Entering Massive Attack's darkly lustrous universe is a little like being catapulted through strange but welcoming worlds of wonder -- an endless solar system of sound and texture that embraces the soul and brushes the brain stem. Such was the case Monday evening during a thrilling, sold-out performance that was as satisfying as it was ambitious. The Bristol-based collective -- which on stage expanded to between six and nine musicians, programmers, and singers at any given time -- rendered laughably moot the question of whether electronic-based music can draw and hold an audience in a concert format. Then again, Massive Attack -- whose core members include DJ/vocalists Robert Del Naja and Grant Marshall and DJ Andrew Vowles -- aren't your garden-variety techno act.
Commonly tagged as perhaps the progenitors of trip-hop (a term they, of course, reject as silly), the cut-and-paste collective really does embody everything that the term implies, and so much more. Theirs is an omnivorous sonic arena where post-modern psychedelia intermingles with house, hip-hop, dub reggae and looped samples of Kate Bush and Lou Reed. What comes out the other end is a kind of cosmic soul -- a boldly adventurous mix of stealth, precision, and euphoria. They may not speak to each other much these days (the three principals have publicly acknowledged fraying inter-band relations), but they certainly had no trouble communicating on stage at Avalon, where their music roared and throbbed with intuitive, knowing power.
An ominous blare of droning sirens and the distant thunder of Winston Blissett's bass slowly revealed themselves as belonging to "Angel," the first track from Mezzanine, Massive Attack's latest album (and their first in five years). With frequent collaborator Horace Andy's weirdly keening vocal floating high above the rumbling turmoil below, the song was an ideal mood-setting device -- and perfectly in keeping with Massive Attack's penchant for dramatic contrast. From there, the outfit moved with deadly grace into "Risingson" and "Man Next Door" -- both also from the new disc -- before settling into a ravishing reading of "Daydreaming" from the outfit's standard-settling 1991 debut, Blue Lines. That tune and the next, "Teardrop," were lush showcases for singer Deborah Miller, whose swooning melodic caress supplied a warm counterpoint to the strafing bursts of rhythm dispatched by ex-Blue Aeroplanes guitarist Angelo Bruschini.
What Massive Attack's performance demonstrated more than anything, though, was how much of a difference seven years can make, especially in a hybrid genre that's constantly evolving and re-defining itself. Over the course of three albums, Del Naja, Marshall and Vowles have strayed far from the languid grooves that characterized their earlier work and embarked on a search of darker, deeper -- and more corrosive -- textures. One only had to listen as the band offered up the reggae-fied synth-bop-and-skip of '91's "Hymn of the Big Wheel" and then later shifted into the narcotic desolation of "Mezzanine" to realize that Massive Attack's world has darkened considerably over the course of a decade -- and that, oddly enough, it's all the more dazzling for it.