‘Song Machine:’ A return to form for Gorillaz musically and creatively

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After the unfocused “Humanz” and the middling “The Now Now,” many fans of Gorillaz were concerned they were well past their prime. With this in mind, coordinator Damon Albarn has taken time to consider and refocus the group, finding fresh footing in their latest project, “Song Machine.”

Instead of a normal album rollout, Gorillaz is trying a new release schedule: Throughout the year, they will release 13 songs and music videos. In addition, each track will feature musicians who have never collaborated with the group before. With the release of “Aries” on April 9, three episodes of Song Machine have been released. 

For “Song Machine,” Gorillaz is certainly toning down some of the grandeur of their past projects. Gorillaz is a band made up of entirely virtual members, with Damon Albarn and Jamie Hewlett leading the creative direction. Instead of fully animated music videos typical of the group, the band’s members 2-D, Murdoc, Russel and Noodle are gorgeously but simply drawn against simple backgrounds or the real-life collaborators.

The focus of “Song Machine” is put squarely on the music. Gorillaz have never sounded fresher. The new voices on tracks are welcome, giving each song a character all its own. On the first episode, “Momentary Bliss,” slowthai and Slaves come through to give a very raw yet contented track. “Désolé” featuring Fatoumata Diawara is mysterious and elemental, almost. And “Aries” sounds like it came right out of new wave, working with New Order bassist Peter Hook to the fullest.

And yet, while Gorillaz are matched up with some big personalities, “Song Machine” has not lost its base so far. Each song feels wholly different and original but still deserving of being considered a Gorillaz song. With a virtual band and rotating musicians, they risk losing focus or a cohesive sound; Gorillaz has certainly fallen into that trap before. Whether it’s the quirky plinking synths or Albarn’s haunting voice as 2-D or the general song structure, that has not at all been a concern thus far in “Song Machine.” Each song has been of the highest quality while still keeping that satisfying alt undercurrent.

The creative direction of Gorillaz is always changing. Since Damon Albarn and Jamie Hewlett founded the band in the late ‘90s, they have been committed to testing the limits of an entirely virtual band. Through carefully planned storyboarding, the artistic direction of Gorillaz has always been top-notch. Even when they have missed musically, their creativity has never failed to impress.

On “Plastic Beach,” the group engaged in a story line across the album’s music videos, tying in with previous works as well. On promotional single “DoYaThing,” the band took us on a tour of their imaginary apartment.  Even the little touches count. On “The Now Now,” for example, “bassist” Murdoc was mysteriously absent, instead replaced by a cartoon character named Ace. For those not up on their lore, Ace is one of the Gangreen Gang from The Powerpuff Girls. That’s how weird Gorillaz are willing to get.

This time, most of the gimmicks are stepped back. The story or world-building of “Song Machine” takes place in little “Machine Bitez” that accompany each new single. These are mostly just the band members talking with the featured artists, chatting about the making of the song or mishaps in the process. While these are mostly fluff, it is a touch more immersive to imagine the featured real-world artists interacting with 2-D, Murdoc and the rest. 

Despite being at it for over two decades now, Gorillaz have never fallen into staleness. They consistently manage to be one of the weirdest, coolest, most “huh”-inducing bands in music, and that is no different here. Tame Impala and Schoolboy Q have already been hinted at as features in future episodes of “Song Machine,” but really it’s anyone’s guess with the variety they’ve already shown so far. Be sure to follow this project — you and your ears won’t regret it.

Thumbnail photo courtesy of @gorillaz Instagram.

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Peter Fenteany is the associate opinion editor for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at peter.fenteany@uconn.edu.

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