Massive Attack Meridian Hall, Toronto ON, September 18

Massive Attack Meridian Hall, Toronto ON, September 18
Photo: Stephen McGill
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Massive Attack have never seemed particularly interested in nostalgia. Their music tends to speak to a particular moment or, in the case of their third and best album, Mezzanine, transcend it. It's dark, dubby sound and cinematic scope presaged so much of the current pop and cultural landscape that any list, no matter how exhaustive, is certain to include some glaring omission.
 
So their current Mezzanine XXI tour, which celebrates the band's 1998 masterpiece, is more a reassertion of their place in the current cultural landscape than an attempt to recapture the zeitgeist from which is sprung.
 
As if to punctuate this point, their delayed arrival on stage was presaged by a string of hits from that era — "...Baby One More Time," "I Don't Want to Miss a Thing" — presented in increasingly obnoxious mixes. When the band did arrive, they opted not to cut through this digital detritus with their own work, but with the Velvet Underground's "I Found a Reason." Only after its final notes had faded did they move into "Rising Son," which samples the Velvet's classic.
 
This set the tone for the evening: the band — 3D and Daddy G backed by a half-dozen players, including two drummers — performing tracks from the album, along with work that had inspired or even formed the architecture of the record. In this way, the band were taking the audience back through their own headspace during the album's famously fraught recording process. Helping the group out were guest vocalists Horace Andy and Elizabeth Fraser, each greeted like conquering heroes as they performed their respective contributions to the record.
 
At times the juxtaposition was awkward. Switching from the spritely pace of the Cure's "10:15 Saturday Night" to the comparatively moody "Man Next Door" felt jarring. But it was "Bela Lugosi's Dead" that finally got the crowd to their feet halfway through the set, and Elizabeth Fraser's take on Pete Seeger's "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?" was an easy highlight.
 
Yet the set was pointedly not about the past. At many times, the video montages assembled for the performance took centre stage over the band, the bridge between the fears and anxieties embedded in the music (political corruption, human connection in a digital world) and today. The flashing images and text underscored how little has changed in the ensuing two decades. If anything, the performance can be seen as the band's "we told you so" moment, a validation of their pre-millennium tension.
 
In the set's final stretch, Andy shone during "Angel," its brooding bass line putting a chill through the audience that lasted through the climatic crash of guitar and drums. "Teardrop" felt slightly sluggish, though Fraser's gorgeous voice was as uplifting as ever.
 
Opting not to address the crowd across the evening's 90 minutes, the band did offer to their fans a call to arms from the darkness with their parting message: "We are caught in an endless loop," read the text on the screen as the final notes from the pummelling coda of "Group Four" faded. "It's time to leave the ghosts behind and start imagining the future."