The marrying of Massive Attack and Adam Curtis is a match made in dystopian heaven.
One performing their seminal album riddled with paranoia and tension and the other, the master visual archive raider, illustrating these emotions with fitting video footage. No problems with the concept, I braced myself for an evening that trawled the gloomier depths of the human experience.
The two gigs in Bristol over the weekend felt like the centrepiece of the current Mezzanine XXI tour. Set on an airfield in the band’s hometown, in a specially-erected hangar structure on a site owned by a weapons manufacturer, added an additional layer of anticipatory gloom to the evening. The aim was to bring Mezzanine’s pre-millennial terror right into focus in 2019, with founding member Robert Del Naja aka 3D describing the show as “a one off personalised nostalgia nightmare head trip”. Sold. Completely.
But issues abound from the start. Those getting to the site an hour before the gig are met with snaking queues for the cash only bar with 15,000 people attending who had no warning and predictably huge toilet queues for women. The ATM queues are therefore also silly. Though I’m not often given to writing about the facilities at events with artists as prolific as Massive Attack, this simply needs mentioning. In all the planning to get this incredible structure in place for the gig, to forget the basics so badly set a poor tone for the evening.
The gig space is colossal, brutally impressive and is every bit as brooding as the album we’re here to celebrate. It felt like a fitting space to be shuddered into a musical abyss, the kind of sound which made Mezzanine such a regarded change of direction and album for the band. As the jarring strobe lights set off the evening it was funny, confounding and actually brilliant to hear them open with an indie flecked cover of I Found a Reason by Velvet Underground. However, halfway through second track Risingson the low volume acts as a second barrier to our enjoyment, the vocals barely audible and the bass weight not even causing causing a minor shudder. Unfortunately, it renders the fragility of Black Milk to background music and prompts me to try and gain 30 metres towards the front speaker stack, which is the best decision I make all night.
Curtis’ war footage, married with bizarre clips of Vladimir Putin, mixed with his penchant for finding abstract clips of people dancing is Mezzanine XXI’s star attraction. From Britney Spears wandering desperately as she’s hounded by flashing cameras, to the hard-hitting footage of people discovering their war-dead friend, the visual commentary is brutal. The particularly well delivered Dissolved Girl leaves an indelible impression, featuring visuals of a young woman from a YouTube video singing the song back with far too much eye contact. In the era of internet perversion its uncomfortable and poignant.
Through a series of covers and punkier moments, the performance of Mezzanine’s key tracks is interspersed with texture changes that bring the gig well out out of album rendition territory and into more of an art performance. A semi-ironic and sad cover of Levels by Avicci before the majestic set-closer Group Four feels madly and deliberately out of place but reinforces the feeling this is a performance with one eye on social commentary.
Massive Attack have consistently set the bar for the kind of bombarding and innovative live shows that demand your attention and envelop your consciousness for the duration of the performance. With their current live show they’ve blended a reinterpretation of their best album with stark, political commentary, with the visual that nods to the avant garde – an act that few would pull off successfully. For those at the front of the Steel Yard gigs, I’m sure the power of these individual parts of the show were strongly felt. Unfortunately, for those behind the second smaller set of speakers, the failure of the production to produce a quality sound to match the band’s ambition will unfortunately be the lasting memory of this gig for at least half audience. For an album littered with such nuanced moments, getting the basics right for such a high ticket price was essential. This was a chance to do something loud and special in a unique venue to celebrate one of Bristol’s finest bands and their masterpiece. It was an opportunity that was missed by a few elementary mistakes.