31st October 2020

Album Review: Gorillaz – Song Machine, Season One: Strange Timez

Gorillaz return with Song Machine, an inventive, star-studded hour long project which proves to be their best in a decade

It truly feels like an age since the first single in the Song Machine series was released, Momentary Bliss with Slowthai and Slaves, way back in January of this year. I’m sure you don’t need or want me to go into what has happened to the state of the world since then, but this wonderful blend of hip-hop, punk and Gorillaz’s signature peppy and dreamy style serves to remind of us of slightly less troublesome times. Slowthai shines in a typically yelpy and brilliantly energetic performance and with a driving guitar line courtesy of Slaves, the song is very enjoyable and an excellent choice for a lead single.

Since then a steady stream of similarly high quality singles have been released from the group and given listeners ‘episodes’ to look forward over the difficult lockdown months. The first of these, ‘Désolé’ with Fatouma Diawarra, sees Gorillaz venture into a sound reminiscent of world music infused with some new wave elements. 2D’s deadpan vocals are contrasted with Diawarra’s magnificent range and the resulting tune is a very pleasant listen.

Next followed the best of the bunch, ‘Aries’ featuring former New Order and Joy Division bassist Peter Hook and multi-instrumentalist Georgia. Hook brings a bass line evocative of Power, Corruption and Lies era New Order and the synth line kicking in with the chorus along with the steady drum machine infused beat delivers marvellous results. A song that tributes but doesn’t rip off, it remains the best in the Song Machine series.

After Aries came ‘How Far’ with Skepta and Tony Allen, which was not an ‘episode’ of the series but a bonus track which was released early due to the passing of the latter artist. The influential drummer and songwriter sadly passed away on 30th April and this track features a trademark Allen drum beat, tight flows and clever wordplay from Skepta set alongside brooding production. It is a fitting release in tribute of a vastly talented legend who is no longer with us.

Next came ‘Friday 13th’ with British rapper Octavian and whilst maybe being the weakest of the bunch of singles, is by no means a bad song. His half-sung half-rapped style is not enough to carry the song and despite a late contribution from 2D, the song does drag on and the dub reggae style instrumental is a tad sparse. It does make an interesting change in the track list however, and reinforces the notion that the songs on this project are their own separate entities.

Thankfully, the next three singles are of a much higher quality. ‘Pac-Man’ featuring the gravelly-voiced ScHoolboy Q is another tune with a fantastic instrumental and infectious lead vocals from 2D. ScHoolboy Q delivers two excellent verses featuring tight and triumphant lyrics:

“All the trauma from past never taught me to fear heights
Normal to fly now, can’t be stuck in the rear lights
Take flight, the life gone bloom for the black knight” – ScHoolboy Q

In many ways it is an archetypal Gorillaz track with a groovy plinky synth lead, a strong bass line and a grimy but excellent rap feature. It can perhaps be considered Song Machine’s greatest fan service track on the album, as fans may be able to liken it to the groups most popular songs from years gone by, ie. Clint Eastwood or Feel Good Inc.

The title track and album opener followed and features none other than The Cure’s Robert Smith. The appropriately titled ‘Strange Timez’ sees Smith deliver apocalyptic opening lines as 2D launches into the best verse on the album, a poetic analysis of the tumultuous political and social climate of the world in 2020. Smith sings the chorus once more before the beat drops and a pulsing house-style rhythm emerges in a euphoric fashion. The dance production, the striking and catchy hook and the wonderful feature all make this a fantastic choice for an album opener.

The final and arguably most dramatic single that Damon Albarn and Gorillaz blessed fans features the most unlikely of pairings – Atlanta’s very own 6lack and Pinner’s very own Sir Elton John. Entitled ‘The Pink Phantom’, the piano based ballad includes fittingly contrasting performances from the two featured artists. 6lack’s understated auto-tuned vocals manage to compliment Elton John’s typically dramatic verses very impressively. In spite of the seemingly chaotic nature of this collaboration, the song is unmistakably a Gorillaz track as the off-kilter synths are married with 2D’s laments of ‘summer nights’. Perhaps the most ambitious collaboration of the entire project, The Pink Phantom is a triumph of the group’s adventurous and supremely innovative qualities.

The singles make up seven of the eleven album tracks, and element which, perhaps as a result of the extra six bonus tracks released alongside the album, does not detract from the overall enjoyment levels of the record. Whilst admittedly not as thoroughly enjoyable as the majority of the singles released, the album cuts are still of a high standard and should satisfy the listener.

‘Valley of the Pagans’ with Beck is evocative of the singer’s early ‘voice of a generation’ style if Beck grew up trapped in the Gorillaz’s warped universe. The upbeat nature of the track fits in perfectly at the start of the tracklist and Beck sounds more animated than he has in decades. Lyrically, the song welcomingly satirises the fickle nature of growing influencer culture, best encapsulated by Beck’s wonderful couplet ‘She’s a plastic Cleopatra on a throne of ice, She’s a haemophiliac with a dying battery life’. The following track, ‘The Lost Chord’ with Leee John is more of a slow burner, but the string work accompanied by the syncopated drum beat compliment each other well.

‘Chalk Talbet Towers’ with St. Vincent is the most gratifying album cut. Whilst not being the most lyrically substantive Song Machine track, the fantastic synth and keys work makes it potentially the catchiest and most energetic song on the album. That only leaves ‘Dead Butterflies’ featuring Kano, Roxani Aries and production from Mike WiLL Made-It. The trap infused beat compliments 2D’s vocals well and Kano delivers a neatly arranged verse, but the song lacks in the individualistic quality the other tracks boast.

In its collaborative nature the Song Machine project is reminiscent of Gorillaz’s ‘Humanz’ album, released in 2017. The most salient difference with this effort however is the sheer individualistic element to the seven singles and even the four album tracks. Production is consistently excellent across the record and in typical Gorillaz fashion the singles are accompanied by excellent visuals as seen in the videos linked above. Certainly their best since ‘Plastic Beach’… dare we begin to look forward to an incoming season two?

Key Tracks: Aries, Momentary Bliss, Pac-Man, Chalk Tablet Towers