In Bristol, England, music is the message


Portishead's moody romanticism isn't the only thing swirling out of Bristol, England, these days. Billboard magazine recently credited a youthful student, immigrant and Afro-Caribbean community -- thanks in part to the presence of the University of Bristol and the University of Western England -- with providing the basis for a vital pop music scene.

Soul II Soul, Shara Nelson, producer Nellee Hooper (Madonna's "Bedtime Stories," Bjork's "Debut") as well as bands with colorful names such as Ecstatic Orange, Blue Aeroplanes, Doyenne, 3 P.M. Experience, and the Mighty Tojaks, have set the musical tone for this city of 500,000.

But in addition to Portishead, it's Massive Attack and Tricky who have come to the attention of many U.S. fans. Like Portishead, both conjure downcast, twisted takes on dance music -- a k a trip-hop -- that invokes the spirit of house music, techno, hip-hop and R&B; fused with a surreal, dreamy psychedelia.

Massive Attack's two albums, "Blue Lines" and the recent "Protection" (both on Virgin), are the most accessible. Their haunting soundscapes, topped with the soulful vocals of guest stars such as Shara Nelson or Everything But the Girl's Tracey Thorn, make for a most pleasant state of uneasy listening.

Tricky's debut, "Maxinquaye" (Island import, to be released soon in the United States), follows a similar path but is edgier, quirkier and more likely to take repeated listenings to understand. Yet tracks such as "Aftermath" and "Black Steel" do generate a certain power.

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