'Synergy' is a word that's oft abused in this generation, a term that's recklessly applied to any product that shows the least hint of crossing over from one medium into another. The band Gorillaz, however, represent a true case of synergy in entertainment, marking a milestone in rock and roll history.
The Gorillaz project was initially conceived by Damon Albarn as a side-project of sorts, but it ended up virtually eclipsing his 'main' band, Blur (from a commercial standpoint, that is). Gorillaz are a 'virtual' group, a cartoon band comprised of colorful characters like 2D and Noodle. You can watch them perform on TV and DVD, download their web-based paraphernalia at their website, view additional clips online, immerse yourself in their eccentric mythos via myriad dedicated sites and listen to them on CD, a true multimedia onslaught that's nearly unprecedented in rock music.
It's important that I placed 'listen to on CD' last, as many would argue that Gorillaz's music is ancillary to the band's visual components. A number of people (not merely confined to embittered rivals and vocal detractors Oasis) see Gorillaz as a case of style over substance, claiming that without the novelty value of its cartoon cast the band would have little of merit to offer.
I find this critique preposterous, as Gorillaz are one of the more unique and entertaining rock acts to emerge in the new millennium. The group's songs are far more than cheap excuses for onscreen cartoon antics, and in reality it's the music itself that constitutes the truly imaginative and daring side of the band.
Damon Albarn has been known to take risks before. Blur blazed a rather eclectic and adventurous trail, progressing from hard rock to Britpop to experimental indie rock. What's intriguing about Gorillaz, however, is that the band experiments in vastly different areas from anything that Albarn had dabbled in before, forcing the acclaimed songwriter to leave his usual comfort zone.
When one hears that Albarn's new group places a heavy emphasis on hip-hop, it's natural to be cynical. A career move such as this sounds like a gimmick, something akin to Emerson, Lake & Palmer switching to punk rock. One might anticipate Albarn condescendingly allowing 'Dan the Automator' (producer Dan Nakamura) to slap some hip-hop beats onto some tracks while he himself goes off to write some Britpop tunes. Any initial skepticism is swiftly dispelled, however, as hip-hop is a very real and very important part of Gorillaz, and rather than fight this trend Albarn embraces it.
The addition of hip-hop doesn't come at the expense of pop music, however, and it's the interaction between these two elements that makes Gorillaz such a captivating listen. Sometimes Albarn tries to merge these two sides, setting pop tunes like Dracula to infectious hip-hop grooves. At other times Albarn compartmentalizes the two genres. On the hit single Clint Eastwood the band alternate between an immensely catchy pop refrain and rap verses, allowing the two to coexist without really overlapping. No matter which approach Albarn takes neither genre ever sounds forced or labored, as if the two sides truly belong together.
Even while adhering to such a strange and unique style, the music on Gorillaz is extremely diverse. There's far more range in this pop/hip-hop fusion than one would expect, and the band explore everything from electronica to trip-hop to Latin rhythms. This ensures that despite being over an hour in length and spanning seventeen tracks the album remains fresh throughout, an impressive achievement made possible by Albarn's superb songwriting.
Highlights abound. While flashy singles like Clint Eastwood generated the most buzz, the album fares just as well when it takes a more subtle approach. Tomorrow Comes Today manages to sound moody and atmospheric without disrupting the flow of the album, providing some of the only genuinely emotional moments on the album. Re-Hash and 5/4 recall Albarn's work with Blur without leaving the world of pop/hip-hop, a treat for fans of both groups.
Admittedly the LP may run a bit too long, more a symptom of volume than any lapse in quality. Nevertheless, Gorillaz is a terrific album, with or without any visual accompaniments. Albarn has created a fake group that's on par with most any real one, ample proof that he took a project that could be dismissed as a novelty most seriously indeed.
With Dan 'The Automator' Nakamura gone, any semblance of Gorillaz being a creative collaboration has vanished. Damon Albarn is the undisputed mastermind behind the group, a fact that was readily apparent on Gorillaz' debut but was not fully confirmed until now.
The implications of this statement are far-reaching. I believe that by this point Gorillaz are less of a band for Albarn than they are a franchise. Recurring characters take precedence over recurring musicians, and any behind-the-scenes turmoil is conveniently tucked away behind the eminently controllable antics of the 'virtual' group.
The cartoon band is the selling point rather than the band proper, but fortunately this has little bearing on the final product. As long as Albarn is in charge, the quality of the music won't be imperiled by any band-lineup upheavals.
Gorillaz' loss of Nakamura in no way resembles Blur's loss of Graham Coxon. While the latter resulted in tepid fare such as Think Tank, Nakamura's departure is scarcely noticeable on Demon Days.
Part of this can be attributed to the caliber of Nakamura's replacement, the esteemed sonic guru Danger Mouse. After The Gray Album, a mash-up of The Beatles' White Album and Jay-Z's Black Album, Danger Mouse became a hot commodity, ever in high demand as far as producers are concerned. He proves a perfect fit for Gorillaz, complementing Albarn's vision as skillfully as Nakamura ever had.
Given the monumental commercial success of Gorillaz' debut, Albarn was doubtlessly under tremendous pressure to deliver another high quality product. Perhaps this is another department in which Gorillaz' status as a franchise has helped, however. A rock group is expected to grow and develop over time, whereas a franchise can adopt a certain static, unchanging quality. More can be expected of real musicians than cartoon characters, and thus the latter can freely indulge in a kind of repetition that would shame a living, breathing human being.
Indeed, not much has changed since the band's first outing. Gorillaz still feature a unique hybrid of indie rock and hip-hop, an idiosyncratic style that has proved just as distinctive and original as the 'virtual band' premise of the entire project. While it may not be quite as fresh the second time around, this lack of progression is compensated for by some of the finest songwriting of Damon Albarn's career.
The debut was no slouch in the melody department, but Demon Days eclipses its predecessor by taking its music to an even higher level. It's difficult to believe that songs like Kids With Guns and Every Planet We Reach Is Dead were penned by the man responsible for tarnishing Blur's legacy with Think Tank just a short time earlier.
This is further proof that somehow Albarn has been inspired and energized by the Gorillaz project. Perhaps working within the confines of a virtual band provides the structure that Albarn needs to better focus his creative energies. Without Coxon Blur had seemingly lost direction, leaving the band with a poorly defined identity that caused Albarn's efforts to go awry.
Gorillaz, on the other hand, are all about identity. Coxon had helped shape Blur's identity, and since Blur was an ever-changing rock group his continued presence was necessary to maintain this persona. Gorillaz have been clearly established and defined since the beginning, complete with character design courtesy of Jamie Hewlett (of Tank Girl infamy) that would endure no matter who took control of the group. This vision of Gorillaz helps guide Albarn, guaranteeing that he won't make the same mistakes that sabotaged Blur in their final hour.
This doesn't fully clarify why Albarn's songwriting on Demon Days is so vastly superior to his work on Think Tank, though. It's almost impossible to reconcile that the two albums were written by the same person over the course of a few years. The results are impossible to argue with, however; Blur has disbanded and Gorillaz are as energetic and vital as they've ever been.
In addition to the lucrative nature of the project, one of the key reasons that Damon Albarn must have created Gorillaz was for the creative freedom that the virtual band afforded him. Until he was 'outed' by the media, Albarn enjoyed a certain anonymity as the driving force behind Gorillaz, and was thus able to take risks that most rock groups would shy away from.
Unfortunately for Albarn, this creative freedom turned out to be illusory at best. The commercial success of Gorillaz guaranteed that Albarn was denied the breathing room he so desired, as he couldn't very well imperil the greatest cash-cow of his career. Thus what was meant to be a forum for experimentation and ingenuity became little more than a new status quo, another formula to be religiously followed and adhered to.
Albarn recognized that if he wanted musical freedom he would have to develop yet another side-project. While it was obvious that he would have to go to great lengths to escape the creative rut that he had found himself in, few could have anticipated that he'd travel all the way to Nigeria for this purpose.
Upon returning, Albarn assembled a band, tentatively calling themselves The Good, The Bad & The Queen. The group quickly recorded some sessions in 2005, but soon fell victim to a lapse in Albarn's attention. Evidently more committed to Gorillaz than his newfound ensemble, Albarn put his new project on hold in favor of writing and recording Demon Days.
By the time the group reconvened it was 2007, yet somehow the band managed to retain at least some of their old momentum. Albarn strangely insisted that, despite having worked under the name for years, the band was not called The Good, The Bad & The Queen. Moreover, Albarn announced that the group had no name, an eccentric stunt that was likely a nightmare for CD clerks attempting to organize their inventory.
Despite the fact that Albarn's time in Nigeria was essentially the catalyst for creating the group, there are few traces of his African pilgrimage to be found in the band's work. Rather than write about his time abroad, Albarn opts to return to his favorite subject to expound on, his home country of England.
Don't mistake this as a return to the Britpop of Blur, however. While Blur's work was characterized by a certain cynicism and satirical bite, it remained vibrant and colorful. The material on The Good, The Bad & The Queen, on the other hand, is dour and brooding, a series of down-tempo numbers that straddle the fence between moody and outright melancholic. The energy of Blur is nowhere to be found, replaced by slow, deliberately-paced songs.
This defiantly slow style may not sound terribly conducive to mainstream success, but the band have certain innate advantages. Albarn is certainly a hot commodity, and between Blur and Gorillaz he has more than enough name value to ensure some brisk business.
More important, however, is the presence of Paul Simonon, the erstwhile Clash bassist who has come out of retirement at Albarn's behest. While the punk icons were targeting a rather different demographic from anything that Albarn has ever worked on, The Clash's legendary status is still a boon for The Good, The Bad & The Queen. To this end, even having a single member of The Clash certainly helped garner attention for the album, a testament to their enduring legacy.
Having Danger Mouse as producer is another major asset. Hot off the heels of producing Demon Days, the mash-up artist extraordinaire now directs his attention toward a rather different kind of Albarn album. Danger Mouse is more than another buzz-worthy name to be placed on an album cover, however, as his deft production gives The Good, The Bad & The Queen a unified feel, a cohesive sound that adds to the CD's power.
Namedropping gives little indication of the quality of an album, however. What makes The Good, The Bad & The Queen a superb album is Albarn's unerring songwriting acumen. Pop needn't be fast to be catchy, a statement that's proven time and again throughout the LP. Hooks abound on the album, particularly the clever vocal melodies that Albarn is known for.
Furthermore, The Good, The Bad & The Queen is incredibly consistent. While part of this can be attributed to the manner in which Danger Mouse's production gives the album a unified sound, I'm far more apt to credit Albarn's songwriting with this consistency. There are no songs that are at a loss for hooks, while certain tracks like the opener History Song, the hit single Herculean and the multipart Three Changes rank as absolute classics.
Admittedly it's strange that, with his first taste of freedom, Albarn instantly returns to the subject that defined his early career. Perhaps, however, he recognizes that he has changed and matured as an artist, and thus wants to handle the topic in a manner that he was previously incapable of. Truth be told I would still pick a Blur album like Parklife or The Great Escape over The Good, The Bad & The Queen, as I find those CDs a good deal more exciting. Nevertheless, while excitement is doubtlessly important, quite a strong case can be made for maturation as well.
Damon Albarn is nothing if not ambitious. These ambitions have led him everywhere from Britpop to indie rock to hip-hop. Even with this history of confounding expectations, however, few would have foreseen Journey To The West, Albarn's foray into the realm of Chinese opera.
Given the presence of synth loops, drum machines, discordant passages and distorted guitarwork throughout Journey To The West, the album's authenticity as a traditional opera is suspect at best. Despite this instrumental incongruity, Albarn displays a healthy respect for the form, forgoing any traces of pop structures or conventional vocal hooks. Thus while Journey To The West is certainly a modernized opera, it is an opera nevertheless.
While Albarn is the sole composer of the opera, Journey To The West is also the brainchild of Chen Shi-Zheng, who acts as both the lyricist and director. Joining them is Albarn's frequent collaborator and fellow Gorillaz founder Jamie Hewlett, who handles the visual component of the show.
While Chinese opera may not seem like a commercial goldmine, Journey To The West enjoyed at least a modicum of success when staged in London. Even more surprising was the performance of the soundtrack on the British charts, an achievement that likely took even Shi-Zheng and Albarn by surprise.
While Journey To The West adopts its premise from a Chinese legend, most young Americans are apt to be more familiar with the popular manga and anime that draw inspiration from the same source. Regardless, past experience with this mythos will quickly prove irrelevant. All of the vocals in Journey To The West are in Chinese, so few listeners will be able to follow the story at all.
As is to be expected from a work of this nature, Journey To The West needs to be heard in its entirety in order to properly appreciate it. Few tracks stand on their own, and while it's a tired cliché to say so, the album is indeed more than the sum of its parts.
One could debate this point. After all, Journey To The West is more musically diverse than The Good, The Bad & The Queen. While that album is certainly conceptually unified, nearly any track from it can still stand up to individual scrutiny. Even so, Journey To The West proves to be more of a cohesive whole. Unlike The Good, The Bad & The Queen, the opera is not a collection of songs, and thus should not be judged by those standards. Songs can stand on their own, but displaced passages from a greater whole can not, no matter how stylistically diverse they are.
Journey To The West's lack of a pop structure and sensibility may aggravate those more accustomed to the fast thrills and frenetic pace of contemporary rock, while the Chinese vocals may prove off-putting or even boring to the easily distractible. Nevertheless, if given a chance the album is quite enjoyable, as Albarn obviously took great pains to meticulously craft every facet of the opera.
The tracks on Journey To The West obviously don't conform to Albarn's usual songwriting style. Nevertheless, his experience in rock music certainly proves to be a great asset, even when dealing with a vastly different form. Albarn may be a novice when it comes to Chinese opera, but he's most definitely a fast learner. Furthermore, the way in which he integrates modern musical elements into the traditional operatic structure is quite impressive. This approach is both distinctive and innovative, but more importantly it makes Journey To The West more accessible and appealing to a modern listener.
While opera purists will scoff at a track like Monkey Bee with its hard-rocking sections, and pop fans will take umbrage with the lack of immediate hooks, anyone with an open mind will find much to laud in Journey To The West. It's not what one would expect or even necessarily want from Damon Albarn, but it's still an impressive product. Albarn should be commended for not only taking a risk like this, but also for carrying it out with such skill, craftsmanship and conviction.
The public had seen through the cartoons, and with the departures of Dan Nakamura and Danger Mouse there was no one left to hide behind. Damon Albarn had been exposed: he was Gorillaz.
He could have embraced this 'outing.' He could have placed himself at the forefront of the group that he had once controlled from the shadows. It was clear from the beginning, however, that this was something that Albarn had never wanted. He had had ample opportunities to claim the fame and recognition that being the 'face' of Gorillaz would have brought him. Even at the height of the band's success he had chosen to remain anonymous.
Instead of emerging from the shadows, Albarn opted to place yet more layers between himself and his audience. The majority of the tracks on Plastic Beach are collaborations with notable hip-hop and rock artists, and more often than not Albarn cedes the spotlight to his 'guest stars.'
It's at this point that the album runs into problems, however. Musical diversity is generally regarded as an asset, but for it to work properly it must be held together by a unified voice. Replacing a single songwriter with a cavalcade of rotating composers causes an album to lose this unified voice, and thus what's envisioned as 'diversity' becomes something akin to an identity crisis.
Since the album is in a constant state of creative flux, simply listening to a few consecutive tracks will result in some jarring transitions. Furthermore, because Plastic Beach has such a poorly defined identity, the listener's conception of the album is at the mercy of the track order. Sadly, the track sequencing is less than ideal. While hip-hop has always been an integral part of the band's sound, no Gorillaz CD should be indistinguishable from a rap album after three whole tracks.
Worse still, by allowing all these new voices into the album, Albarn can't help Plastic Beach from becoming a rather erratic affair. Unsurprisingly, it's the 'pure' Gorillaz tracks that are the most reliable. Songs like Rhinestone Eyes, On Melancholy Hill and the title track make it clear how much better the album would have been had Albarn simply taken full control as he had in the past.
Fortunately, given the caliber of some of the guest stars, a number of the collaborations are quite good as well. Albarn has certainly assembled an eclectic bunch, including such luminaries as indie icon Gruff Rhys of Super Furry Animals fame, cult favorite Mark E. Smith of The Fall and the outright legendary Lou Reed.
Even some of the artists who seem out of place demonstrate great chemistry with Albarn. Mos Def acquits himself admirably on a couple of numbers, while Snoop Dogg starts the album on an entertaining note.
Albarn and company do their best to emphasize the 'concept' of Plastic Beach, but this back-story is little more than a series of post-apocalyptic clichés that add little to the album. Even in the band's early days, Gorillaz was more about character than plot. Without certain reminders, like the words 'plastic beach' being repeated intermittently throughout the album, one will likely forget that there's a concept at all.
Ultimately, while I have issues with Plastic Beach's guest-star set-up, I do have to applaud Albarn for approaching this dynamic in such a generous way. He co-writes every track, and thus could have easily seized control, using his guests for their name-value alone. Instead, it's clear that he truly grants great power to his fellow musicians, and this is an admirable tactic that few of Albarn's fame and stature would have been willing to go along with.
I do feel that Albarn would have been better served to go it alone, but Plastic Beach is still a very good album, if a tad inconsistent. The collaborations work more often than not, and even when they misfire they're quite intriguing. What this means is that even the worst tracks can be of interest, making for an album with absolutely nothing that I would call filler. Thus while Plastic Beach may not be a masterpiece, it's certainly one of the more noteworthy albums to come along in quite some time.
The Fall is most known for being the first album recorded exclusively on an Apple iPad. This fact alone made me approach the CD with trepidation. When one factors out the historical importance of this recording achievement, it sounds like a fancy way of saying, 'this album has poor production values.'
Admittedly the album sounds more polished than one would have anticipated. At the same time, it obviously lacks the sonic depth and aural nuances that a veteran producer like Danger Mouse brings to the table.
Nevertheless, I don't feel like Albarn's usage of the iPad was a cheap publicity stunt (nor an instance of cynical product-placement, for that matter). Rather, he was forced to rely on the device to accommodate his unorthodox recording schedule.
The Fall was written and recorded in the midst of a massive Gorillaz tour. Albarn and company wrote and performed the material during off hours in hotel rooms. Thus the iPad was used out of convenience, given the impossibility of the band making it to a real recording studio on such a tight schedule.
This leads to another problem, namely how hastily these songs were thrown together. Nearly every track on The Fall is set to basic electronica beats. I wouldn't call the songs interchangeable, but there is little that stands out about most of them.
Furthermore, there are several total misfires. The Speak It Mountains is an outright embarrassment, an amateurish sound collage that lacks both creativity and intelligence. California & The Slipping Of The Sun has several decent elements, but they simply fail to gel or cohere into anything meaningful. The closer, Seattle Yodel, is admittedly meant to be a joke, but sadly it's not an especially funny one.
The album's reliance on rudimentary electronica is understandable, as it's largely a byproduct of the iPad's technical limitations. It's still difficult, however, to overlook The Fall's lack of diversity and the simplicity of its arrangements. Fortunately, not all of the electronica is primitive and banal, as there are scattered examples of inspired techno-hooks.
More importantly, the album does boast a handful of strong vocal melodies. Somehow the vocal hooks in the opener Phoner To Arizona manage to be catchy, despite the fact that Albarn's singing is encoded to the point of indecipherability. Revolving Doors is one of the most 'complete-feeling' songs on the album, eschewing the ubiquitous electronic-excesses of the rest of the album in favor of simple but well-executed pop songwriting. Little Pink Plastic Bags also offers a captivating vocal melody, making it a definite highlight of the album.
These tracks make it all the more frustrating that a number of the songs on The Fall lack vocals altogether. With more diverse and developed arrangements a series of instrumentals would be forgivable, but given the album's failings in that department a de-emphasis on vocals is inexcusable.
Despite a handful of catchy tracks and only a modicum of offensive material, The Fall is easily Gorillaz's weakest outing. This makes it all the more understandable that the album was initially an internet exclusive, not achieving mainstream release until a full year after its online debut. Nevertheless, there's enough solid content to make The Fall worthwhile for hardcore Gorillaz fans, provided they don't expect something on the level of Demon Days or Plastic Beach.