret weapon, quixotic rapper Tricky, who left the fold shortly after Protection to focus on his fledging career as a solo artist. Alongside Davidge behind the board, the group opted to go in a darker, more guitar-driven motif for Mezzanine, flexing their roots in early 4AD dreampop with the appearance of Elizabeth Fraser of the Cocteau Twins on the album's signature hit "Teardrop" (which has since been used to wide renown as the theme to the sorely missed medical drama House), as well as a darker hue of dub reggae with Jamaican roots legend Horace Andy, the only artist to guest on all five Massive Attack LPs. His appearance on the third Mezzanine single "Angel"—one of three Andy songs on the album—is the one by which he is most well known. The track, which stems from Horace's 1973 lovers rock classic "You Are My Angel," truly takes flight in the remix provided by another longtime Massive associate, British dub giant Neil "Mad Professor" Fraser. And for the Guyana-born DJ and producer, collaborating with Andy was indeed familiar territory.

"I've been working with Horace Andy from when my studio was in my front room back in my 8-track days," he explains to Billboard. "Me and Horace, we are guys who have been through a lot of ups and downs together. Sometimes we're brothers. Sometimes we're like father and son. And sometimes we are enemies. We go back many years, man. One of the first things we dubbed up from Mezzanine was 'Man Next Door,' which was originally a reggae song done up by John Holt and Dennis Brown. Horace is a very special talent. He has a very unique style, and some people think he is Massive Attack (laughs), because they know his voice more than 3D or Daddy G."

Back in 1995, the Mad Professor and Massive Attack famously collided on No Protection, a collection of eight dub remixes of material from the group's 1994 sophomore set Protection, highlighted by the Tracey Thorn-kissed title track and the album's third single "Karmacoma," arguably the best sense of lyrical interplay between 3D and Tricky there ever was. Dropped at the height of a dub revival in the mid-90s led by New York City underground jazz legend Bill Laswell, No Protection turned out to be as popular as the original LP and helped introduce Massive Attack to a new fanbase as well.

"No Protection sold more than a million copies," he reminds. "No Protection was clearly a success beyond anyone's imagination. Everyone talks about dub like it's the dessert after the meal. So nobody expected the aftercourse to be more satisfying than the main course."

Recognizing the success of No Protection, Massive Attack and the Mad Professor came together again for Mezzanine, with Fraser treating eight of the album's 11 tracks for a dub album that was inexplicably shelved at the time.

"You need to ask Virgin or Massive Attack management why the album was not released," Fraser replied when asked if he knew why the dub version of Mezzanine was taken off schedule. "Or why they think that 20 years later is the correct time to be released."

What the Professor is referring to is a deluxe edition of Mezzanine, which will be released on Jan. 25 through Virgin and Universal Music Enterprises. In addition to a beautiful remastering job done by longtime cohort Tim Young at Metropolis Studios in London, Fraser's remixes of not only "Angel" and "Teardrop" but choice deeper cuts like "Risingson" and "Inertia Creeps" as well appear on a bonus disc included in the package, along with a dub cover version of "Superpredators" by Siouxsie and the Banshees retitled "Metal Banshee" and "Wire," which was recorded for the soundtrack to Michael Winterbottom's 1997 film Welcome to Sarajevo. For the Professor, reworking the music on Mezzanine was quite a different experience than his previous exercises giving Massive Attack the dub treatment.

"It wasn't as militant as Protection," he explained in regards to the songs he worked with from Mezzanine. "Protection had some tracks that were really tough, like 'Sly' and 'Spying Glass,' in particular, was just very strong material. So all I had to do was enhance the material with lots of bass lines and melodies. Mezzanine required a lot little bit more construction in the music department. So I had to do a lot more work in terms of stepping into the production of these songs in order to bring them out. Nevertheless, it was still a good album; it just required a lot more effort. However, I always loved the way their music was high-end audio. Their stuff was recorded proper, and you could tell at the end of the day it was no rush job. It was an iron emblem of precision."

However, even more intriguing in regards to this anniversary edition of Mezzanine is the fourth means by which Massive Attack are reissuing the album. Some may recall that it was the very first LP to be streamed online in April of 1998, a pioneering move met with little fanfare (and some skepticism) at the time. Twenty years later, 3D and Daddy G bear witness to a world who predominantly ingests their music through services like Tidal, Spotify and Pandora, relegating the concept of collecting albums by physical means to a near-niche level. Now in 2018, the duo looks to alter the way modern music is stored by making Mezzanine the very first music work to be released as encoded strands of synthetic DNA which -- in a sly nod to 3D's roots as a graffiti artist largely rumored to be the mythical Banksy -- is housed in a limited edition aerosol spray can said to contain 1,000,000 DNA copies of the record. Not to mention an art print by De Naja that utilizes ink embedded with the same DNA fragments.

"The four DNA bases adenine, cytosine, guanine and thymine are coded into binary digital audio," Del Naja said in a press release announcing the daring and expensive venture in collaboration with the TurboBeads, the commercial extension of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich. "If you were to spray, scrape it off the wall and have it analyzed in the correct conditions, you'd be able to play the album back – as soon the right player becomes available…the storage potential of DNA is huge. If you think about DNA versus the ridiculous amounts of server farms that have got to be cooled 24/7 all around the world, this looks like a much better solution going forward. It allows us to archive music for hundreds to thousands of years."

Back here in the present, meanwhile, Massive Attack will be going out on the road in 2019 to celebrate their signature work with the North American Mezzanine XXI tour, which kicks off on March 11 in Montreal at the Wilfrid Pelletier Theatre at the Place Des Arts with stops stateside at such iconic houses as Radio City, the Metropolitan Opera House in Philly, Detroit's Masonic Temple and the Hollywood Palladium. Both Elizabeth Fraser and Horace Andy will be on the road with them for what De Naja calls a "personalized nostalgia nightmare head trip," albeit one designed by his own hand as the tour's producer. However, based on the enthusiasm conveyed in online threads, the opportunity to experience Massive Attack perform this groundbreaking LP on the concert stage seems more like a dream come true.

Massive Attack, North America 2019:
March 11: Montreal, QC Place Des Arts – Wilfrid Pelletier Theatre
March 12: Toronto, ON Sony Centre for the Performing Arts
March 14: Boston, MA Boch Center with stops at Radio City, the Metropolitan Opera House in Philadelphia
March 15: New York, NY Radio City Music Hall
March 19: Philadelphia,PA Metroplitan Opera House
March 20: Washington, DC The Anthem
March 22: Detroit, MI Masonic Temple Theatre
March 23: Chicago, IL Chicago Theatre
March 24: Saint Paul, MN Palace Theatre
March 28: San Francisco,CA Bill Graham Civic Auditorium
March 29: Los Angeles, CA Hollywood Palladium
March 30: Los Angeles, CA Hollywood Palladium
April 02: San Diego, CA Cal Coast Credit Union Open Air Theatre