To mark the return of Massive Attack and the city’s hosting of the BBC 6 Music Festival next month, we look back at the key points in the evolution of the ‘Bristol Sound’ – listen to the playlist at the end of this post.
Bristol has long held a reputation as a musical hotspot, but trying to define the ‘Bristol sound’ isn’t quite as easy as you’d think.
That’s because, over the past three decades, the city has given the world an array of sub-genres that reflect its bohemian spirit, underground culture and racial diversity.
While London has always had the pulling power (usually to the detriment of the rest of the country) and only Manchester really challenged its dominance from the early ’80s onwards, Bristol’s music scene has always been a refreshing outlier, and proud to be so.
In the post-punk landscape of the early ’80s (notable Bristol contributions to that era included Pigbag and The Pop Group), it was The Wild Bunch which was instrumental in pushing the musical community forward.
Influenced by the nascent hip hop culture of New York, this collective of DJs and musicians was a mainstay of the club scene and would perform in soundclashes against other Bristol sound systems of the time. It was street culture at its most essential and exciting.
Perhaps more important than their musical output, though, was the fact that their members included Robert Del Naja (3D), Grant Marshall (Daddy G), Andrew Vowles (Mushroom) and Adrian Thaws (Tricky), who would later form Massive Attack.
Indeed, Del Naja, talking to The Guardian in 2009, said that there would be no Massive Attack without The Wild Bunch:
“Without the Wild Bunch thing we were doing, we probably wouldn’t have ended up in the same band. Because G was coming from a reggae and soundsystem angle, I was from a punk angle, completely different aspects. It was hip-hop that brought us together.”
The problem with ‘trip hop’
If any one style could lay claim to be emblematic of the South West city, it’s trip hop.
The aforementioned Massive Attack, Portishead and Tricky (when he went solo in 1995) were all filed under this conveniently made-up sub-genre in the mid-90s, united by their atmospheric, down tempo style that drew from hip hop, Jamaican dub and electronica.
The term ‘trip hop’ itself though, like so many genre tags, has been widely panned, with Tricky on record as saying his music has “got nothing to do with that trip-hop bollocks” and Grant Marshall stating matter-of-factly:
“I don’t look at trip-hop as being an apt name for what we do. I understand people wanting to look in record shops and find an album under that title, but it doesn’t really stick to Massive Attack.”
Electronica and club culture
The importance of Bristolian electronic acts like Roni Size, Kosheen and Way Out West should not be overlooked either.
The fact that two Bristol acts, Portishead and Roni Size/Reprazent, won the Mercury Music Prize in 1995 and 1997 underlines how scene-stealing the city was at this time.
But they also paved the way for a new generation of producers, DJs and musicians.
Flying under the radar
With the media glare shifting to a new wave of guitar bands at the turn of the millennium, outsiders could be forgiven for thinking there had been a downturn in Bristol’s music scene in recent years.
Granted, there hasn’t been the same iconic spree of albums that combined the critical and commercial success of the ’90s triumvirate, but acts like experimental noise duo Fuck Buttons, singer-songwriter Gravenhurst and the Bond-loving Spectres have been keeping the Bristol flag flying in recent years.
To mark the return of Massive Attack, who are currently touring the UK and have released a new smartphone app and EP called ‘Ritual Spirit’, as well as the upcoming staging of the BBC 6 Music Festival in the city next month, we’ve put together a playlist of essential Bristol sounds.