Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Massive Attack: Blue Lines

Back in 1991, when Massive Attack’s debut album, Blue Lines, was released, there wasn’t a whole lot of music that sounded like it. It was the year Nirvana broke through to the mainstream and hip-hop started crawling out of the old school and into a new era. But even with those cultural milestones, no one was prepared for the at-times discomforting sonic landscapes found on the British trio’s first record. Twenty-plus years later, it still sounds ahead of its time and remains an influential, genre-spanning work.


The core group—multi-instrumentalists and producers Robert “3D” Del Naja, Grantley “Daddy G” Marshall, and Andrew “Mushroom” Vowles—constructed a dusty, gritty, sometimes languid mix of hip-hop, R&B, pop, dub, and electronic music, layering samples atop live instruments. The guest singers, particularly Shara Nelson, countered the occasionally abrasive music with sweet, soulful vocals. The result was a set of songs that created a template trip-hop artists relied on extensively in the years to come.

The freshly remastered version of Blue Lines doesn’t include any new music, but the ear-opening 2012 remix found on the DVD and vinyl versions sounds great. Blue Lines has always been a great headphones listen, but all the little whirs, buzzes, and ticks tucked away in the corners now creep out into the open. “Safe From Harm”—the album’s opening track and the closest Massive Attack ever came to a U.S. hit—in particular balances delicate hi-hat hits and distorted guitar fills with rumbling bass rolls and subtle turntable scratching, most of it borrowed from an early-’70s recording by jazz drummer Billy Cobham.

That jazz element is a key ingredient to Blue Lines. It runs through the terrific “Unfinished Symphony” and nudges against the hip-hop-leaning “Daydreaming,” which inspired nightly playlists at every martini bar on the planet during the ’90s. And it’s a main component of the trip-hop genre Massive Attack created. The music weaves in and out of consciousness, falling somewhere between a restless dream and a late-night buzz, as Nelson and rapper Tricky—who later recorded one of trip-hop’s other landmarks, Maxinquaye—barely break a sweat with their vocals.

Massive Attack messed around with more expansive sounds later—1998’s Mezzanine is the group’s only other consistent listen—but Blue Lines is the moment where the group explored new musical terrain in 45 brilliant minutes, and changed a small segment of electronica. Since then, traces of that work can be heard in everything from Portishead to recent records by Radiohead and TV On The Radio. This is the source, however, and the reissue pushes the record’s timeless magnificence back into the spotlight.