Perhaps I should wait until I'm a little less conflicted to write a review of this new album by Massive Attack, but the more that I think about it, the more that I think I'll always be somewhat conflicted about it. I've listened to it many a time already, and it's managed to draw nearly the same response from me with each spin. Unfortunately, my reaction has largely been indifference, which is something I never thought I'd hear myself say given the amazingly consistent output of the group up to this point. Not only did they release Mezzanine, a dark and haunting effort that was my favorite disc of 1998, but they practically kick-started the trip hop movement singlehandedly, opening the gates for great work by other groups (either release by Portishead comes to mind), as well as a glut of stale imitations.
Apparently, all good things must come to some sort of end, and although 100th Window doesn't completely scrape the bottom of the barrel, the problem is that it's just not very engaging, treading the same cinematic-heavy soundscapes over and over again without much in the way of dynamics or anything new in terms of sound. One of the problems no doubt lies in the fact that the group has become trunicated in the years since their past release. With other members of the group dropping out, the only mainstay for this release is Robert "3D" Del Naja, and while he tries valiantly to keep things rolling along as before, 100th Window will go down as a bump in the road for the group whether they decide to release another album in their original incarnation or not.
As I mentioned before, the release is by no means horrible, but the expectations that the group have built up for themselves are probably somewhat to fault for the letdown. "Future Proof" opens the release nicely, with racing electronic flourishes over a low-slung beat and a guitar solo that drifts in and out of the mix. Like Massive Attack of old, it's grimy and somewhat seductive, and vocals by Del Naja work quite well to open things up. He teams up with Sinead O'Connor on several tracks on the release, including "What Your Soul Sings," and "A Prayer For England." Both tracks work reasonably well, but instead of letting O'Connor really belt it out, she seems markedly restrained, and the fairly undynamic music behind her doesn't help matters much.
Horace Andy is also back on vocal duties on one track, and his voice is a welcome break, even though it doesn't really break the string of rather light contributions. It's because of this sort of sonic-middling that the gruff and rougher-edged vocals of earlier contributors "Mushroom" Vowles and "Daddy G" Marshall are a noticibly missing element. The sound palette of the instrumentation on the release doesn't change a whole lot, and without some different vocal flares, the release sounds surprisingly tepid. One of the great things about Massive Attack is that they could create music that literally fit their namesake. With the huge dynamics and thick production and downright oppressive sound on their old releases, it was something exciting and somewhat dangerous and sexy that made the group what they were. Although I can appreciate a style change and a group trying to break into new group, it instead feels like 100th Window is a portion of good ideas strung out into over 70 minutes of running time. With most tracks clocking in at 6 minutes, and many at 8-plus, it's that lack of dynamics that ultimately relegates it to a somewhat stale course. The production is still tight as hell and there are some sweet moments (the tripped-out swells of "Special Cases" and slow build of "Butterfly Caught"), but in the end the disc slides by without any real claws, which is a shame given the history of the group.