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Gorillaz depart from the conceptual on the fantastically fun ‘Song Machine, Season One: Strange Timez’

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By nature, Gorillaz have always been a band whose entire aesthetic revolves around a concept. The virtual band, musically spearheaded by Britpop icon Damon Albarn and brought to life by artist Jamie Hewlett, are now seven albums deep with this new release. With every release, they seem to give us something completely new.

Gorillaz’s music has always been conceptual, whether that be the vibe-heavy The Now Now or the incredible commentary on mass pollution found in Plastic Beach. However, with this new era of the band, Gorillaz are focusing more on the single, by describing each song as an individual episode in an 11 episode long ‘season’ of tracks. And what a fantastic collection of tracks it is.

Gorillaz embrace collaborations in a huge way on this album, featuring the likes of Beck, slowthai, Slaves, Octavian and Kano just to name a few. The album kicks off perfectly with the title track ‘Strange Timez’, which has an incredible appearance from The Cure frontman Robert Smith. Overall, it’s a great piece of electronic dance music that fits excellently into the Gorillaz canon.

The combination of Albarn’s dejected vocals with Q’s ferocious rapping feels a lot like classic Gorillaz

‘The Valley of The Pagans’, another electronic dance track, follows ‘Strange Timez’. This one features Beck, as well as more introspective lyrics commenting on how the public eye can cause someone to be very fake. In my opinion, the lyrics “She’s a plastic Cleopatra on a throne of ice/ She’s a haemophiliac with a dying battery life/ Candy-coloured fingers and schadenfreude eyes/ Thinking airbrushed thoughts with a logo on her mind” are some of the best on the entire record.

If you told me a few months ago that a song about heartbreak featuring living legend Elton John and Maryland rapper 6LACK was just around the corner, I’d laugh. With this track, however, 2020 came through with another surprise. Somehow it makes sense in this weird Gorillaz world, and it happens to be one of my favourites on the whole album. The song, called ‘The Pink Phantom’, is genuinely moving. I love how 6LACK’s autotuned vocals bounce back and forth with Elton’s singing towards the end of the song; it provides a stark contrast that makes for a great listen.

Another highlight is the closing track of the standard version of the album ‘Momentary Bliss’, which features an exceptional performance from up-and-coming UK artists slowthai and Slaves. They make the song an absolutely fantastic, slightly punky, electronic rager. In a way, this song feels like a spiritual successor to the iconic ‘Parklife’ by Blur, which isn’t entirely surprising considering Damon Albarn is the frontman of the band.

It’s a beautiful fusion of R&B, neo-psych and a hint of reggae

On the topic of spiritual successors, ‘PAC-MAN (feat. ScHoolboy Q)’ sounds almost like a ‘Feel Good Inc.’ part 2, which is in no way a criticism. The combination of Albarn’s dejected vocals with Q’s ferocious rapping feels a lot like classic Gorillaz. 

‘Friday 13th (feat. Octavian)’ took me a while to warm to, but now I love it. It’s a beautiful fusion of R&B, neo-psych and a hint of reggae. What Gorillaz do with Octavian’s vocals, layering them and building the instrumental up behind them as the song progresses, really makes for an engaging listen.

Two of the weaker tracks for me are ‘Chalk Tablet Towers’ and ‘Dead Butterflies’, as I feel that they don’t progress in the same way that many others do on the album. Despite Kano’s brilliant verse on ‘Dead Butterflies’, I don’t think that these tracks are quite up to the standard of the rest of the project.

Overall, Gorillaz have come through with another very good addition to their discography and it makes me excited to see where the Song Machine era of the band will take us to next. If they continue in this artistic direction then we’re in for a real treat!

Recommended listening: ‘The Pink Phantom (feat. Elton John and 6LACK’, ‘Pac-Man (feat. ScHoolboy Q)’

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