Where have Gorillaz been this decade? Things are amiss without the blank-eyed oddballs, but is new album Humanz enough to justify their return? Charlotte Finley presents a truncated journey through where and why Gorillaz have existed, and how effectively Humanz continues the narrative.
While you might be one of the many who helped Demon Days get to double platinum, you may not be savvy to the comic-book ideas that give life to this unconventional music project. To better understand the music of Gorillaz and how it has evolved, it’s helpful to know (at least a little of) the ongoing narrative of its virtual band members.
In a nutshell, characters Murdoc, Noodle, Russel, and 2D are brought together through a zany set of circumstances, and begin making music and living together in Kong Studios, on a mountain amidst an Essex Cemetery.
The game-like online representation of the studios is what first drew niche audiences to the underground group at the end of last century, prior to actually releasing any music. With a Macromedia-Flash powered website offering a virtual tour of their studios, complete with access to band member’s bedrooms, jukeboxes, and personal computers, the minds behind Gorillaz were on to our obsession with looking into people’s lives long before it became a legitimate social pastime. While I was playing Neopets and Habbo Hotel, early adopters of Gorillaz were reading fan emails sent to Noodle, Murdoc, et al., and posting to their messageboard (SO noughties!).
For the many fans who followed the rise of Gorillaz in all of its narrative glory and detail, the music probably means something different to what other listeners get from it. In addition to the website, promotional booklets circulated record stores around the time of their self-titled album’s release, to announce major developments in the band’s narrative existence. The music videos provide integral story installations, as well as special release DVDs that further flesh out concepts and influences present in the music, and how these represent the band member’s personalities and experiences. So let’s consider the evolution of Gorillaz’ sound, knowing the virtual reality that the band was intended to be consumed along with.
While having a relatively little impact at the time of release, the low-gear Gorillaz (2001) debut album distinguishes itself retrospectively, presenting an ‘origin story’ body of work on the band’s timeline.
It also exhibits parallels with Blur’s ‘Tank’, which Albarn completed concurrently with working on Gorillaz’ self-titled album. This helps place the album, bizarrely, in the Britpop genre amongst others. Glimpses of the clarinet sound that weaves heavily through later Gorillaz work, welcomes the band’s trip-hop and electronica classifications, making first appearances on ‘Tomorrow Comes Today’ and ‘New Genius (Brother)’. The album’s stand-out single ‘Clint Eastwood’ undoubtedly paves the way for what Gorillaz are to become on the follow-up record Demon Days.
As punters had time to digest Gorillaz’ eponymous debut, we began to realise the aesthetic choices probably meant something. Gorillaz is a virtual band, but more importantly, it’s a concept band. So what is Gorillaz about? What is it trying to achieve? Pure imaginative folly? A breaking down of genre and boundaries?
Demon Days (2005) can be considered Gorillaz’ strongest album, carving itself a place with its beat-driven songs, frequent guest appearances from rappers, and continued fantasy-world imagery. Singles like ‘Dirty Harry’ earn them cred and relevance in the hip-hop scene, along with ‘November Has Come’, and ‘All Alone’. With danceable tracks like ‘Dare‘, and of course, the party banger ‘Feel Good Inc.’ it was at this point that Gorillaz become accessible to yet another audience segment.
By now, we all know that Blur’s Damon Albarn teamed with Tank Girl animator Jamie Hewlett are the creatives behind Gorillaz, but back in the day the project had a Banksy-esque mystique about it. Hype-building intuition in action.
Offering a cautionary tale for greed, ‘Fire Coming Out of the Monkey’s Head’ is but one story-telling track that adds explicitly to the Gorillaz narrative and manifesto. But a glance over the Demon Days track names reveals motions towards other human-faced issues, in ‘We Are Happy Landfill’, ‘Every Planet We Reach is Dead’, ‘O Green World’, ‘Last Living Souls’, ‘Kids with Guns’…
On a musical level, Gorillaz strive to defy genre. Does it fit with the early-2000s electronica movement along with Massive Attack and Tricky, or is it better described as hip-hop with its frequently featured rappers? A 2002 collaboration with Spacemonkeyz, ‘Laika Come Home’ established a reggae-inspired sound that becomes a distinctive part of their later, more mature albums during their study of American culture.
Messing with genre once again, the group released 2007’s D-Sides which heavily features down-tempo sounds, pulling Gorillaz back towards an adrift vibe to offset any heavier, rapping, or rock aspects. The band also incorporates semi-classical strings into their songs, a good example being the title track of their 205 release Demon Days, which starts out classical and gradually transitions into a reggae beat with gospel style singing overtop.
On a political level though, is Gorillaz anti-corporate, anti-establishment, anti-trappings – or about consciousness in general? Surely, one reason for why the band exists as fictitious characters, malleable to the extreme, is that they can be constructed to represent exactly the values and manifestos their creators want to project?
So what are these? What do the characters represent? In many ways, the aesthetic world the band inhabits is laced in dark humour, and a fairly dystopic depiction of the real world, not dissimilar to it but amplifying issues that are yet to spiral out of control, such as the taking over of technology and related destruction of the environment, the deterioration of human unity, an isolated world. In this way, the story world of Gorillaz, their track titles, and the incorporation of computerised sounds as music, is in fact satire. The way these sounds are juxtaposed with more humanist sounds (like reggae and classical strings) not only sounds good, but serves to comment on the kind of robotic world we’re transitioning into.
Wittily cynical and sharply listless; street smart and knowing; these are all good ways to describe the attitudinal aesthetics of the band members, from album artwork through to the more comprehensive virtual actualisation of them. A relatively under-the-radar release, The Fall (2010) chronicles the band’s time in LA, the album cover effectively illustrating the blank eyed, blank faced 2D in a hotel room, backed by a foggy high-rise view of downtown LA through a window. ‘Little Pink Plastic Bags’ conveys powerful imagery (‘they’re just little pink plastic bags, blowing on the highway… we don’t know where they’ll go, they’re just going to float away’) conjuring the ongoing Gorillaz zeitgeist of human ways gone wrong.
This album takes our focus from a loosely British setting to the world superpower, USA. With song titles like ‘HillBilly Man’, ‘Phoner to Arizona’, ‘Detroit’, ‘Aspen Forest’, ‘Seattle Yodel’, ‘The Snake in Dallas’, ‘California and the Slipping Sun’, ‘Bobby in Phoenix’, (the list goes on.) The album is melancholic and withdrawn, the characters thoroughly worn down by life in the land of the free. It’s a very different energy to Demon Days, with moments of playfulness which offset that omnisciently resigned characteristic of Gorillaz’ music.
The album is a juxtaposition of the natural world with its man-made intrusions. Even Albarn’s signature singing style is further away than usual and often motorised. This works particularly well in ‘California And The Slipping of The Sun’, with its stripped back and acoustic guitar melody.
The release of Plastic Beach (2010) closely followed The Fall, continuing to chronicle the influences that American culture bestows on the world. The album could be described as an organic continuation of The Fall, although possibly more commercially successful.
‘Orchestral Intro’ sets the scene for a Hollywood movie at the commencement of the album. The iconic voice of Snoop Dogg tinges tracks with LA flavour again, with lyrics furthering the pollution-infested depiction of the place. He raps ‘The revolution will be televised…I know it seems like the world is so hopeless…Welcome to the world of the plastic beach.’
Reggae sounds weave in and out, and Lou Reed’s staccato in ‘Some Kind of Nature’ continues to manifest the theme as he sings about ‘some kind of plastic, I can wrap around you…’
‘Pirate Jet’ wraps up the album Americana-style with its western beat channelling the theme for a cowboy film. This is where listeners are left to ponder, as Gorillaz deliver us nothing for the next seven years.
Gorillaz’ world is a long-running satire of the world we humans are creating for ourselves, through their amplified illustration of isolation, automation, natural destruction, deterioration and despair in general. Their new record ‘Humanz’ (2017) continues the social commentary, ostensibly focusing on AI. Heralding Gorillaz’ return after a 7 year absence, the deluxe album sits at 26 tracks, with collaborations coming from a gamut of currently hot contributors.
Interlude-heavy, the album is packed with manifesto-driving concept pieces. The opening track introduces the conceptual utterance: ‘I switched my robot off, and now I know more, but I retain less…’
This promises a timely and typical Gorillaz exploration of where the world is at in 2017, and judging by track titles, this time presumably taking on an extra-terrestrial progression to the plot.
But unfortunately, it’s an album that lacks a clear association with Gorillaz’’ ongoing sound, shared by all previous albums. While each album thematically explores a new aspect of the narrative, Humanz is missing the band’s usual arsenal of elements worked into the songs, which ensures their signature doesn’t become obscured by collaborators. Humanz appears to stray from this signature.
Popcaan’s ‘Saturnz Barz’ blends into the multitude of current artist’s adopting a Jamaican accent, and the song really can’t be distinguished from the sea of other trend-driven rappers out there right now. Bass-heavy ‘Momentz’ is distinctive, but basic nonetheless. ‘Strobelite’ doesn’t sound like it belongs to Gorillaz at all. The disco sound holds no hints of the band. Their music is usually so expertly layered as to allow for subtly, weaving in some sign of their sound – however this track is totally absent of that.
With the HD animation changing the game, it’s really quite difficult to associate this new rendering of Gorillaz with their old (virtual) selves.
At this point in time, the album doesn’t stand out as anything special, and relative to Gorillaz’ discography, is a disappointment. Of course, it’s attracted an impressive line-up of collaborators, but the album sits lightyears from the place where Gorillaz started. Gone is the imagination, the narrative, and what’s left is a jaded Albarn and Hewlett trying to keep giving fans what they want, when the project maybe ought to have wrapped up on Plastic Beach.
With story, comes endless ideas and possible directions. It’s highly likely that this is why Gorillaz have been able to continue producing influence-rich music. And yet, perhaps they should stop now.
Everything from the story’s media channels, through to the manner in which live shows are performed is a labour of pure genius, inspiration, and the kind of imagination rarely demonstrated in anyone who’s not still a kid. The enduring collaboration of creativity between Damon Albarn and animator Jamie Hewlett has leveraged a cult following as animated sagas tend to do, but has also broken into mainstream music culture, garnering listeners for entirely different reasons to what the narrative enthusiasts are drawn to. This ability to transcend different genres, interest groups, and media classifications is pretty damn special.
Albarn’s distinctively ‘phoned-in and flat’ vocals, embodied in the character 2D, are undoubtedly the glue holding the band’s discography together in reasonable continuity, while balanced with an intriguing influx of fresh contributors and their influences. This necessary glue hasn’t quite held things together for the latest album though, and I feel that the glory days of Gorillaz’ should be kept within the two-thousand-and-noughties – a very good decade of music.