Sign up for our free newsletter

Free D.C. news, delivered to your inbox daily.

Massive Attack has become one of triphop’s most influential bands while remaining one of its most enigmatic. Without having an iconic front vocalist or rapper to solidify an immediately recognizable sound or visual image, it acts more as a sonic, virtual-reality conduit for a coterie of grieving chanteuses (Elizabeth Fraser, Sara Jay, Shara Nelson, Tracey Thorn), a bilious beat poet (Tricky), and stray stargazers (Horace Andy, Nicolette), allowing them to wander and wallow through emotionally violent corridors draped in dense, nightmarish soundscapes. The incognito triumvirate of Grant Marshall (Daddy G), Andrew Vowles (Mushroom), and Robert del Naja (3D) is omnipresent behind Massive Attack’s bleak narrative plots and suspenseful musical silhouettes, but except for the occasional obscure verses from Marshall and del Naja, and the minimalist turntable scratches from Vowles, they remain decidedly distant in the foreground of action. Their third and most difficult album, Mezzanine, sheds little light on the group’s mystique. Conceptually, it’s their most concise effort, but it also lack the peaks and valleys that propelled Blue Lines and Protection. Tricky-free and almost hookless, Mezzanine’s deep blue funk is the musical equivalent of Prozac, emotionally unvarying and barren.

The re-creation of those arid, opaque textures in a live setting was what made the concert last Thursday at the 9:30 Club both a sonically rewarding and an ultimately numbing experience. More moody than musical, the concert progressed at a glacial pace as Massive Attack opened with the contemplative “Angel,” and “Risingson” from Mezzanine. Except for the muscular Billy Cobham-esque drum fills and corrosive guitar interjections, the band didn’t depart enough from the recorded versions to spark the feeling of a live show. As Horace Andy crooned with his signature ethereal voice on “Angel,” the jam-packed audience stood almost comatose, as if the procession were a séance. Marshall’s deadpan verses on “Risingson” and Deborah Miller’s lead vocal on “Teardrop” were nearly indiscernible as the band concocted coarse textures underpinned by cardiac backbeats and skulking dub bass lines. The unsettling stage lighting of dull yellowish spotlights against a dark backdrop perfectly complemented the noirish palette of sound. Massive Attack’s detached demeanor, however, gave less an air of artsy aloofness than the indication that the latest album is insufferably boring.

The lethargy of Mezzanine’s cryptic themes, elliptical melodies, and lifeless tempos nearly threatened the entire affair. The band perfectly captured the audience’s temperament with a frigid reading of “Karmacoma.” Staid and sallow, Marshall delivered the dreary lyrics with workmanlike indifference, which was returned in kind by the audience. It wasn’t until the ill-placed “Hymn of the Big Wheel” from Blue Lines that the atmosphere began to thaw. On this cult anthem, reggae maestro Andy brought a certain weathered beauty and optimism to the concert that controverted the music’s sterility. Both ethereal and earthy, Andy’s amazing voice suggests the potential magic of triphop collaborations with other idiosyncratic vocalists such as Jimmy Scott or Andy Bey. His bewildering tenor and dizzy vibrato forged a spiritual bond with an attentive congregation, which, in turn, demonstrated its praise not by an outburst of sudden enthusiasm, but with a communal hand-clap as Andy sang the sweet melody with the controlled passion and poise of a young choirboy.

The show slowly gained momentum as Massive Attack shifted focus to the superior songs from the last two records. The soaring ecstasy on the disco-tinged “Unfinished Sympathy” and the vengeful “Safe From Harm” captured Massive Attack at its most danceable, as Miller’s enchanting vocal belted out the coarse lyrics with the authority of a diva. In turn, Andy led the band to its most romantic offering with the haunting “One Love.”

Just as the rapport between the band and audience began to jell, Massive Attack ended the set, and seemingly frustrated concertgoers chanted for more. And more they got: three encores of surging adrenaline rush befitting of the band’s name. Vowles, now looser and decidedly more passionate, unleashed some of his devilish turntable skills, which blended magnificently with the jangly guitar riffs, rolling bass lines, and droning keyboard chords. As the audience’s enthusiasm grew, so did the music’s velocity, reaching a staggering crescendo with “Group Four” as the band created a vortex of white noise that spun almost uncontrollably, then later resolved with a stuttering, percussive slow burn.

Massive Attack never devolved into flashy showmanship, leaving its enigma intact as the band left the stage after its final encore. Like the most fascinating dreams, specific details of the concert began to blur and overlap almost instantly, but the experience as a whole resonated narcotically throughout the rest of the night. CP