Pornography Symphony 

Massive Attack could tour for one hundred years, and no one would question how they were still alive.

More than nine thousand Bay Area beatheads packed the hills above UC Berkeley last month to see British music ensemble Massive Attack, even though the trip-hop band was thought to have peaked eight years ago with its album Mezzanine.

Assisted by a hyphy-free DJ Shadow, a frenetic light show, two drum kits, and ample soft and hard drugs, the faceless nine-piece proved the potency of artistic concept over particular band members. For example, fewer than 5 percent of the cheering hordes that night could name a single member of Massive Attack, but like the Blue Man Group or Cats, it was the Massive concept they came for. And that concept revolves around vice.

Sex. Drugs. Gluttony. Sloth. Massive Attack made only four studio albums in fifteen years after emerging from Bristol's trip-hop scene along with Portishead and Tricky. Perpetually rain-drenched and shrouded in extremely long winter nights, there's little else to do in Bristol — a former corner of the African slave-trading triangle — except to get blunted and spin records of high pedigree, preferably while copulating. Massive Attack's three founding members released Blue Lines in 1991 and splintered over time, adding and dropping collaborators faster than any fan could care to keep up. The closest the band came to mainstream American success was a No. 60 slot on the US charts for 1998's Mezzanine. Since then it's been more albums and collabs, including a best of, Collected, this year that exemplifies the group's sound and its shortfalls.

Massive Attack live is basically Collected incarnate, with a bit more guitar noodling and a dizzying light show. The band has a half-dozen certifiable hits, then plenty of filler that drags down the rest. With four vocalists, two drummers, guitar, bass, and a keyboards, sole original member Robert Del Naja exquisitely replicates the group's studio work. Nonfounding member and bassist Winston Blissett anchors the sound with riffs so low and slow they could signal whales mid-North Pacific. Atop it, a heartbeat tempo of around 60 or 70 beats per minute references reggae and dub. Add in the minor role of the vocals in many segments, and their often-whispered quality, and the whole thing begins to sound like advanced porno music. Critics call the show "cinematic" due to its high production values and dearth of words. It's evocative, fill-in-the-blank music, wherein the blank is typically filled with Doing It.

Girls grind into their boyfriends as well as random dudes, who pass around blunts and smuggled liquor, absolutely tripping on the fifty-by-ten-foot grid of oversized LEDs. Vivid, computer-controlled patterns contrasted with the statuesque musicians. Watching it from the pit felt like looking through a high-powered telescope at the bottom right corner of a television. In that blazing, pixelated corner, a tiny band — as though shrunken by Willy Wonka — was playing and making one hell of a racket. And you're thinking as you squint, "How can these tiny guys be so loud?" As I said, trippy.

In any case, everyone should see the live guitar solo for "Angel" once in life. Given the longevity of the Massive Attack concept, there's a good chance even your kids will. With all the lights drenched blue, the black-clad ensemble actually looked like the Blue Man Group, and judging from the reception the band got at the Greek, America could support several Massives touring the country playing Collected for decades. The permanent revue in Las Vegas wouldn't be for the faint of heart.


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