Massive Attack – 100th Window (2003)

Back in 2003, Massive Attack wasn’t doing so well as a group. The original trio had dwindled down to one man, and it didn’t seem that the band would manage to hold together. Of course, to spite angsty critics, Massive Attack released 100th Window then, and came back in full force last year with the mindblowing Heligoland. I’m going to write about 100th Window today because I feel it’s a little underrated and is, quite simply, one of my favorite albums. The fact that Sinead O’Connor is one of the main presences on this record, performing what is, in my opinion, some of her best work, is also one of the reasons I’m so drawn to this record.

100th Window has a very clearly defined aura around it. Most of Massive Attack’s albums have that, but in this case, it feels almost palpable, like it’s pressing up against you as you listen, like it’s pushing you into the wall. To me, the feeling this album emanates is one of intense danger, choking claustrophobia, a nightmarish, convoluted wave capable of pounding awareness out of one’s mind and transporting the listener into an alien, cold and mesmerizing dreamscape. At this point, one would be perfectly entitled to ask why such an album would invite repeated listening? It sounds scary as all hell and it makes you feel like your skeleton is losing structural stability. To this question, I respond with the fact that, as far as I am aware, music is the only art form capable of creating this mood to such a visceral level, and Massive Attack succeed in projecting a mood so real, so powerful and with such elegance that it’d be a damn shame not to take note of it and experience it to the best of one’s ability.

These songs have a feeling of panic running through their veins and joints, a form of urgency which was hinted at in the video to the track “Angel”, from their previous album – Mezzanine. That pulsating, nebulous energy, that paranoid feeling is picked up and upgraded throughout 100th Window, and it works because it’s pure communication! I can’t expect more from an album than the ability to infuse the air I breathe with a mood I can’t ignore, no matter what that mood might be – joyous or morose, frightening or calming. Music does what Philip K. Dick describes in “Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?” as a device called an “empathy organ”, a means by which one has instant access to feelings which would normally require a very specific set of events to take place, events which are not always sought after. 100th Window travels dark paths indeed, but I’d rather experience these shades as a source for inspiration, in my home, than be brought to them against my will, trapped in the failing neon light of some corridor or feeling my stomach float as the elevator I’m in never seems to stop it’s descent.

A few years ago I read a book by Michael Marshall Smith, called “Only forward”. It’s a wonderful, phantasmagorical novel, in which characters experience imprisonment in a sort of unreality. To say more would be a spoiler, but I highly recommend it. It seems to me, retroactively, that 100th Window is possibly the perfect soundtrack for that book. Water, light and lack thereof, air, color, all blend together in images of overwhelming, pristine brilliance, shimmering shapes animated through boundless space, inhabitable islands of sound which chime at every step, twisting and rearranging without break or warning, all throughout this record. The feeling of claustrophobia I was talking about before is dream-like, it has the kind of intensity I’ve only experienced in dreams, drawn out into the waking world, tantalizing, terrifying and fascinating. No matter how wide and wondrous a space might seem in a dream, it still feels trapped inside your head, it still retains the potential to feel small, ready to collapse in on itself, to expel the air and leave you stranded in the bone dome of your skull, does it not? This is the line 100th Window walks with feline steps, daring you to follow. I, for one, can’t resist this sort of magnetism, I can’t fight the brilliance and utter bravery of such a game to play.

There’s more than enough contrast on this album though, there are songs which are uplifting and feel like sunshine shooting through a thick cloud cover, but I feel they act, in a dramatic sense, towards the deepening of the ominous, overwhelming mood the album as a whole conveys. It feels like I’ve told you a horror story and maybe I did. On the other hand, this might well be a ridiculous little bout of hypersensitivity on my part, and the record will have nothing to do with my words. In any case, I think I can safely say it’s a towering collection of songs which definitely warrants attention, if only for the beautiful, dizzying bass lines supporting them – trust me, they are staggering, vibrations out of which dreams are made. Enjoy!

P.S. – The image is a screenshot of Robert “3D” Del Naja, the only member of the original Massive Attack trio who worked on this record, taken from the official video for Butterfly Caught.

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