2001 was a dark time indeed. Terror lurked in our skies. War rippled through the Middle East. Linkin Park had the biggest selling album of the year. It was a time of conflict, fear and trailer rock. You might have been forgiven for predicting that the end was near.
In fact, that seems to be the premise largely behind one of the greatest bands to emerge during western pop music’s worst decade. Damon Albarn, erstwhile of 90s Britpop godfathers, Blur, brings apocalyptic doom and gloom to new heights of style and funkiness. Gorillaz were perfectly of their era, an unrestrained hybrid of rock, hip hop and dub channeled through a high-concept multimedia identity. Few things could have been more fitting as the War on Terror raged.
But Gorillaz is less a band than a collective of artists and musicians working within the expansive confines of Albarn’s imagination. Blur’s ingenious precision is recast into a post-millennial soup of alienated electro-beats and smoky grooves, then channeled through history’s first ‘virtual band.’
Gorillaz are comprised of any number of human beings behind the scenes, but are otherwise represented by four animated characters created by Jamie Hewlett, the illustrator and artist best known for Tank Girl. Hewlett’s bright, visceral animation permeates the band’s videos and live performances.
Indeed, if you ever have a chance to behold the latter, you’ll enjoy these videos on an HD screen roughly the size of a small principality.
Putting aside the conceptual nature of the band, its musical output is serious business. In fact, Albarn originally conceived Gorillaz as a side project but it quickly flowered into something far more substantial.
When “Clint Eastwood” assaulted the radio with its mid-apocalyptic spaghetti western atmosphere and Del the Funky Homosapien’s chunky vocal, it was a godsend of originality. May I remind you, again, that ‘post-grunge’ was peaking right about now. “Clint Eastwood” was a surprise to its creators and to those of us who were genuinely resigned to our exile from radio listening. As it happens, there was a whole record hiding behind the hit that shared its alluring trip-hop sensibilities and its total disregard for genre boundaries. With producer Dan the Automator and vocals by Cibo Matto’s Miho Hatori and Ibrahim Ferrer from the Buena Vista Social Club, Gorillaz is on its face an alternative hip hop record. But it also feels like a mirror for the emergent dismantling of borders, whether between nations or armies of style. Tracks like “Dracula” and “Tomorrow Come Today” have a desperate, worldly cool that stood in utter contrast to the cynically genrified turn-of-the-millennium music biz. The debut is a cohesive record largely because everything on it dabbles in the same novel sonic space; dub loops, crunching beats and Albarn’s typically angular cleverness. But in many ways, this was merely the table-setter for what was to come next.
Demon Days (2005)
Dan the Automator’s work on the debut was suitable but what Danger Mouse brings to the next record is positively brilliant. Demon Days begins by repeating the chilling question “are we the last living souls?” By the fourth time they ask, you wonder if it’s true. At the height of global war in Afghanistan and Iraq, Albarn unleashed a concept record that seemed largely to foretell the end of the world. Sounds like a drag, right?
But that’s the thing. Armageddon never sounded so much like a raging party. “Feel Good, Inc.” and “Dirty Harry” were omnipresent in 2005, splashing macabre images of war and presidents landing on aircraft carriers over sproingy bleeps and brain-branding hooks. This album plays perfectly to the foreboding sense of doom that marked the era, offering an epic musical cinema about how the world is basically fucked. Gorillaz also reveal the intent, with their second record, to keep the cast in constant rotation.
Guest appearances include Shaun Ryder, De La Sol, MF Doom and Dennis Hopper. In sum, this is not only the best thing Gorillaz ever did, it’s also one of the defining albums of its time.
Plastic Beach (2010)
If Demon Days is about the end of the world, the Plastic Beach is the non-biodegradable human settlement that is left behind. As a whole, this album is at once slicker and less consistent than its predecessor. It echoes the conceptual bent but lacks the gut-punch of Demon Days. In reality, it is made essential because it feels like the final part of a trilogy. If the band was, in previous incarnations, an animated front for a serious musical undertaking, Plastic Beach actually feels driven by a certain cartoonish preoccupation. It also seems at points as though the preponderance of guest stars has, for the first time, detracts from the cohesiveness of a Gorillaz record. Snoop Dogg, Bobby Womack and Lou Reed are part of an almost perversely disparate guest list…though Mick Jones and Paul Simonen of The Clash are quite welcome on the album’s super-funky, super-satisfying title track. A fun record and certainly more lighthearted than its predecessor but also a great deal less consistent. You’ll need this one largely to round out the narrative but don’t be disappointed. Nothing here comes close to Demon Days.