Pop Music: Opium from the Massive

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The Independent Culture
TO DISLIKE Massive Attack is almost to admit to being uncool. They are, after all, a band so hip it hurts. Their unique fusion of hip- hop, Studio One soulful reggae vocals and soft-whisper rap originated an entire genre of music that still grows today. Their steady rise from Bristol sound system to globally recognised act is a well documented one, and tonight's show, performed in front of a packed Albert Hall and beamed out live to millions of Radio 1 listeners, is testimony to their success.

A haze of purple smoke creeps onto the stage as the musicians take their places and an expectant silence fills the venue. At the front stand three microphones of differing heights, one of them lowered significantly. Horace Andy steps on stage. He has always been a significant part of the Massive sound, but perhaps this is appreciated more when the band play live. His unmistakable voice contrasts neatly with the broody sound, and one starts to realise the true significance of his input as songs like "Hymn Of The Big Wheel", "Euro-Child", "One Love" and "Man Next Door" are played.

As 3D and Daddy G stand motionless, whispering hushed observations into their microphones, the sound reaches out and draws you in. 3D announces that a surprise is in store. Two seconds later the petite Elizabeth Frazer, bedecked in long grey dress and Adidas sneakers, is in front of the microphone for the euphoric "Teardrop".

Hearing the Massive oeuvre all in one set like this highlights their distinctive genius. Without straying too far from their original Bristol vibe, they have still managed to experiment fairly widely. For example, "Safe From Harm" ends with a co-mingling of rock guitar and hip-hop drums that was never recorded for the album version but seems perfectly obvious.

Songs such as "Heatmiser", "Hymn Of The Big Wheel", "One Love" and, of course, "Unfinished Sympathy" all contain the apparently ambivalent qualities of inner-city cool and optimistic warmth, and it's impossible not to admire Massive Attack for the variety of emotions they provoke. The biggest surprise of the night was yet to come, though. As "Unfinished Sympathy" begins, a curtain behind the band peels back to reveal an 18-piece orchestra. This sends the crowd into an apoplectic state, once again begging the band for more.

And once again the band comply by ushering on Ms Frazer for a rendition of "Group 4". Towards the final stages of what must surely be the last of the 16 songs, the entire band are together on stage for the first time.

A furious onslaught of guitar and drums gathers tempo and leaves no-one seated. It's the sort of response that a band like Massive Attack can only deserve.