Music review: Massive Attack v Adam Curtis for the Manchester International Festival was sadly a relentless barrage of gloom


For anyone who spent time in the early 1990s sitting around after raves talking about conspiracy theories, this much-anticipated collaboration between two of Britain’s leading artistic radicals will prove a spirit-crushingly familiar experience.

Robert del Naja’s Massive Attack have amassed a body of work unsurpassed in its austere beauty, the Bristolian collective offering a richly-crafted and politically-aware antidote to the mindless hedonistic peaks of dance culture.

Adam Curtis meanwhile, has a deserved reputation as a pioneering filmmaker. His 2004 polemic The Power of Nightmares provided one of the most enthralling critiques of the post 9/11 world drawing compelling comparisons between the rise of the neo-cons and their Islamist foes.

So put these two powerhouse talents together for a new commission into a vast abandoned industrial building on the edge of Manchester city centre and festival curators - and the majority of the well-heeled older crowd that braved the trip hazards of the disused Mayfield railway depot– were sure they were onto a good thing.

Sadly it did not work out like that. Rather than the hoped-for counter-cultural masterpiece we were subjected to a sprawling 90-minute sound and vision lecture on why everything is bad. At times the relentless barrage of gloom was almost laughably demoralising – although I didn’t see anyone actually smiling.

Nor did anyone dance, although we didn’t come here for a greatest hits night. Instead the static crowd stared at the huge projections in a kind of gloomy stupor trying to take in the grim messages.

Massive Attack, featuring Elizabeth Fraser and Horace Andy performed – at times sublimely, by way of Burt Bacharach, the Shirelles and a brief tantalising hint of Karmacoma - lit up behind a screen at the front of the depot, which evoked the warehouse party vibe (though this lawless spirit was spoilt somewhat by the edict not to wear open-toed sandals because of health and safety fears).

Curtis’s film was projected onto vast encircling screens. It all looked so good to go.

The thesis is that not so long ago people tried to change the world and make it a better place. Now policymakers, evil bankers and technocrats armed with complex algorithms, CCTV cameras and anti-depressants just try to predict and manage it – and by implication submit the individual into media-doped subjugation.

The collapse of post war-capitalism, the implosion of the Soviet Union, the Taliban, Donald Trump, Jane Fonda, Tony Blair, cable TV, the attacks on the Twin Towers, computers, Siberian punk rock, heroin, Chernobyl, Disney, Prozac, Vladimir Putin – you name it – they all formed part of this flash-card history lesson for Generation X.

No one would argue that there are a lot of bad things in the world – but are they really all inter-linked like this? The intensity of the experience with the chest-thumping bass was on occasion nightmarish and the repeating slogans felt uncomfortably like being persecuted by an undermining inner voice. Hope, that we could seize power again came too little and too late. Disappointing.

To 13 July