The overtones that you hear when the wind blows through telephone wires and downtown glass-and-concrete canyons. A dial tone, or the reverse signal of a utility vehicle. A sheet of metal falling. Electronic audio feedback. The click your skull makes in the back of your head when you step roughly off the curb. These are the things that Massive Attack turn into music.
While I don't think that the group actually sampled these sounds when making its latest album, 100th Window, they've pared down their musical building blocks to such basic, abstract levels that they resemble nothing so much as urban, environmental noise.
Following techno formulas, Massive Attack builds its compositions one element at a time, laying down beats followed by harmonies followed by looped whiffs of melody. But the results of this process frequently have the startling effect of happening by accident, as though the basic pieces simply merged into music when no one was listening. It's the aural effect of watching something dissolve in reverse. The beat, like a watch tick or a heartbeat, merges with an electric hum. Suddenly, what sounded like a voice from another room spins into vocals, and you're listening to a song.
Because they use such urban-industrial elements, most of these pieces are appropriately dark, with their sustained moodiness occasionally pierced by the portent of light. Some people would call 100th Window techno-Goth, but that's too limiting. This is true Gothic music, which confirms the listener's fallen, dark state even as the music arches up with promises of beauty.
One of those promises is Sin & eacute;ad O'Connor's always pure voice, which is featured on several of the tracks. One of them is a sincere political song ("A Prayer for England"), but most of them feature lyrics as basic and thoughtful as their musical ideas. "Don't be afraid / Open your mouth and say / Say what your soul sings to you." In print it's trite, but surrounded by Massive Attack's chasm of sound, the sentiment works.
In several songs, the music dwindles away to barely a few sustained ideas, only to snap back to its full agenda, like thoughts returned from a pensive daydream. Giving the listeners space has always been a good idea in music, even if -- as is usually the case here -- it's a moody space.