Gorillaz: Why you should be listening to Song Machine, Season One: Strange Timez
Updated: Oct 29, 2020
Gorillaz seventh studio album is a joyful and diverse project with an unrivalled list of guests. Here's why you should still be listening to this virtual band 20 years after their debut release.
It's been 22 years since Blur frontman Damon Albarn and artist Jamie Hewlett created virtual, cartoon band Gorillaz. They rose to action one afternoon as they watched MTV together bemoaning how boring Pop music had become. Albarn wanted a change from the traditional guitar band sound he'd become accustomed too, seeking out a new world to experiment with different genres - from Hip-Hop to Dub - and the ability to work with left-field collaborators.
In November 2000 Gorillaz put out their debut EP Tomorrow Comes Today, before releasing their self-titled debut on 26th March 2001. Hearing 'Clint Eastwood' for the first time on a school friends CD player was a particularly memorable experience. Feeling tired of hearing boastful rappers and the angry scourge of Nu Metal, it felt fresh and exciting, combining elements of Rock, Hip-Hop, Electronic and Dub in a way I hadn't heard before. Over Summer 2001 it became a crossover, worldwide hit alongside '19-2000', quickly become a household name in very little time.
Over the coming years, the Gorillaz had worldwide success that Albarn's band Blur (or any Britpop band for that matter) could only dream of. The most successful of their album's was 2005's Demon Days, providing a host of massive singles such as 'Feel Good Inc' (almost 600 million plays on Spotify alone), 'Dirty Harry' and 'DARE', each sounding radically different from the last yet still clearly identifiable as part of the Gorillaz project.
Now on their seventh studio album, did Damon Albarn and James Hewlett still have the same enthusiasm for the project to rival their previous work? Of course they did.
Song Machine, Season One
Song Machine, Season One: Strange Timez has been a long time coming. Since January the band released a new song (or 'episode' as they called it) pretty much every month until October. This, of course, made the jump into a 17 track, 1 hour 4 minute deluxe edition of the record (the standard contains 12 songs) drastically less daunting.
The guest-list on offer is seriously impressive, from Elton John to Robert Smith (of The Cure), Beck to Peter Hook (of New Order/Joy Division), Slaves to slowthai, ScHoolboy Q to Octavian, EARTHGANG to 6LACK, there's a healthy mix of legendary artists, those in their peak and others on their way up. Now, I'm not going to lie, my immediate response to viewing the list was a fear that the album would lose focus and be overwhelmed by the talent on show. But fear not, the collaborator spot is never wasted, Albarn acting as a brilliant anchor to ensure continuity is maintained from track to track.
The album is both a melancholic experience as well as being a joyful one, time and again expertly jumping from vibe and style from track to track whilst still retaining that great Gorillaz identity.
The album opens with the eerily gothic and psychedelic 'Strange Timez' with The Cure's Robert Smith, the lyrics commentating on this year's political and economic situations. The music video, directed by James Hewlett, features the animated band members travelling to the moon, of which Robert Smith's face is projected. It's a track which will divide opinion, but it's a fascinating introduction to the record.
Immediately following is the feel-good 'The Valley of the Pagans' featuring Beck. It's a different vibe altogether, a lot more pop and upbeat ("I feel so good to have a perfect soul / I feel so good to be in total control"). Take a deeper look and you'll notice it's criticising the fakeness of those trying to live a perfect Hollywood lifestyle ("She's a plastic Cleopatra on a throne of ice / She's a hemophiliac with a dying battery life").
The third track, 'The Lost Chord' is, again, one of the most unique on the album, a feeling of yearning ("the lost chord / I go harder, harder / Take me into the garden") set to a smooth and alluring funk backdrop. Simply irresistible.
'Aries', featuring Peter Hook (of New Order and Joy Division fame) and Electro-pop artist Georgia, is one which quickly jumped out as an early favourite. The drums, bass, guitars and synths provide a distinct nod to 1980s New Order, complimenting Damon Albarn's characters tale of isolation ('"Cause I feel so isolated without you / I can't play a happy tune on my own, so stay by my side / High or low tide"). For me it's up there with the best tracks they've done.
'Momentary Bliss' was the first 'episode' and released back in January, brilliantly combining Psychedelic Synth-Pop, Punk and Hip-Hop for one of most high-powered tracks on the album. I loved the energy and sharpness provided by both Slaves and slowthai, their strong English voices providing an invitation to Damon Albarn to later enter the track in his famous 90s Blur mockney accent. It's a lot of fun!
Song Machine, Season One: Strange Timez has a ridiculous number of high points for an album of its length, each collaboration bringing so much character to each track. It's hard to imagine another album where the dramatic Glam-Rock of Elton John ('The Pink Phantom') can effortlessly sit next to the G-Funk Hip-Hop of 'PAC-MAN' (which features American rapper ScHoolboy Q).
Damon Albarn and James Hewlett may be 20 years into the Gorillaz project, but the enthusiasm to produce rich, diverse music from the worlds of Rock, Afrobeat, Hip-Hop, Electronic and R&B still remains. No doubt it'll be high up on the 2020 end of year lists and for good reason too!
An almost impossible task to settle on just three but I'll go for the smooth funk of 'The Lost Chord (feat. Leee John)', the melancholic New Order inspired 'Aries (feat. Peter Hook and Georgia)' and the upbeat Hip-Hop of 'Opium (feat. EARTHGANG)'.