WORDS BY KIERAN VANDERKAMP
Nearly three decades have passed since Massive Attack released their debut album Blue Lines and in its wake lies a legacy of influence and innovation. Widely considered the first trip-hop album, Blue Lines spawned a notorious new sound that fused electronic music, hip hop, dub, ’70s soul, and reggae and heavily informed artists and groups such as Bjork, Portishead, and Radiohead.
For me and many others, ‘Unfinished Sympathy’, the album’s second track, remains one of the best pieces of dance music ever made. Riding the sweat-soaked coattails of the second summer of love, Massive Attack took the acid-house heritage of the Great British soundscape and refined it, proving that there was room for introspection on our drug fuelled dance floors.
It starts with a steadfast beat made up of a kick drum and hi-hat, locking me in for the journey to come. Voices mutter in the background and a vinyl is scratched, its echoes fading out like ripples in murky water.
Suddenly, the beat becomes infectious and unapologetic. Sampled from J. J. Johnson’s appropriately named ‘Parade Strut’, it stomps and tiptoes its way forward. It is accompanied by a milk bottle percussion that emulates Bob James’ ‘Take Me To The Mardi Gras’. Above all of this, the successive drones from the forty piece string orchestra sound like a fog horn across that murky water.
Only twenty seconds have passed.
All of that menace is alleviated when the strings ascend in unison, lifting a burden, cutting through the fog. The iconic refrain ‘Hey Hey Hey Hey’ – sampled from Mahavishnu Orchestra’s ‘Planetary Citizen’ – punctuates this feeling as the voice soars higher and higher.
But that reprieve swiftly passes and the next moments feel more uncertain; the strings ascend then drop suddenly and that angelic refrain sounds more like a call for help with each echo.
All the while, the tempo of that ‘Parade Strut’ beat stops me from lingering. Here, I find myself enraptured and ready to hear this song through to the end.
Shara Nelson’s tempest-voice takes centre stage as she laments about some unknown heartbreak and the strings ebb and swell around her. For me, her mention of day and night refers to a duality that permeates the heart of this song: ecstasy and turmoil. The instrumentation only serves to strengthen this duality as calculated beats and soulful strings produce a sound that is somehow warm and cold, human and mechanical.
A piano riff rolls in like an off-the-cuff remark – suave, smooth, and melancholic – that genre-bending sound taking a hint of the blues.
Nelson’s voice falls away and all parts of the instrumentation converge – vocal samples, vinyl scratches, strings, and beats – everything has been building up to this. Momentum seems to compound with each repetition, the sound becomes heavier, more intense. A sample asks ‘Are you ready?’ and the answer is no. The string orchestra builds a wall of sound and a sense of impending grows with it. Thoughts and images flash across my mind. How did they achieve this sound? What the hell am I hearing? My disbelief is overshadowed by a brief, piercing crescendo and the wall of sound collapses, revealing the familiar beat and milk bottle percussion, and I welcome it as I collect my thoughts and catch my breath.
The vocal sample heard towards the end of the song claims ‘I don’t know where this one came from’, and I would have to agree. ‘Unfinished Sympathy’ emerged from the brains of some self-described ‘lazy Bristol twats’ and cemented itself into the canon of British music.
I hope to hear it for more decades to come.
P.S. Where do you think The Verve got the idea for the strings and video for ‘Bitter Sweet Symphony’?