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Live review: Massive Attack at the Wiltern

May 19, 2010 |  4:58 pm
Massive At Massive Attack’s fanged, exacting kickoff show for its three-night Wiltern stand Tuesday night, they deployed an unexpected instrument -- a sense of humor.

The U.K. duo are known for their chilly menace --  wringing doom from the airy, soulful vocals of Martina Topley Bird; wresting dread from minimalist, ever-au courant breakbeats. They had all that in spades. But the more surprising angle came during the set’s close, when the dizzying LED display behind the duo began flashing headlines ripped from more droll editions of OK! and In These Times.  Things such as “LeBron’s Mom Sleeping With Teammate?,” followed by a catalog of incarceration-without-charges limits from a dozen countries.

The jokes were bleak, but is there a more apropos personification of “Inertia Creeps” than Heidi Montag?

Massive Attack’s latest album, “Heligoland,” the duo's first in many years, has an obsidian veneer in its production that makes it feel both expertly made and a bit untouchable. Onstage, however, they brought forth an absolute torrent of guitar noise, dual-drummer martial beats and the best use of  open space since a certain trio of much younger Brits (and upcoming Wiltern peers). 

Such cuts from “Heligoland” as the slinky “Babel” took on a spare reserve that, in the presence of a sometimes seven-person backing band, felt alternatively teasing and lacerating in their remove.  “Girl I Love You” and “Splitting the Atom” are made for this exact setting -- wide-screen enough to let the sonic ambition ring true, but intimate enough where the underlying song isn’t lost.

But the imagination and vigor that went into interpreting older tunes such as “Mezzanine” and “Safe From Harm” felt most moving. Even if the latter didn’t benefit from its backing visual catalog of freedom-touting quotables, “Safe” took the best sense of hope and uplift from house and techno and deployed it to absolutely huge ends atop a tangle of half-time drums and ecstatic synths.

“Mezzanine” was a landmark album for the current crop of young U.K. polymath producers, and it was thrilling to see Massive Attack agnostically approach those arrangements and focus on physicality and dynamics. And about that light rig -- it’s probably the most impressive bit of stagecraft I’ve seen in live music since Fever Ray.

The grand challenge of most forward-thinking electronic music today is unpacking its potential onstage. Even those who have it figured out, however, would do well to sell a few pints of blood and find a way into one of the last two Wiltern shows and take notes. Massive Attack got there first, and heck if they still aren’t doing it better than just about anyone -- and even more enticingly, they seem to know it.

-- August Brown

Photo by Warren du Preez & Nick Thornton

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