Tuesday, May 17, 2011

May 17: Massive Attack, "Unfinished Sympathy"

Artist: Massive Attack
Song: "Unfinished Sympathy"
Album: Blue Lines
Year: 1991


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Though many try and lump all of the variations on the core style together as a single genre, much like any other type of music, once one explores electronic music, the differences become quite obvious.  While they all have a common link, much like the patterns or instrumentation of jazz and rock music, it is the way in which different artists re-interpret this core sound that makes the genre so intriguing.  Furthermore, each of the sub-genres has its own origins, and while some of the styles can be attributed to a number of artists, one can give nearly all of the credit for the development of the "trip-hop" genre to one of the longest-running acts in the history of electronic music: Massive Attack.  In modern times, their name is almost synonymous with electronic music in general, as the inroads and innovations they have brought over the past three decades remain unrivaled, and their 1991 album, Blue Lines, remains one of the most perfect and absolutely mind-blowing records ever recorded.  Sounding nothing like anything else being recorded at the time, the album completed shifted the mindset on what was possible within the electronic genre, and even more than twenty years after its release, it remains the blueprint for the style.  Though the entire album is well worth experiencing, there may be no better a song in the entire history of "trip-hop" than the sheer brilliance that one can find within Massive Attack's 1991 song, "Unfinished Sympathy."

When compared to the more modern interpretations of the trip-hop style, "Unfinished Sympathy" may appear to be more mellow, as it is not overflowing with speedy drum loops or overly distracting sound effects.  It is in this more refined approach where one can find the true beauty that "is" the style at its finest, and the trio of Robert "3D" Naja, Grant "Daddy G" Marshall, and Andy "Mushroom" Vowles do not waste a second anywhere within the songs' arrangement.  Each element of "Unfinished Sympathy" is perfectly crafted, playing an essential role within the song, and even with the varied sounds, it never even comes close to sounding chaotic or over-done.  It is this balance that is achieved on "Unfinished Sympathy" that sets the song so far apart from its peers, as there is a clear musicality, as opposed to too much reliance on artificial elements.  The way in which these sounds are able to so seamlessly blend with the delicate string arrangement is the combination that paved the way for countless other artists, as well as serving as the link to the down-tempo and ambient styles, and with this in mind, one can easily make the case that "Unfinished Sympathy" is one of the most important songs in the entire history of the electronic genre.  There is a sophistication and complexity within the arrangement on "Unfinished Sympathy," and yet it is so direct that one cannot help but be completely captivated by the sound, and it is this fact that enables it to endure just as strong after so many years since its initial release.

However, the other element that sets "Unfinished Sympathy" far apart from other electronic recordings is the absolutely beautiful vocal on the track that is provided by Shara Nelson.  While other electronic groups had dabbled in this approach, it was Nelson's performance that turned the delicate, almost ethereal vocal sound into the standard for the genre, and in many ways, her showing here has yet to be matched.  The amount of emotion that she is able to convey within her vocals helps to bring out the similar elements within the music over which she sings, and it cements the idea that there is absolutely a great deal of "music" within "electronic music."  There is also a swinging, almost carefree feeling within her singing, and it is this fact that enabled "Unfinished Sympathy" to dominate the dance club scene, and it remains a staple to this day.  The fact that Nelson delivers such a moving performance is also due to the rather straightforward, universal theme within the lyrics, as the group is able to approach the idea of longing in a wonderfully unique way.  Clearly missing her partner, there are few who have been in love that cannot relate to a simple, yet powerful statement like, "... how can you have a day without a night..."  It is the smooth, almost jazzy way with which Shara Nelson deploys each line that makes "Unfinished Sympathy" truly unforgettable, and one can find copies of the formula found here in nearly every recording in the electronic style that followed.

Truth be told, as the years have passed, "Unfinished Sympathy" has seemed to move beyond the electronic genre, as it is quite regularly cited as one of the finest and most important songs ever recorded.  Across the globe, it has been given such accolades, and when one looks at the other songs with which it is grouped, it provides a basis for the argument that it is the most significant and influential song in the history of electronic music.  There are virtually no other songs from the long history of the genre that have ever even been considered for such praise, and it is likely due to the perfect balance of sounds that one finds on "Unfinished Sympathy" that makes it impossible to write it off as "just another" electronic song.  Furthermore, the fact that even so many years after its release, the sound and production remains fresh is a testament to how forward-thinking and truly pioneering a style there was within Massive Attack, and it is much the reason they continue to be a dominant force within the genre.  From the smooth string arrangement to the multiple rhythms, the groove and mood set by "Unfinished Sympathy" shows the true beauty which can only be achieved through electronic music, and it proves that one can find just as much emotion and bliss within this style as any other type of music.  As they progressed, the group released a number of other fantastic songs, yet none continue to have the wide-reaching impact as one can experience within Massive Attack's phenomenal 1991 song, "Unfinished Sympathy."

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