For those still unaware, this year’s Manchester International Festival sees the debut of a new audio/visual experience from filmmaker provocateur Adam Curtis and artist/Massive Attack main man Robert Del Naja; under the wordy guise of Massive Attack v Adam Curtis in collaboration with United Visual Artists (Massive Attack’s go-to visual tech-gurus). Whilst we’re dealing out facts, let’s present one more: this is NOT a Massive Attack show. Described by Del Naja as a “collective hallucination” and Curtis as “musical entertainment about the power of illusion and the illusion of power”, this is an event never billed by the festival as a gig from the trip-hopping Bristolians yet, for some reason, it’s something that’s disgruntled a number of reviewers.
A Massive Attack show this is not. So, what you ask is it? Disorientating. Brilliant. Beautiful. The confusion surrounding what this new medium actually is looks set to be its overriding legacy (it certainly will have been for the young lady in front of us, who appeared to have wasted some good drugs) but it is too its splendour, wonder and grandiose manifesto. This collaborative project IS: a live musical performance, a documentary, a mind-warping visual and aural assault like you’ve never experienced, an unforgettable theatrical production firing on all manner of artillery. This collaborative project IS NOT: something you will easily forget, an easy ride, comfortable. It’s anything but what it says on the tin, and that’s because there is no fucking tin – this is less a rulebook being rewritten, more a prophetic setting in stone of limitless boundaries, reinvention and ground-shaking originality…
Having been ushered into a space in Manchester’s dank, disused Mayfield Depot (a subterranean expanse similar to The Warehouse Project’s old Store Street venue) that surrounds us with gargantuan projector screens, the drama plays out through Curtis’ trademark frantic cuts, Barbara Kruger-esque sloganeering and political agitating, all set to an overwhelmingly gloomy soundtrack – orchestrated by Del Naja – that literally thunders through several stacks of ominous speakers; this is warehouse rave for the protest generation. The material is oppressive stuff – death, disaster, control, power – and the soundtrack paints Curtis’ picture through gut-wrenching sub-bass and terrifying effects. There are several moments when you fear lasting damage to your eardrums, but one particularly beautiful period of bass and accompanying tinnitus-inducing crackling that could end wars. You’re in the eye of a nuclear explosion, and it’s never sounded so painfully exquisite. Mogwai, My Bloody Valentine… you’ve just been upstaged by a trip-hop act.
The visuals are equally disorientating, harrowing; in a series of storylines that concentrate on power and control there’s Siberian punks, activists, Donald Trump, Chernobyl, 1970s New York, the financial crisis, Goldman Sachs, Bambi and Jane Fonda. Del Naja’s guests are heavyweight, in the form of longtime collaborators Horace Andy and former Cocteau Twin Elizabeth Fraser, and the music is surprising; Fraser sings a Russian poem, Horace Andy The Archies’ Sugar Sugar, and the only uttering of the Bristol outfit’s substantial catalogue is a bite-size rendition of Portishead’s interpretation of Karmacoma. The musical highlight is a brilliant version of The Jesus and Mary Chain’s Just Like Honey, but even that is supplementary to the experience as a whole. The music, the visuals, the message, the venue – this dramatic work of art is a true sum of its parts.
And that sum of parts weave an emotive fabric. Locals helping to stem the radioactive fallout from Chernobyl, knowing they’ll likely die as a result, give the work its unlikely hero – rare moments of touching emotion in a cheerless rendering of modern life. Your own disconnection from streaming news and the subjects it follows 24/7 is questioned too: war, destruction and devastation set to a deafening soundtrack of clubbed-up Top 40 music. As streamers fall from above it’s almost impossible to stop yourself dancing to haunting war footage. Have we, the puppets, become as bad as the puppet masters who dictate our diet of saturated news-feeds? Do the powers that be want us to be numb to horror?
Negatives? For an emotive work that documents the failure of rule and danger of control, it’s a shame that attendees are recommended against high heels, that the bar closed during the performance, that earplugs were seemingly given out to many… but we’re clutching at straws. The key objections that have been raised in other reviews are clearly the consequence of the reviewers’ expectations being dealt a blow – but what fun is having expectations? And isn’t it exciting, no, intoxicating, when expectations are shattered? This is fearless stuff that I can’t wait to experience again and again.