Since their 1998 album Mezzanine especially, Massive Attack have specialised in a kind of creeping dread, offering pre- then post-Millennial tension on songs that groan and clank and occasionally rise up to real beauty. More recently their concerts have also served as a mood-wrecking global news ticker, thanks to a dizzying LED lightshow by United Visual Artists. Getting a barrage of Syrian refugee statistics on top of your trip hop feels like watching a true life TV show about a tragic event – you’re gripped and entertained and feel terrible about it.
This uneasy mix hasn’t reduced demand, however. The Bristol collective’s first tour in over five years at first seemed low-key, a place to try out new songs with an unnamed album possibly coming later this year. Now it includes three nights at Brixton Academy, with a rowdy first night crowd chattering through the more vague material and booing whenever the screens fired up a particularly angering fact.
They’re a band of beats and voices, static and backlit on stage but immediately recognisable when the primal thunk of Karmacoma began, or reggae veteran Horace Andy’s unearthly pipes arrived for Girl I Love You. Band leader Robert “3D” Del Naja’s anxious whisper was the least impressive thing about Future Proof, but Martina Topley-Bird and Deborah Miller were there to bring melody briefly to the fore on soulful favourites Teardrop and Safe From Harm.
Edinburgh band Young Fathers, the support act and plainly Massive Attack’s heirs apparent, arrived at the end to bring energy and some showmanship to the new songs Voodoo in my Blood and He Needs Me.
But it was the backdrop that was the real star, nine rotating screens that rained down depressing Google search terms by the dozen (“How can I be successful.” “Divorce in Florida.”), shared drug prices and a horrifyingly glib conversation between trigger-happy drone pilots. In an attempt to temper the overall misery of the evening, there were messages of hope for the future over the echoing piano of new song Take It There: “Learn. Cure. Protect. Connect.” It was a rare glimmer of light in an emotionally draining evening with real power in its pessimism.
Until Feb 5, O2 Academy Brixton, SW9 (0844 477 2000, o2academybrixton.co.uk)