Album: Song Machine, Season One: Strange Timez
Label: Parlophone Records
Release Date: Oct. 23
In “Song Machine, Season One: Strange Timez,” Gorillaz have produced an album documenting our new reality and how we are coping with it, utilizing countless genres and lots of help from friends.
Dan Albarn and Jamie Hewlett are back again as Gorillaz to drop a brand new double LP littered with features on every track. Albarn, former Blur lead vocalist, has teamed up with Hewlett, a visual artist, since 2001. Almost 20 years later, they are still putting out boundary-pushing music, now better centered towards the masses. After leading up to the album with eight singles, seven of which were released beside incredible videos, it dropped with another nine songs that had yet to be heard.
In “Song Machine, Season One: Strange Timez,” instances of poppier production are found next to classic Gorillaz sounds as well as club mixes and even an attempt at trap music. Not to mention, it is all masterfully executed.
The title track and opener of the album, “Strange Timez,” provides a reflection of our current world over a sparse and dissonant instrumental. Robert Smith’s nasally feature paired with Albarn’s relaxed vocals lead to a dance breakdown with glassy percussion, sizzling synths and buzzing horns. In the music video, the virtual band, donned in astronaut suits, drives to the moon where chaos ensues. As they drive back to earth, the camera pans to a message spelt out by craters on the moon, “Be the change.”
The worldwide pandemic coinciding with quarantine has played an obvious role in the crafting of this album, with themes and sounds throughout pulling from our new reality.
The seventh song, “Aries,” uses a retro 80’s synth sound with twangy guitars to discuss isolation and relationships. 2D’s (Albarn’s virtual avatar) melancholic vocals express a need for embrace, while questioning if he’s ready for it.
And a chanting rock anthem chorus finds 2D drowning within himself with the line, “And it feels like I’m falling in, again.” This album highlight even features a Gatsby metaphor as 2D waits for his light to turn green.
The music video released for “Aries” consists of the virtual band driving around a tropical city in various vehicles. The landscape’s colors have been inverted, producing an apocalyptic scene in which band member Murdoc injects 2D with some unknown substance. After the video, 2D takes a moment to ask everyone to stay inside and stay safe during quarantine.
“Momentary Bliss” was the first single to drop back in January, and acted as an amazing introduction to “Song Machine.” As the synths build before any melody is found, a Beatles easter egg can be found when 2D mentions, “Lovely Rita, meter maid.” Then, a punky guitar and punchy synths provide a fun and energetic instrumental to slowthai’s verses, focused on spreading positivity and self-acceptance. A euphoric chorus asks at the top of its lungs why we don’t strive for the better lives we deserve.
In “Dead Butterflies,” Gorillaz try their hand at a trap song, collaborating with the likes of Mike WiLL Made-It on the production half of the song.
Albarn’s bluesy vocals sound amazing over the trap bass, snares and hats, revealing a completely new sound for the band. Both “MLS” and “How Far?” flex great features from JPEGMAFIA and Skepta respectively. A cute poppy instrumental pairs surprisingly well with Peggy’s cocky raps and gives him a chance to showcase his r&b vocals. The late Tony Allen’s drumline backs Skepta’s powerful verse to wrap up the album.
The club mix “Opium,” shows major influence from Kanye releases like “KIDS SEE GHOSTS” or “808s & Heartbreak.” A steady build of synths, submerged and lazered, flow into a distorted EARTHGANG hymnal. An array of synths build utilizing various tones such as ringing, a submerged muffle, and buzzing. Then the drop falls into a stripped and up tempo verse with thudding toms and drowned percussion, lyrically centered on tolerance and universal love, dreaming of a utopia that one day could be real.
“Pac-Man” provides a catchy chorus over a synth-pop instrumental with lyrics focused on the monotonous flaws found in our world. Worldplay like, “I’m a mad pac-man livin’ in a levelled world,” shows both the endless struggle placed on our existence as well as the desolate landscape we are creating through warfare and deforestation. ScHoolboy Q delivers expert verses, dissecting the systematic oppression placed on a creator and individual as well as a black man.
“The Pink Phantom” was the eighth and final single released, featuring both 6LACK and Elton John. Buzzing synths and soft keys with a thudding bassline support drowsy vocals from Albarn and a regal chorus from Elton, with the lyrical focus of a lost love and their presence in his life today. The break after the first chorus is absolutely amazing, layering bright ascending keys and numerous dreamy vocal tracks to create a harmonious chaos that perfectly encompasses the essence of the song. The video uses a kaleidoscope effect in this instance while giving Elton his own virtual avatar.
If this is only season one, there is great anticipation as to what will follow. This edition of “Song Machine” creates a sound that is simultaneously diverse yet focused. Gorillaz have shown they are more than up to the task of adapting to the evolving musical landscape, still presenting their audience with vivacious and experimental sounds.
They eloquently depict our new environment and delve into the emotions we are all facing as Albarn and company discuss isolation and learning how to find comfort in chaos.
These are “Strange Timez,” yet Gorillaz have become a consistency, always delivering enthralling visuals and a wonderfully unique sound.
The arts desk can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.