What Big Ears They Have! Massive Attack’s Remix Art

Singles 90/98 (Virgin), the Lamborghini of boxed sets, is a collection of 63 tracks by the Bristol, England, sound consortium Massive Attack. The set consists of 11 disks, each named for the single it presents, with up to five remixes. Some of the disks also contain slightly altered 7-inch versions of the original album versions (which appear first) and up to two songs or mixes that the three previous albums didn’t include or have never before been released. At nearly six hours long, the set seems a tad obsessive. But Singles 90/98 really isn’t; it just reflects Massive Attack’s peculiar and remarkable ideas, methodology and music.

Massive Attack writer-producers Daddy Gee, Mushroom, and the rapper 3D (a.k.a. Grant Marshall, Andrew Vowles and Robert del Naja)-not to mention original Bristol beat explorer Nellee Hooper, who went on to produce Soul II Soul, Björk, U2 and others-all had a hand in the Wild Bunch, a mid-80’s sound system-DJ collective. From the beginning, they cultivated shadowy profiles of such cool self-possession that they now occupy positions of almost mythological stature within the elegant and brainy parallel universe that is British dance-soul. In Generation Ecstasy: Into the World of Techno and Rave Culture , his first-rate analytic immersion in 90’s international dance scenes, Simon Reynolds calls Blue Lines , Massive Attack’s 1991 debut album, “a landmark in British club culture, a dance music equivalent to Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue , marking a shift toward a more interior, meditational sound.”

In America, most R&B and rap fans don’t sweat the artistic-commercial “formulas” that loftier popsters sneer at: Give Monica or Blackstreet a great tune in some familiarly resonant or kicking arrangement, and most R&B and rap fans can use it. But by the time Massive Attack made Blue Lines in Bristol, even august old soul formulas-which is to say, the treasured British tradition of 60’s Tamla-Motown conservation-didn’t seem congruent with how 80’s rap in the United States was striking creative R&B types. To their ears, rap busted everything up as decisively as punk had the previous generation.

For eclectic artists like Massive Attack, who boasted not only big ears but highly concentrated reserves of record-making curiosity and self-schooled know-how, rap must have seemed an even meatier revolution than punk. Rap was, after all, about 4,000 technical, cut-up, rearranged musical variables, where punk made do with 4/4 time and ratty guitars. For Bristol artists like Massive Attack, not to mention Portishead and early Massive player Tricky, rap methodology was pure technological luxury. You could do Miles with it. You could reform not only Tamla-Motown but also the classic freedoms and epiphanies and aural pleasures of jazz. And you could rap around the edges. You could actually quote, as Massive Attack in fact did on their debut single “Daydreaming,” Fiddler on the Roof . (You can see why some people started calling it trip-hop.)

All this action occurred not onstage but on a fluid series of records, tracks and versions that streamed through English clubs. “With dance tracks,” Mr. Reynolds writes in Generation Ecstasy , “the music is the production. Increasingly, the figure of the producer blurs with the engineer, traditionally regarded as a mere technician who facilitates the sonic ideas and aspirations of band and producer. In most dance music, though, it’s the timbre and penetration of a bass tone, the sensuous feel of a sample texture, the gait of a drum loop, that’s the real hook, not the sequence of notes that constitutes ‘the melody.'”

In other words, a dance music single concerns vibe , the sum effect a listener gets from whatever 4,000 things writer-producers like Massive Attack arrange or play onto tape. From this perspective, Singles 90/98 seems as logical as an Eric Clapton retrospective winding its chronological way from Blind Faith to “Layla.” And the box argues further that these single vibes permit an infinite number of other vibes, themselves intriguing and brilliant aural cousins of the original. Hence 63 tracks devoted almost entirely to no more than 11 individual pieces of music. Gil Evans, Miles’ most simpatico arranger, whose albums often reinvestigated music he’d recorded before, might have nodded in approval.

Even the un-remixed Massive Attack tracks always seem, for all their eccentric and satisfying ways, open-ended. On “Protection,” Everything But The Girl’s Tracey Thorn, who should be remembered as one of the greatest pop singers of the 20th century, delivers a perfectly rounded soul melody with explosive restraint and an ever-so-barely-threatened tone. Around her swirls a gauzy, far less settled arrangement. But when that track bleeds into “Underdog’s Angel Dust Mix,” the music disappears, and Ms. Thorn’s background gets replaced with hollow house beats, New Orleans funeral brass and a side-winding synth motive masquerading as a flute. On “Risingson,” the reggae singer Horace Andy does a kind of half-sung rap as the dub-heavy, rocked-up music dramatizes the nightmarish party Andy keeps saying he doesn’t want to attend. But when Underworld remix the track, they get rid of everything from the rap except the lyrics “toylike, boylike”-the words Mr. Andy uses to disparage partygoers he dislikes. Around that, Underworld construct a surging 2 A.M. superhighway with fiery drumming and jangling pianos changing lanes at about 90 m.p.h. The effect comes from the crystalline jam of all of this happening at once, not the individual parts. It’s about as hypnotic as pop music gets.

After Blue Lines , only two albums: last year’s Mezzanine , a masterpiece of studio design and high-stakes drama, and 1994’s Protection , which was given a dynamite remix in toto by the dub reggae sorcerer Mad Professor, whose work makes several juicy appearances on Singles 90/98 . The set, a study in the art of the musically astute remix, brings back early soul shocks like “Safe From Harm,” where all the rap and soul and dance moods buzz around in slow motion, and “Unfinished Sympathy,” where singer Shara Nelson, Massive Attack and their loudly sighing orchestra combine for an extended soul moment that belongs with Motown, Stax or Philadelphia’s noblest.

As is often remarked, even by Monica and Blackstreet fans, ours is not an era especially renowned for towering self-expression and individual achievement. Massive Attack, still running off the 4,000-plus possibilities of U.S. rap even when they order remixes from rock groups like Blur and Manic Street Preachers, give the lie to that. For them, the time for everything is now.