Massive Attack, Brixton Academy, London

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This was a poignant, disappointing occasion, like seeing a once-great sportsman unwisely attempt a comeback. Officially Massive Attack never split up, but they sounded suffocated and dispirited on their last album, 2003’s 100th Window. Two of the trio who founded the band in Bristol in late 1980s were gone, leaving Robert Del Naja in sole custody of the Massive flame. The music took a downward turn, the blend of hip-hop, soul and reggae of their early work displaced by ominous alt-rock and tuneless electronica. Massive Attack were over in all but name.

Now, however, Grant Marshall – one of the founding members – has rejoined the group. “I’m here to put the black back into Massive Attack,” he chuckled in an interview, as if nudging Del Naja, who is white, back towards the band’s black British roots. But his contribution to the concert, a charity show for Palestinian refugees, was limited. There was no new material and the set list drew heavily on the band’s later work, especially their 1998 album Mezzanine.

Mezzanine is a fine album but it has an oppressive air of menace and alienation, which was accentuated live by the storm of guitars and drums that invariably punctuated its tracks. Guest vocalists Horace Andy, the sweetly voiced veteran reggae singer, and Liz Fraser of The Cocteau Twins added glimmers of light – Fraser’s ethereal vocals on “Teardrop” were a highlight – though these were snuffed out by the relentlessly doomy beats.

Songs from their early albums were scarce. Marshall’s subterranean rapping made a welcome reappearance on “Karmacoma”, but the song was wrecked by the tactless introduction of a psychedelic guitar solo. A listless rendition of “Unfinished Symphony” was saved by a guest female vocalist, who injected a rare note of passion into the evening. The rest of the time I felt numbed, which blunted the politicised nature of the event and left me brooding on Massive Attack’s vanished greatness.

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