There’s really nothing like Gorillaz.
The virtual band began in 1988 as a side-project of Blur frontman Daman Albarn and his good friend, the animator Jamie Hewlett. It started primarily as …
There’s really nothing like Gorillaz.
The virtual band began in 1988 as a side-project of Blur frontman Daman Albarn and his good friend, the animator Jamie Hewlett. It started primarily as a collaboration with producers Albarn admired – Dan “The Automator” Nakamura for the self-titled debut and Brian Burton, aka Danger Mouse, for the critically acclaimed “Demon Days.” Those albums scored significant alt-radio hits for Albarn, quickly surpassing any success the English musician had ever garnered with Blur.
While Gorillaz may have started as an interesting collaborative idea – blending music with the animations of Hewlett, creator of the comic “Tank Girl,” it has become clear over the past 20-plus years that Gorillaz has given Albarn a freedom of expression he may have never found on his own. While many contemporaries of Albarn have struggled creatively, always tied to their own personas and/or the bands that carried them to fame, Albarn has remained largely in the background of Gorillaz. He only rarely appears (and only recently) in music videos, preferring, instead, to exist as the voice of his animated stand-in 2-D.
In 2010, that freedom allowed Albarn to leave behind the alt-rock and hip hop sound of his first two records to record “Plastic Beach,” a polished pop and EDM blend with a much-expanded list of guest collaborators that ranged from rappers Snoop Dogg and Mos Def to soul singer Bobby Womack to the Clash’s Mick Jones and Paul Simonon. Any sound that captured Albarn’s ear made its way to” Plastic Beach.”
Since then, Gorillaz releases have bounced between the collaborative, compilation style albums like “Plastic Beach” and more intimate affairs that center on Albarn’s own singing and musicianship, of which 2018’s “The Now Now” might be the best example.
But last week, Gorillaz released another ambitious 17-song record, “Song Machine, Season 1: Strange Timez” in which Albarn might have finally found the right balance between the intimate, experimental sounds of “The Now Now” and “The Fall” (a 2011 album recorded entirely on a brand new iPad) with the impressive cast of collaborators, which this time include Elton John, Robert Smith, Peter Hook and Beck. And those are only the best known of well more than 20 different artists who contribute vocals and occasional instrumental performances.
One aspect of the new record that gives the new record the feel of Gorillaz’s less guest-laden sounds is the fact that the recording was upended by the onset of the coronavirus pandemic. The “Season 1” part of the album’s title refers to the commitment Albarn made at the beginning to record and release a song a month through 2020. While plenty of work had been recorded prior to the pandemic, a lot more needed to be done remotely. Albarn told a British magazine this month, for example, that he had all but forgotten about a musical track he had sent to Robert Smith. Months later, mid quarantine, he received an email with the track completed with Smith’s vocals and more. That track, “Strange Timez” is the album’s title and opener.
There’s plenty of pop and hip hop on hand throughout “Strange Timez,” and much of it is good, but the real stars of the show on the record are the pop and funk excursions that allow Albarn to blend sounds in a way you can’t hear anywhere else. “The Pink Phantom,” which features Elton John, an auto-tuned hip hop chorus from the rapper 6lack and a piano vamp that marches to a “Benny and the Jets” beat sounds improbable, but it’s a standout track. More of the albums best include the jazzy “Desole,” featuring the Malian singer-songwriter Fatoumata Diawara, the 80s post-punk ode to a synthesizer, “Aires,” which features a signature lead bass melody from New Order’s Peter Hook, and the punk and hip-hop blend of “Momentary Bliss” featuring the band Slaves and the British rapper slowthai.
The result is the ultimate pandemic playlist, a genre-bending jaunt through Albarn’s exquisitely eclectic tastes.
Gorillaz has clearly kept Albarn at the top of his creative game. He has a license to work however he wants with whoever he wants practically any time he wants. With three albums of work under his belt in just the last three years, we should expect a lot more from Gorillaz.