Massive Attack in Munich · February 5th, 2019

A world in myself
Daydreaming, admiring, being
Quietly, open the world

The first Massive Attack show I saw three years ago was one of the single best concerts I’ve ever seen; a transcendent, out-of-body experience. I was completely and utterly blown away by how their music and visuals fused so seamlessly to create what’s really best described as audio-visual performance art—that show raised the bar so utterly and irrevocably, I still think of it on an almost weekly basis. So when the MezzanineXX1 tour was announced, and they just so happened to be in Munich the day after I was already in town for Steven Wilson, I didn’t hesitate to extend my time off work to catch one of my favorite albums being performed in full.

Even though I’d never been there, I was aware of this particular venue’s reputation for having horrible sound—originally built as a huge industrial hall, it sure as hell didn’t look built for good acoustics. Massive Attack was scheduled to start at 8PM; promoters had gone through pains to inform everyone that it would start on the dot, and that there would be no support act, but at 8PM, after people had already waited for an hour and a half, all that happened is that music started blasting over the PA; distorted, as if only coming from woofers. It was all hit singles from 1998, when Mezzanine was released, and while people around me were grumbling that the sound quality at this venue was indeed worse than they’d feared, I’m absolutely positive that the distortion was an intended effect, and the whole thing part of the show. The songs played were, in order: Angels by Robbie Williams, Baby One More Time by Britney Spears, I Don’t Want to Miss A Thing by Aerosmith, Never Ever by All Saints, Frozen by Madonna, Tubthumping by Chumbawamba, Believe by Cher, The Boy is Mine by Brandi & Monica, Truly Madly Deeply by Savage Garden, Doctor Jones by Aqua, and Gettin Jiggy Wit It by Will Smith—all songs that represent the 1998 Zeitgeist, but through the distorting, nostalgic lense of the present. Considered from that perspective, it’s really quite genius as an art statement and as a jaded introduction to an anniversary tour, but they should’ve started it at 7PM; coupled with the fact that listening to almost a full hour of warped 90’s hits starts grating your nerves after a while, and people getting restless because they’d been on their feet for at least two hours and felt that the band was over an hour late in hitting the stage, grumbles turned to outright complaints, and by the time the band made their entrance, there were more boos and cries of “assholes” than cheers. We were not off to a particularly great start.

MA-11

The band filed on stage without a word or even much of a look at the audience, amidst a noisy intro and the most epilepsy-inducing flashing screens, so bright it hurt to look. I couldn’t even squint at the stage, and had afterimages for the rest of the performance, which was The Velvet Underground’s I Found a Reason, with one of the guitarists on lead vocals and vocal harmonies by 3D. The footage projected was an amalgam of all sorts of things, from a bird eye view of a virtual city, to political snippets featuring the Queen and Tony Blair, toy mass-production, and a borderline catatonic Britney Spears being harassed by paparazzi… then everything went black, and what I’m sure was supposed to be a thought-provoking slogan was projected on the dark screen in huge, bright letters… but it was so badly translated and missing such a crucial word that the meaning was completely lost on me. The first time I saw them, the words on their screens were translated in the respective country’s language as well (which I think is commendable, because it shows that they really want to get their message across), but they were clearly translated by capable people then… this evening, the snippets that were shown in German were so embarrassingly literal, it was quite clear that they used Google translate. It really cheapened the experience for me; who knows, maybe understanding this one opening sentence would’ve tied the whole show together.

MA-03

After that faux-pas, Daddy G came on stage and joined the band for Risingson, which is one of my favorite songs, and finally caused a stirring in the audience—the visuals for this one were pretty minimalist, with simple pulsating monochrome lights alternating with darkness and bright screens, which fit the sensual nature of the song quite well. Robert was very unhappy about something though, I think he wanted either his synths or the guitar turned up, and the sound tech just wasn’t getting it, so he had to keep gesticulating and looked pretty mad about it after a while, which was a bit distracting.

Ma-02

A cover of The Cure’s 10:15 Saturday Night followed, with some message about machines having amassed our images by the turn of the century and having found patterns? Then we followed a creepy Doctor Who toy on its Chinese factory assembly line and saw more footage of ballet and tap dancers amidst fast flashing political stuff. I can’t say I could follow what they were trying to say, maybe being familiar with the cover would’ve helped, which I was not. The first song featuring Horace Andy was next up, Man Next Door, and this one was pretty great (which was a bit surprising, since it’s far from being a favorite on the record), although he’s clearly getting on in years and was pretty badly out of tune in parts, but his dancing was adorable. This performance focused on the constant need to be up to speed with worldly events and how draining and ultimately unhealthy it is when it turns to obsession, and featured phrases such as “in the past politicians wanted to change things… including you“, and things about surveillance and algorithms, and being shown and given what the system knows you want and like (since this text flowed over footage, it was thankfully left in English and was comprehensible!).

MA-10

Black Milk followed, the first song with The Cocteau Twins’ Elizabeth Fraser on vocals, who sang it with much more vibrato than on the album, which gave it an even more eerie, fragile feel than usual. The title-track isn’t a favorite of mine, but it had a certain added oomph and groove live that I really enjoyed, as well as an extended outro with some pretty cool flashing lights. Bauhaus’ Bela Lugosi’s Dead was introduced with a plain white text message on black background, something along the lines of “the past has obstructed our vision and has begun to eclipse the future“. I’m not familiar with the original, but I really didn’t like this song, Robert sang lead vocals with what sounded like a falsetto effect on his voice, and coupled with more epilepsy-inducing screens (featuring old school computers and internet history), it really wasn’t my thing.

MA-07

Exchange and (Exchange) are probably my two least favorites on the album if I had to pick, but I really enjoyed them live. The first had random footage shown, including a pub brawl, where the audio was turned up, so you had this dissonant sound of things breaking, chairs being thrown, and men yelling in anger and pain over a pretty chill ambient piece of music—I’m not entirely sure what the point was, but this part stayed with me. (Exchange) wasn’t actually the Massive Attack song, but rather a cover of the heavily sampled Horace Andy original, so it was really a reggae version, and the lyrics “you see a man’s face / but you don’t see his heart / You see a man’s face / but you don’t know his thoughts” went extremely well with the assorted political slogans and campaign promises they projected on the screens. I’d never heard the original before, but really liked it—it had soul, and didn’t feel as passionless as a lot of the preceding performances had, so it was a bit of a turning point in the show, which I felt got better from here on out; too bad that this also marked the half-way point, pretty much.

MA-06

Dissolved Girl was the next song, introduced by plain text stating “you can. you are. you can be ANYBODY“. Since they didn’t have Sarah Jay on tour, the vocals came from the tape, which was really too bad; I wish they’d given it to Liz to attempt her own version, however different, but it was still a somewhat different arrangement, or at least the instrumental parts felt a lot harder to me—more rock’n’roll. The visuals were fitting, anyway, with a search query for the song, and amateur videos of people covering it, with the focus being a woman coquettishly singing it on her bedroom floor. It was uploaded to YouTube 9 years ago and was pretty easy to find. As for the moral, I’m not entirely sure, but it’s probably something along the lines of when you put something on the world wide web, it can be used and abused by anyone, and there’s nothing you can do about it (although judging by her answers in the comment section they did ask her for permission or at least let her know they were going to use it).

MA-08

The next song was yet another cover, Peter Seeger’s Where Have All The Flowers Gone?, which is sampled in Risingson, with Liz on vocals, and ominously introduced with something along the lines of “but outside the circus of pleasures, endless wars continue“. This was followed by really disturbing imagery of dropped bombs and Middle Eastern people finding their kin dead on a morgue table, and grieving over, as well as desperately clutching their corpse—before footage from The Wizard of Oz, more war zones, Putin and Trump, an execution, and OxyContin ads was added in, the latter blurring as the band segued into Inertia Creeps, which had names of prescription drugs shown in rapid succession on every screen, as well as distorted, and eventually combined faces (I will never un-see Trump-Britney). This song was one of the highlights of the show; when the guitar kicks in the crowd went wild and it was impossible not to dance to it! As it turns out, it was sandwiched between two covers, with the last one of the night following, Ultravox’ Rockwrok. An odd choice, and unlike anything else they played, but it had hands down my favorite visuals of the evening, focusing on all sorts of crazy conspiracy theories and actual political scandals, from chemtrails to MKUltra, from pizzagate to a reporter interrupting the song to say that the US president is an agent of Russia.

MA-09

Angel, Andy Horace’s final song this evening, was next. It was sung mostly in darkness, with very minimalist flashing lights and short, rapidly changing bursts of DNA base combinations on blank screens. Then the crowd went batshit crazy when they started playing Teardrop, which I personally find to be kind of overrated (don’t get me wrong, I love it, but I don’t understand why this song is so hailed above all others!). Liz deviated from the album version slightly, but in a really fresh way that I enjoyed. Rotating light beams turned the whole band into dark silhouettes while only Liz was illuminated as she sang, it was a simple but stunning effect.

MA-01

I couldn’t place the next song at first, and thought they were playing yet another cover—in truth, it was just a snippet of Levels by Avicii serving as an intro to the best and final performance of the night, Group Four (there was no encore—the whole 90 minute show was played in one piece. They don’t follow conventions, but set their own rules, and I love them for it). I can’t even begin to describe the footage shown over these final ten minutes, but they were aptly introduced as “mixed up images of the past“—anything you can possibly think of, and more. It was the best performance of the night, but I felt that it didn’t live up to its potential; I expected my soul to transcend on the final (extended!) outro, which is hands down my favorite moment on the album, but it was just… nice. Not mind-blowing, as expected. Like when you feel a sneeze coming on, but then it doesn’t. The final projection was left up for quite some time, and can be roughly translated back to “it’s time to leave the ghosts behind… and begin building the future“.

I guess my main qualm with this show was that the sparks just weren’t flying the way I’ve known them to before, and it all seemed rather… cold, as if the band was going through the motions (and I don’t mean the fact that they didn’t address the audience even once—they hardly ever do, and it wouldn’t be appropriate at such a show, anyway, and I honestly couldn’t care less about a “hello” and “goodbye”); I don’t know how the shows in other countries were, but I’ve heard mostly good things from friends who saw them across Europe, so the at best sedate, at worst borderline hostile reception by this particular crowd was likely largely to blame for them not seeming to have their heart in it.

MA-04

The show did seem to lack a bit of coherence though—the refugee crisis was the main focus three years ago, and the intended message of open borders and compassion was loud and clear, while here… I’m not too sure what they were trying to get across, or rather, I felt that they were trying to do too much at once, and as a result, it all struck me as somewhat superficial. Technology is a dangerous slippery slope, and nostalgia is seductive but harmful, and we should look forward instead of dwelling on a past we see through rose-tinted glasses? That’s the best and most succinct take-away I can come up with, and if that’s it, then it’s a bit hypocritical coming from a band cashing in by going on an anniversary tour, however unconventional their take on the concept. I absolutely didn’t hate it as the majority of the audience seemed to (social media reactions were scathing for this particular show), but something was definitely missing tonight, even though the musicianship was top-notch, as usual.

MA-05

I don’t regret seeing the show, and maybe I would’ve enjoyed it more if I had no basis for comparison, or had seen it amidst a different crowd, but as it was, if I’d crossed country borders for this alone, I’d probably be as disappointed as most of the people whose conversations I overheard as we made our way to the subway. All in all, I left this gig with some seriously mixed feelings I’m still trying to sort out weeks later—I have a ton of respect for their artistic vision, and I see what they were trying to do, but it didn’t completely work for me, and I ultimately don’t think that what I witnessed this evening did this seminal, incredible album full justice.

Setlist
[▲  feat. Horace Andy   ·   ▽  feat. Elizabeth Fraser]

massiveattackposterI Found a Reason (The Velvet Underground)
Risingson
10:15 Saturday Night (The Cure)
Man Next Door ▲
Black Milk ▽
Mezzanine
Bela Lugosi’s Dead (Bauhaus)
Exchange
See a Man’s Face (Horace Andy) ▲
Dissolved Girl
Where Have All the Flowers Gone? (Pete Seeger) ▽
Inertia Creeps
Rockwrok (Ultravox)
Angel ▲
Teardrop ▽
Group Four (with a snippet of Levels by Avicii) ▽

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