Wednesday, October 28, 2020

ALBUM REVIEW: Gorillaz - Song Machine, Season One: Strange Timez

Perhaps one of the brightest moments of this terrible year was Damon Albarn and Jamie Hewlett's virtual band, Gorillaz, making a comeback at the beginning of it. For those who don't know Gorillaz or Albarn, it's a bit of an interesting project to explain and I'll try my best to do so. Albarn first became a popular face in music when his band Blur hit it big in the Brit-Pop scene with big hits like Girls And Boys, Parklife, and probably the most notable Song 2. (the WOO-HOO song, you know which one I'm talking about.) In 1990, Damon met cartoonist Jamie Hewlett through Blur's guitarist Graham Coxon. Originally the two didn't really like each other with Hewlett saying Damon was "arsey." Nonetheless, time healed the wounds and the two eventually became flatmates in 1997. Late one night on an MTV binge, Albarn and Hewlett got tired of seeing nothing of substance on the channel so they got the idea to create a response to that. They decided to create a "virtual band" made up of 4 cartoon members, singer 2-D, bass player Murdoc, drummer Russel, and guitarist Noodle. They released their first self-titled album in 2001 which was met with a lot of critical acclaim. Me personally, I don't really care for it but there are still a few great songs on it like 19-2000, M1 A1, Tomorrow Comes Today, and most notably, Clint Eastwood, which is still one of the best Gorillaz songs of all time. After the first album and a huge single, many critics saw the band just being a gimmick and a one-hit-wonder but in 2005, Albarn proved all of those critics wrong when Gorillaz's second album, Demon Days was released.

The band posing with Hewlett and Albarn (Top: L to R, Murdoc and Russel, Bottom: L to R, Jamie Hewlett, Noodle, 2-D, Damon Albarn)

With Demon Days, the band embraced a darker and heavier sound and it worked out amazingly. It's probably the Gorillaz album I come back to the most just because of how great the production is and how addicting the songs are. The feature list is also great with legendary appearances from De La Soul and MF DOOM. 5 years later we got Plastic Beach which is a "must-listen" for anyone who wants to get into the band. The album sees them going into a more synth-heavy sound and once again, it works out amazingly. This is, in my opinion, their best album. The production blows me away every time, the environmentalist themes are strong in the lyrics, and it just makes me happy to listen to. The band took a bit of a hiatus starting in 2012 where Albarn released a solo album and reformed Blur. In 2017, Gorillaz showed signs of life again but to hardcore fans, it was the start of a sluggish period. While I did and still do enjoy their 2017 album Humanz, it's easy to see how there are too many features or how the tracklist is too bloated. And while I love The Now Now, it's still pretty hit or miss. So with this project, it's easy to be worried that since every single song has a feature, it might be Humanz Pt. 2, and the rollout of the band dropping one single per month might make some of the songs seem boring by the time we get the album but I am happy to report that that is not the case.

As a matter of fact, I enjoy some of these songs more now than I did when they first dropped. While we're only getting 4 new songs with the standard edition of the album, all of these songs still work together incredibly well. Also, before I talk about any of the music, I have to acknowledge the feature list that Damon and co-producer Remi Kabaka Jr. put together for this album because it is honestly crazy. The album features everyone from Beck to ScHoolboy Q, has Elton John and 6lack on the same song, and even managed to get Robert Smith on a song in 2020. Another note real quick is that I'll be referring to Damon's singing as 2D even though I'm not as interested in the lore and backstory of the cartoons as some people are. 

The album kicks off with its title track, Strange Timez, featuring Robert Smith who's voice is just timeless. He still sounds the same as he did when The Cure first burst onto the scene nearly 50 years ago. I love how Robert's loud, grand voice contrasts with 2D's muffled, almost spoken-word vocals. I love the beat switch about halfway through where these dance beat drums come in. It really picks the energy up. Then there's The Valley of The Pagans with Beck that almost sounds like an LCD Soundsystem song at first. I don't know, the crisp drums and quirky synth bass almost feels like something from Sound of Silver. But the song gives us one of Beck's best performances in a really long time. I'm honestly super impressed with how well he does on the song. The song is a critique of the LA lifestyle with Beck singing about how he's happy in the city yet he feels something missing, but when the sun hits his face, all is forgotten. There's also a really cool part near the end where 2D's voice syncs in with the synth line and it's just amazing. 

The Lost Chord is a super subdued slow burner. 2D's voice is pained and sad and it fits on top of the song perfectly. Ultimately, it's the production and Leee John's performance that really makes this song amazing. The chorus on the song is super pretty with this great progression of John's falsetto reaching up farther and farther and it just sends my soul into another dimension. PAC-MAN featuring ScHoolboy Q was my favorite single going into this album and is still one of my favorite songs on this album. The beat wouldn't sound too out of place on Plastic Beach. 2D's voice has the signature muffled effect on it while the beat behind him does sound like something out of an old arcade game. Then ScHoolboy Q comes in and absolutely murders his verse while the beat keeps building up behind him. I love his charism on the second half of his verse where he raps:

Keep a peace, no Buddas, got the whole hood boomin'
I’m like a Crip high student, you on your ass, stuck stupid
You makin' weed look bad, I'll ride the beat, won't crash

Chalk Tablet Towers was my most anticipated song going into this album due to a feature from none other than Annie Clark of St. Vincent but, I'll be honest, it originally let me down. I was mad that there wasn't a guitar solo and I felt that Annie was underused, but the more I listen, the more it's grown on me. 2D and Annie duet on the chorus and it sounds beautiful. I also love the "OH OH OH OOOoh" chants throughout the song. And while it sounds like a fun banger, the lyrics are pretty sad with 2D singing about a lover he can't be with, possibly because he's in rehab. Singing about how he can't touch his lover because he's shut off from the outside world with no contact. Also asking at the end of the song if she'll still be there at the end of the summer. 

The Pink Phantom has one of the strangest pairings feature-wise on the album with the legendary Elton John and R&B star 6lack coming together for a grand piano ballad with another gut puncher lyrically. 2D, 6lack, and Elton are all singing about a girl that left them in the past, possibly the one from the previous song. And while a lot of fans have been brushing 6lack's feature off, his first verse might be my favorite part of the song because he does the best job of capturing the sadness, singing:

I tried to tell you that I love you but I’m choked up
You forgot and that makes me feel like no love
Were you ever really there? Did you ever really care?
Wait, I got so many examples of all of the
Good times we had, long summer nights
Held you long time, put your name in my rhyme

Then there's Aries which is not only my favorite song on the album but is also in the running for song of the year in my opinion. There's an amazing bassline courtesy of Peter Hook from Joy Division and New Order and the production is quite literally insane. I love the glitchy drum fills and the absolutely eargasmic chorus. 2D's performance on the song is so, so good. There's a certain anxiety or tension in it that just really sets it over the top for me. I also love the almost out-of-tune synth swells that pop up during the chorus. Everything about this song is incredible. 

Ever since the first time I listened to it, I've hoped the song Friday the 13th would grow on me but, it hasn't. While the instrumental is fantastic, I just can not stand Octavian's voice. His raspy voice almost ruins the verses while his Swae Lee impression in the choruses doesn't make things any better. I guess 2D's echoed refrain at the end of the song kind of redeems it but not really. However, the album gets past this little speed bump and picks up almost immediately with the song Dead Butterflies which made me laugh the first time I heard it thanks to the "Mike Will Made It!!" tag at the beginning of the song. I also love the bit of the studio banter at the beginning with Damon asking "Can we just loop that piano." I always love little raw moments like that on songs. The song itself has a pretty minimal beat with a little hi-hat/snare pattern with this super heavy bass. Roxani Arias has a beautiful verse right after the first chorus before Kano comes in hard and flows super well while the synths build up a little bit in the background. The instrumental doesn't build much more afterward, in fact, it gets tamer as the song continues going from that super heavy bass/snare/hi-hat pattern to these cute, twinkly pianos in the outro. 

The album ends on a really, really strong note with the first two songs we heard from the project, Désolé and Momentary Bliss. The former has a new extended intro and outro and it just makes the song that much better. I absolutely love how the song progresses from verse to chorus. The verses are pretty bare with just 2D's voice, some drums, and a maraca in the background then the choruses are these explosions synths, guitar, and Fatoumata Diawara's incredible voice. And I think even saying incredible is selling her short because she comes through with this huge, soulful, booming voice. There's a little break around the 3:20 mark where there's this chaos of horns that all somehow fit together before giving way to some piano and tense strings, then one more chorus to end the song off. There's nothing I like more than when an album ends on one final banger and Momentary Bliss is that banger with features from Slaves and Slowthai. The energy on the song is insane and the positive advice in Slowthai's lyrics is easy to be lost in his angry delivery. It's the most pissed off pep talk I've ever heard, and I've been in the locker room for varsity football pre-games for the past 4 years. I love the tremolo effect on the guitars during the verses where these chords just keep popping in and out, almost like they're muted the second after they're played. It's an absolutely fantastic way to end this album.

I am so happy that this album was as good as it was, and the fact that they could drop one song a month and still have all of these songs sound amazing is a testament to timeless Gorillaz music is. While it was easy to write this album off as Humanz 2 because of every song having a feature, it beats Humanz in almost every aspect as the guests are placed better, 2D is present throughout all of the songs, and the tracklist flows so much better than Humanz. I'll end this review saying this, I'm very happy to add Gorillaz to the list of bands that are dropping amazing albums years after they arguably peaked a long time ago. Loving this album, a lot.

I would rate
Song Machine
By Gorillaz


Now I will touch on the deluxe songs a little bit but they weren't going to affect the overall score so I figured I would just add this onto the end. I guess the easiest way to describe the deluxe songs is "hit-or-miss," and the hits really outshine the misses. While I originally didn't care too much for the song Opium featuring Earthgang, it has grown on me with time. The Earthgang guys flow very well over this looped dance beat that just grows and grows as the song goes on. I don't really care for the songs Simplicity and Severed Head, the former I just found to be kind of boring and uninteresting, the latter because I have not been a Goldlink fan ever since his Mac Miller stunt, and his delivery has not changed, ever. The last two songs, With Love To An Ex and MLS are fantastic. The former has one of the most interesting beats on the entire album with a great explosive outro while the latter has amazing features from JPEGMAFIA and Chai. So once again, there are some good songs tacked on to the end, but it's obvious to see why they weren't included with the standard album. 

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