If their own propaganda is to be believed, Bristol trip-hop granddaddies Massive Attack were never so much a band as a brand.
Over 20 years their number – led by co-founders Robert Del Naja and Grant Marshall – has grown and shrunk with the tasks in hand, mainly through their collaboration with a diverse array of talented guest vocalists.
Their latest honorary cohort is not a legendary reggae singer with a haunting falsetto but a lawyer. For it was Clive Stafford Smith, the founder of human rights charity Reprieve, who took centre stage at Saturday's opening gig for brand Attack's curatorship of the London Meltdown Festival. Stafford Smith, with his representation of British inmates at Guantanamo Bay, is the ideal face for such a liberal arts community love-in. So at the beginning of the evening his tales of the torture of Gitmo detainee Binyam Mohammed – while shocking – fitted in seamlessly.
The traditionally dark moodscapes of Massive Attack that followed, aided by the soul-grating angst of their hallmark rasping basslines and heavy drumming, became the inner monologue of a paranoiac. An often impressive light show oscillated between abstract, Dan Flavin-esque bars of electric blue and supposedly shocking soundbites. The latter ranged from legalese (including a proposal to impeach George W Bush) to nauseating psychobabble ("Culture is neither God nor master").
All this detracted from a concert that showed moments of brilliance. Their best-known hits – "Teardrop", "Unfinished Sympathy" and "Inertia Creeps" – elicited the biggest roars from the crowd, along with the welcome return of Horace Andy, Massive Attack's veteran dreadlocked partner in crime. But what was most intriguing was a promising amount of new material. The highlight was "Red Light" (aided by the spectral warblings of US vocalist Stephanie Dosen), a genuinely spine-tingling track – check it out on YouTube. Set against the visuals of a spinning globe and the destinations of an airport departure board, it tells a tale of alienation on a much more primal, profound and emotional level than any attempt to co-opt the debate surrounding civil liberties.
Talking after the gig, a buzzing Del Naja said a new album would be finished by the end of the year, although he insisted he didn't want its timing to be constrained by the traditional "windows of opportunity" that record companies adhere to (namely Christmas). If he is to be believed, it will probably be a download-only affair. Del Naja seems to think this appropriate given that his collective – with their loose production ethic and heavy use of sampling – were ahead of the game when they first started. Whether or not that's still true, the new release will be watched closely, if only to see what kind of evolution the next six months yield.