Massive Attack sure knows how to pick a guest vocalist. For its fifth studio album, Heligoland, the Bristol, England-based electronic duo collaborated with TV on the Radio’s Tunde Adebimpe, Elbow’s Guy Garvey and Blur/Gorillaz mastermind Damon Albarn, among others — a cool collection of the impressively depressive.

Massive Attack

Heligoland
Virgin

The featured artists each bring their own sound into the mix to power their respective tracks. But when Massive Attack members 3D and Daddy G go solo, Heligoland falters. “Rush Minute” and “Atlas Air” are the album’s only guest-free tracks, and they seem to drag on forever.

Surely, a pioneering group like Massive Attack can do better than act as a backing band for its own music — in fact, classic singles like “Unfinished Sympathy” and “Teardrop” (you know this one from “House”) prove that Massive Attack knows how to use a guest instead of being one.

For Pete’s sake, 3D and Daddy G practically created trip-hop — moody electronic music fused with downtempo hip-hop beats. The cover of Heligoland hearkens back to the early days, with a graffiti-drawn humanoid face whose similarity to Banksy-style street art got it banned from the London subway system.

But while the music on Heligoland captures the refined grit of trip-hop, there’s nothing new or special coming from Massive Attack itself and none of the sonic evolution fans were hoping for.

The album opens optimistically with “Pray for Rain,” which features Adebimpe. The heavy, rolling drums recall TV on the Radio itself, as well as thunder on the horizon: When raindroppy synths pop in about three-and-a-half minutes in, the storm’s-a-coming metaphor is complete. But the track’s exciting buildup never really goes anywhere, and it’s certainly not Adebimpe’s fault.

“Splitting the Atom,” featuring smooth-voiced reggae singer Horace Andy, is a lethargic-yet-paranoid oxymoron. The too-perfect synthesized background and methodically frightening hand-clapping contrast with Daddy G’s calm, deep voice. “I’m letting you know / I know what you need,” he drones. Is that a lullaby or a threat? Andy’s whining tenor blends into one of Heligoland’s only true collaborations.

“Flat of the Blade” and “Saturday Come Slow,” featuring Garvey and Albarn, respectively, are both ghostly, gripping tracks, but neither feel like classic Massive Attack. The rattling percussion and beeping drones on the former can hardly contain Garvey’s sweet everyman warble. Emotional and imagistic lyrics, a simple and elegant melody — the track might as well be a lost Elbow B-side.

Conversely, “Saturday Come Slow” doesn’t sound like Blur, Gorillaz or any of Albarn’s many projects. His naked, plaintive chorus of “Do you love me?” actually recalls Kid A-era Radiohead. But frankly, these four minutes would be better spent just listening to “Morning Bell.”

Massive Attack can hardly hold its own even with lesser-known guests. Martina Topley-Bird totally dominates the precise, baroque “Psyche” with a rich vibrato. Likewise, Hope Sandoval is the only standout on “Paradise Circus” — instrumentally, it’s a beautifully desolate soundscape, but we’ve heard its simple background before.

The biggest strength of Heligoland is its potential to introduce the listener to a lot of really deserving artists. However, Massive Attack is not one of them. Listen to a crooning Elbow heartbreaker like “Asleep In The Back” or try intimate Sandoval’s indie outfit Hope Sandoval & The Warm Inventions. Heligoland is a great compilation album of high-quality, low-profile artists, but for classic Massive Attack, stick with Mezzanine.

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