By Charlie Coyle
Gorillaz – Song Machine, Season One: Strange Timez, is a welcome return to form for the virtual phenomenon, complete with star-studded features and plenty of fresh and fun songs.
After their two most recent attempts, Gorillaz needed to release a complete and focussed album in order to maintain their relevancy. Humanz, although ambitious, fell flat and was bogged down with a saturation of features that didn’t work, coupled with no clear direction and few memorable songs. The Now Now was a clear improvement but was still missing something vital to the signature Gorillaz feel. I am very happy to say that Strange Timez is a return to form for Murdoc, 2-D, Russel and Noodle (and Damon Albarn).
Song Machine started back in January 2020, when times (timez?) weren’t so strange, with the release of ‘Momentary Bliss’. Linked music videos of other singles released later in the year and accompanying webisodes culminated in the creation of the album Song Machine, Season One: Strange Timez, which was released on October 23rd.
A similar sound to Demon Days and Plastic Beach
The opening track, the eponymously (and aptly) named ‘Strange Timez’, starts the album off strongly, with unsettling dissonant tones and Robert Smith’s (The Cure) haunting vocals, accompanied by subtle synth melodies and 2-D’s iconic distorted voice. It is obvious to see from this track alone how much effort has been put into every part. Each groove, instrument, sample and vocal line has clearly been meticulously thought about and the result is a very full and refined sound.
The album continues from strength to strength. It’s clear from the features that there is a stronger sense of focus on individual songs: each one has a unique sound to it. ‘Désolé’, featuring Fatomumata Diawara, is a truly enthralling bossa nova inspired track, and Diawara steals the show with her captivating vocal hooks. The aforementioned ‘Momentary Bliss’, featuring Slowthai and Slaves, is a punkier and more bombastic affair, with the line, “You’re a Turkey Twizzler/you deserve school dinners” being more applicable than ever.
‘The Valley of The Pagans’ is a bright, fun fusion of funk and hip-hop, with a strong performance from Beck, whose vocals compliment 2-D’s seamlessly, especially in the final verse and chorus. ‘Pac-Man’ is heavily grime inspired, with a weighty, laid backbeat and a feature from ScHoolboy Q, who comes in with provocative and aggressive lyrics. 2-D takes a backseat in the second half of this tune, which usually results in a distinctively lacking Gorillaz song, but Hanley holds his own and the track is better for it.
A very focussed and cohesive album
‘Chalk Tablet Towers’ is the most personal and introspective on the album and has a truly beautiful chord progression, although St Vincent, who is featured on the track, is criminally under-utilised and is demoted to back up singer, resulting in a good yet uninspired song. The same can be said for ‘Dead Butterflies’, which is easily the weakest song on the album. The song features two artists, Kano and Roxani Arias, who are both at least used and perform well, but it goes nowhere and the choruses are especially bland. It’s a shame because the songs before and after it are so strong.
Speaking of bangers, ‘Aries’ isn’t only one of the best songs on the album, it sits among some of Gorillaz greatest songs. The sweeping and euphoric sound, coupled with 2-D’s strongest performance on the album and the 80’s techno vibe make it a contender for song of the year, for me at least. The track feels so deliberate and whole; Peter Hook (Joy Division, New Order) and Georgia each add their own flair to songs, with Hook’s bass guitar cutting through the mix, and Georgia’s drumming keeping the song clean, yet not entirely diverting the attention from her
Elton John makes an appearance in ‘The Pink Phantom’, although it’s nothing to write home about. He is evenly matched with 2-D’s voice and 6LACK’s unexpectedly soulful and vulnerable vocals, which come to a beautiful climax at the end. ‘The Lost Chord’ featuring Leee John and ‘Friday 13th’ featuring Octavian are both great songs, but neither stand out amongst the other high-quality tracks.
This album is what Humanz should have been. I’m glad to see Gorillaz back on track and producing an album that stands tall against their other greats, like Demon Days and Plastic Beach. If this trajectory is anything to go by, Gorillaz is going to be one to watch for Song Machine 2.