Throughout the 2000s, the musical world was exposed to a unique brand of music that was created by a band that in reality doesn’t exist.
I’m referring to the virtual band known as Gorillaz, created by Damon Albarn, the front man of Britpop band Blur, and comic book artist Jamie Hewlett.
The music, combined with the animated band members 2-D, Murdoc Niccals, Russel Hobbs and Noodle and their adventures, create an otherworldly experience both visually and musically. The companionship between Albarn’s music and Hewlett’s artwork on their past records has been seamless, allowing the musician and artist to be forgotten and for the virtuality to take over.
The project’s past works, most notably Demon Days (2005) and Gorillaz (2001), have aged fantastically and continue to be played out in all settings; from radio to drunken house parties. One could even argue that De La Soul’s laugh during “Feel Good Inc.” is almost ingrained in 20-something folklore (WATCH ME AS I NAVIGATE HA HA HA HA HAAAAAAA).
It was the playfulness and strange oddity surrounding their music that continues to shine off their records many years on.
Since their 2010 release Plastic Beach, however, Gorillaz has been a stagnant project, with both Albarn and Hewlett focusing on individual interests.
With that, the project returned late last month with its 5th studio effort Humanz.
In a world vastly different to the world they dominated in the 2000s, it was difficult for me to think how the Gorillaz would fit in.
The extensive track list, coupled with the just as lengthy features list, is an audacious leap in a world of of-the-moment singles and streaming. Regardless, it is definitely an exciting prospect for any Gorillaz fan to receive this much music after the length of time between projects.
The album kicks off with a short intro, which leads into the lively 'Ascension', with a vocal feature from Long beach rapper Vince Staples. It’s a decent opening and has enough weirdness to let the listener know that the Gorillaz are back.
The following track, 'Strobelite', with vocals from Peven Everett, whilst bringing juxtaposition to the first track, sounds closer to a Disclosure song than a Gorillaz number and adds inconsistency to the first few minutes of the record.
This pattern of conflicting sounds is a trend that continues throughout the project and, unfortunately, weakens the album’s consistency.
The fourth track, 'Saturnz Barz', featuring Popcaan is one of my personal favourites to land on the album. The slapping drums and Popcaan’s mischievous voice is a tip-of-the-hat reminder of the dub and electro inspired music created by artists like Groove Armada and Basement Jaxx in the early 2000s (as well as the Gorillaz).
Following this, however, the album takes a distracting turn in terms of sound and progression. ‘Momentz’, featuring a bizarrely auto-tuned De la Soul is one of the weakest showings on the record, whilst the repetitive ‘Submission’ featuring Danny Brown and Kelala seems half-cooked and underdone. Moreover, none of these tracks sound like Albarn’s work and are completely devoid of any “Gorillaz” sound.
Along with this underwhelming stretch of tracks, the interludes that break up the album add nothing to the album’s overall progression. It seems to unnecessarily stretch out the track listing.
What follows is a decent stretch on the album. ‘Andromeda’ shows Albarn moving back towards the Plastic Beach sound, whilst ‘Carnival’, featuring one of my favourite R&B singers Anthony Hamilton, is another hard-hitting standout.
This strong sequence of tracks continues along with a prominent showing by Pusha T and Mavis Staples on ‘Let Me Out'. It is a reminder of Albarn’s ability to seamlessly pair fantastic features and compliment them with a strong and unique musical presence. It is a shame, however, that these moments do not happen consistently on the record.
At the point ‘Halleluiah Money’ featuring Mercury Prize winner Benjamin Clementine comes up in the track listing, the listener can’t help but feel that the album has lost almost all cohesion. Whilst containing strong subject matter lyrically and avant-garde production, it in no way fits within the track listing. Furthermore, there is little sense of Gorillaz within the track save for Albarn’s vocals.
Although many songs are more than enjoyable and show Albarn’s high standard of creativity, Humanz holds little direction throughout its large tracklist.
Moreover, unlike previous records where a strong connection between Hewlett’s characters and Albarn’s music was upheld, it's difficult to imagine the four animated band members being involved in this music at all. It is also noticeable that the visual aspect of the Gorillaz has quite clearly been shifted out by the music for whatever reason.
When you listen back to the project’s previous works, there is an ever-present link between the animation and the music; it is easy to picture 2-D nervously humming into the microphone whilst Russel Hobbs bashes his drum kit. With regards to the music that lands on Humanz, this interplay between the animation and music falters significantly. Far too often, the tracks, unfortunately, lose their “Gorillaz” touch.
Despite this, the playfulness is still there, undoubtedly. Gorillaz can still be a voice for left-field creativity and has shown that it still has a place in modern music.
Nevertheless, it was always going to be a challenge for Albarn and Hewlett to have the same lofty impact like the one they had throughout the 2000s. CD's are on the way out, music channels are showing less music video and in an era of streaming, the bar was set almost impossibly high.
Instead of feeling like an album, however, Humanz feels like a melodic diary, scattering all of Albarn’s extensive musical ideas from the past few years.
Darcy Coombs hides behind his computer as the beat scribe for his band Otious. You'll find him voicing his opinions in 'Read'. He also hasn't grown a millimetre since he was 14.