Gorillaz Deliver Electrifying Album Buzzing with Eccentricity
Gorillaz has always been a difficult project to pin down to one sound or style. Over the years, the British virtual band created and run by Blur frontman Damon Albarn and visual artist Jamie Hewlett has bounced between alternative rock, hip-hop, baroque and electronic pop, and much more.
The band’s four cartoon members - 2D, Murdoc, Russell, and Noodle - have remained constant throughout, but each album cycle has brought new messages, stories, looks, and locations to boot. This time around, “Song Machine, Season One: Strange Timez” is exactly what the title suggests - the first collection from Gorillaz’ ongoing series of multimedia singles.
There is no clear direction or message this time around, however, one thing is for certain - Gorillaz are back. After a couple of arguably underwhelming albums from the band, “Strange Timez” feels like a resurrection of the best parts of Gorillaz - inventive and unexpected collaborations, genre-bending from song to song, all supported by consistently zany yet pristine production and engineering.
While the album does suffer a bit from this lack of focus, mainly in the way the songs are sequenced, the fact that it can bounce from ballads to absolutely off-the-wall energy is quite admirable in and of itself - all while remaining distinctively Gorillaz.
Compare two of the singles from this album: “Momentary Bliss” and “The Pink Phantom.” The former, featuring the one-of-a-kind UK rapper slowthai and American post-hardcore outfit Slaves, is an animated, dynamic pop-punk song, beginning with deflated guitars awash with effects that quickly transition into a demented, distorted tune that still feature the synths and melodies that make a great modern Gorillaz song.
“The Pink Phantom,” on the other hand, is a slow and somber piano ballad, featuring the unlikely collaboration of vocalist 6LACK and the legendary Elton John. It’s almost reminiscent of a more melancholy take on “Bennie and the Jets,” with 6LACK’s forlorn, autotuned vocal lines and various synthesizers bringing it up to modern aesthetics.
The highlights of this album are too plentiful to name, but there are a couple specific standouts to mention. The opening title track, “Strange Timez,” whose swirling, frantic piano melodies and siren synths plunge the listener directly into the weird world of the band. The manic, animated hook from The Cure frontman, Robert Smith, anchors the dejected verses from Damon Albarn’s character 2D.
The chiptune-like synth funk of Pac-Man has Albarn whispering his vocals close, feeling almost like a throwback to Gorillaz’ 2005 album “Demon Days.” This is followed by a couple of short yet electric verses from rapper Schoolboy Q, the former being typical braggadocio and punchlines, and the latter being a bit deeper, with lyrics referencing self doubt, past trauma, and systemic racism.
Gorillaz wouldn’t be the band they are without their music videos and multimedia material. This album cycle, songs were released gradually, finally being compiled on the album that has been released; hence the name, “Song Machine.”
Each single released has been surrounded by little interludes and sketches featuring the cartoon members and their collaborators having all sorts of humorous conversations. Music videos have been structured like syndicated television broadcasts, with their own theme song and stories that unfold over the course of the video.
Specific standouts include the “Momentary Bliss” video, which features both Albarn and his collaborators as well as the virtual members of the band lounging in the studio together, as well as the space-themed video for “Strange Timez.”
There are downsides to the model Gorillaz has adopted to release these songs, as well as the final product. For one, listeners have already heard a good chunk of this album before its release date, so there isn’t as much surprise going in.
Another problem is that most of the standout tracks are in this chunk of material that has already been released. There are exceptions however, such as the vaguely reggae tune “Simplicity” or the infectious synthpop song “Chalk Tablet Towers.” The main gripe I have with this album is that the less impactful songs mostly crowd the second half. Nothing feels like filler, and the album leaves off on a high note with “How Far?,” but some of these songs are slightly underdeveloped - what is there, however, is pretty phenomenal across the board.
As the title suggests, this album feels like an antidote to the chaos of these strange times. While it may not be as straightforward as their debut and “Demon Days,” or as epic in scale as “Plastic Beach” or “Humanz,” it is a fantastic assortment of songs, Gorillaz are back in full swing with their new “Song Machine” series, and anyone passionate about compelling pop music should come along for the ride.