Trip-hop returns to form

Bristol trip-hop band Massive Attack (from left) Grant "Daddy G" Marshall and Robert "3D" Del Naja.
Bristol trip-hop band Massive Attack (from left) Grant "Daddy G" Marshall and Robert "3D" Del Naja. PHOTO: VIRGIN/EMI

Time plays tricks, alternately casting a deathly pallor or a nostalgic glow that makes everything rosier in hindsight.

Such is the case with the influential Bristol trip-hop pioneers, Massive Attack.

Unbelievably, it's been almost three decades since DJs Daddy G (Grant Marshall) and Mushroom (Andrew Vowles) joined graffiti artist-rapper 3D (Robert Del Naja) to form the band in 1988 as a spin-off production trio from partying collective The Wild Bunch.

Fast-forward to February 2016 and it's come full circle. Mushroom left in 1999 and G in 2001, although the latter has paired up with 3D of late.

Trip-hop became fashionable, sprouting the likes of Portishead, Morcheeba and Hooverphonic, before descending into sonic wallpaper by the turn of the century. Time, however, clarifies.

The Ritual Spirit EP, released last month, crystallises all the great things one associates with the genre they created. It is reunion and harbinger, its archives reassessed while it glances into the horizon.

  • TRIP-HOP

  • RITUAL SPIRIT EP

    Massive Attack

    Virgin/EMI

    4/5 stars

Opening track Dead Editors begins with an ominous electrocardiogram beeping before transforming into an intriguing stew of tribal rhythms and industrial echoes.

London rapper Roots Manuva asks "what would it take to get back to the blackness", a line similar to what G said when he returned to the band in 2010 for the album, Heligoland, promising to "bring the blackness to Massive Attack".

Title track Ritual Spirit swirls in smoke, as newcomer Azekel utters barely decipherable lines - "Claim that you heard it" appears to be a refrain. Is it a come-hither or a warning sign? You don't quite know.

That frisson between danger and lust for life is also at the core of many of its classics, Protection, Teardrop and Unfinished Sympathy.

Massive up the ante with Voodoo In My Blood, their collaboration with Mercury Prize-winning Scottish hip-hop trio Young Fathers.

Both acts are on top of the game: Massive with their creepy, cinematic dread and Fathers with their irrepressible street sass.

"Why does the blood never stick to your teeth," asks Fathers' Alloysius Massaquoi as the drums clatter like scarab beetles.

The past, the present and the future come to a head in the last track, Take It There.

It features the return of another Bristol iconoclast, Tricky, who has not appeared in a Massive record since the release of Protection in 1994.

Guitars fuzz and bristle. Drums shuffle and, yes, trip, as the scarily gruff Tricky shimmies into the song, trading lyrics with 3D in this slow dance.

While 3D appears to issue an instruction manual on how to apply an emollient cream, Tricky comes on demanding "a fix, you call the tricks".

It's a song so out of time, it may well appear in any release from the 1980s to this current millennium, like a spirit that never really goes away.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 17, 2016, with the headline 'Trip-hop returns to form'. Print Edition | Subscribe