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Review: Gorillaz – Song Machine, Season One: Strange Timez

If there was ever a perfect time for a virtual band to drop an album, of course it’d be in 2020. Thankfully despite the hard times thousands of musicians have had to face this year, we’ve had plenty of new music to consume and I’m sure we’ll have much more to come thanks to the isolation and ‘free’ time this year has given us. 

I’ve always been a passive fan of Gorillaz, and a deep admirer of Damon Albarn. I grew up in a very Oasis household with much of Blur’s deeper cuts never getting a mention in my childhood apart from the main big singles. But when my brother got a copy of Demon Days on his portable CD player back in 2006, hearing Feel Good Inc. for the first time, I was enchanted by the talent Albarn had, making me seek out in my late teens so much more of his work. Gorillaz last 2 albums Humanz and The Now Now, I really admired the work that had gone into them, and really dug a good few tracks from both, but I didn’t catch myself sinking into the sofa the way I did with Demon Days almost 15 years ago, which is a shame but perhaps I just wasn’t mentally mature enough to appreciate it properly. But with all this in mind, not even really paying much attention to the buildup to the release of this new record from Gorillaz, the drop of it made me really take a moment to genuinely take in all of what Damon Albarn and artist Jamie Hewlett had to offer this time round. 

Gorillaz this time around have set out to change the meaning of the classic album. All throughout the promotion for this LP has been the labelling of each track being an “Episode”, and the album being called “Season One”. People consume music differently now to 2010, or even 1990. Genres and styles being more like parks you can stroll into whenever you please as opposed to strict labelled and rulebooked formats, and Song Machine: Strange Timez pushes that idea forward more than ever before. The last effort from Gorillaz strayed further away from artist features, whereas Strange Timez is a collaborative powerhouse. Damon really solidified himself as a producer similar to the work of Calvin Harris, Mark Ronson or Josh Homme’s Desert Sessions. Not that there was ever any doubt of Albarn’s producing work, but this record really puts that motion forward in a more prevalent way due to the nature of the featured artists throughout the album. Speaking of featured artists, Damon really pulled out all the stops for this, with features from Robert Smith, Elton John, Skepta, Tony Allen, Slowthai, Slaves, Unknown Mortal Orchestra, Georgia, Peter Hook, Beck and St Vincent – and that’s not even everyone! So the talent flowing through Song Machine’s veins is completely clear. 

What brilliantly works is the soundscape of the entire project. When incorporating so many different artists it can often come together quite patchy as different artists have different inspiration, but here Damon works with his fellow contemporaries to ensure each one isn’t out of their comfort zones performing in a way that isn’t natural to them, but all the same wrapping each track in the smooth chilled out production that makes this album so Gorillaz. It all blends together in such a brilliant way, nothing and nobody is shoehorned in, every line and feature has a reason to be there and it makes out for such a cool listening experience, with Damon’s voice as the final ribbon tying each track together splendidly. 

Title track Strange Timez featuring Robert Smith is a fantastic start, firstly it’s Robert Smith, hearing his voice on anything new these days is already a recipe for success, but the vocal wails and almost demonic sounding harmonies combined with the plonky piano keys and thin synth bass create this heightened feeling of uncertainty to match the idea of stranger times. The chorus on this also is just brilliant to dance to, and with Damon Albarn’s classic megaphone/radio filtered vocals just completely smashing it. The Valley Of The Pagans featuring Beck is a shiny modern disco bonanza. With Yamaha synths that sound as if they come straight out of a Sega Mega Drive game, collided with Beck’s vocals that sound almost like his earlier work from the 90s but definitely moulded to a more modern made performance. The Lost Chord with guest artist Leee John is a nice less hectic more tranquil track that makes you want to go for a drive at 2am on the empty motorways, absolute bliss and Leee John’s vocals are just luscious to listen to.

Pac-Man featuring ScHoolboy Q kicks off with a Bruce almighty sounding “alrighty” as the funky fat synth line lifts this track into an alternate reality Snoop Dogg instrumental, with ScHoolboy’s verse flowing so well with the lucid production that this whole album is jam-packed with. Chalk Tablet Towers with St. Vincent shows off some nice modern pop techniques, the synth and vocal effects emote a Drake style performance which works quite nicely. St. Vincent’s vocals backing up Damon’s mix delightfully well giving this larger choir effect even though it’s just the two of them singing together. The Pink Phantom is an interesting track, guest starring Elton John and 6LACK, the chill hop production matches the expected style of Damon and 6LACK’s verses, but when Elton John starts singing, it takes you back for a moment, something so odd that goes against expectations, yet sounding quite smooth regardless, as if Elton’s singing from an empty kitchen, which again adds to the laid back production of the album.

Aries featuring BRIT School alumni Georgia and Peter Hook from Joy Division and New Order, is a really nice slightly out of place slice of cake in the hipster coffee shop that is Song Machine. Sounding essentially like what a modern New Order song should sound like, the iconic high up the neck chorus infected bass performance from Hooky is delicious, evoking such nostalgia for New Order’s Power, Corruptions and Lies, and Georgia’s drumming motifs compliment Hook’s bass performance almost annoyingly well, it’s a power duo that makes you think, why haven’t we done that before? But it all gets interwoven within the consciousness of Song Machine so well, it’s a sound that fits the album really well, but being such a specific sound it demands to be noticed, and really for damn good reason.  Friday 13th with French-British rapper Octavian is a song that takes you to cloud 9, with ska-ish guitar and reggae trumpets that really add a flair of summery vibes, and also bringing some more Peter Hook influenced bass playing in the background of the mix that helps ground this album to connection and a consistent progression of sound that as someone who’s ecstatic when an album feels like an album where things were planned and imagined in mind in context with the tracks it shares a small universe with, really released the serotonin in my head when listening to the album for the first time. 

The final three tracks on the standard edition (yes there is an extended deluxe edition just in case the 11 tracks don’t fill your cup) of this album or season as Gorillaz are branding Song Machine: Strange Timez, nicely tie everything together. Dead Butterflies has a wonderful piano sound, hearing Damon say in the studio at the start “can we just loop that last piano part, little bit”. Featuring vocals from Roxani Arias and Kano, encapsulating this trio of perspectives from different backgrounds and cultures that clash and combine like a dance between man and fire, a trait that’s to be said for all 3 of these last tracks. Désolé is a wonderfully evocative track with some of my favourite production and songwriting on the entire project, the bass groove, soft funkish guitar, the silky jazz inspired piano that carries throughout the song, the breakdown that brings strings into the mix flipping the genre’s embedded within the song already on its head, all combined with the beautiful African percussion instrumentation, all set in place for the astonishing vocal performance from Fatoumata Diawara. Désolé is one of those rare pieces of art that makes you put everything aside to just take in just what it has to offer. 

The closing track was the first single we were treated to at the start of this year, Momentary Bliss with Slaves and slowthai. Ending the album on a high with a bang. The slap of punk, punk-rap and the Song Machine sound continue to be a thrash of sounds that all come together in a harmonious way, evoking classic Gorillaz vibes, tarnished by the modern sound of Song Machine in such a beefy and delightful way. 

There’s definitely a sonic contradiction all throughout this album. Firstly with the original intention of it not being an album, just a bunch of released songs, which swifty changed over time, the fact that songs later in production had to be recorded with social distancing and other covid precautions, to the fact that this album has quite a heavy emphasis on the chill lo-fi sound design whilst also having giant household names feature all over the album, and having so many different levels of inspiration and genre, it gives it this strange contained perception, it definitely feels like a lockdown album and definitely benefits from that. Song Machine: Season One, Strange Timez is the perfect analogy of what a modern record should be, and it wasn’t even trying to be that in the slightest. It demonstrates the focused ability and talent of Damon Albarn and company, and shows just what people can do during periods of quarantine, uncertainty and the lack of constant information and inspiration. It shows the power of what happens when people work together and manages to convey an escape from the strange times we’re all going through right now. 

Listen to Song Machine, Season One: Strange Timez on Spotify now. 

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[…] I say ‘virtual band’ you’ll probably first think of Gorillaz, but move over Damon for this group of equally crazed animals. Studio Killers are back and bigger […]

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