In the past, Gorillaz’ albums have often suffered from a lack of consistency, an endless stream of loosely constructed ideas and demos that would sometimes, like on their self-titled debut, result in a masterpiece — but more often result in an unfocused album difficult to grasp. Needless to say, I had my doubts when the group declared the Song Machine project, with songs being released one-by-one online with different collaborating artists featured in every new release.
But a short glimpse on the list of collaborators should have made me realize that this is no ordinary feature-filled album. Robert Smith from the legendary post-punk group the Cure joins Damon Albarn on the opening “Strange Timez,” a messy fusion of spooky background voices over a ghostly synth melody representative for the devastating times we’re all living in. Beck Hansen joins the group on the hook-based second track “The Valley of the Pagans,” where the catchy retro-synths combined with great production and Beck’s typically unaffected singing truly lives up to the expectations for all of us who has always been waiting for a collab between Albarn and Beck.
More collaborations follow, from the chewing bass beat on ScHoolboy Q’s feature “Pac-Man,” the relatively generic “Friday 13th” featuring French-born rapper Octavian, and the up-tempo, disco/new wave of “Aries,” where Joy Division co-founder Peter Hook meets London-born singer Georgia in a wonderfully up-beat tune where nostalgia meets the future. The mix of such diverse artists makes the album entertaining even when the features turn out a bit awkward, such as in “The Pink Phantom,” where rapper 6LACK meets Elton John, who sounds like a dinosaur in comparison. Everything is kept together by the wonderful production that flows seamlessly between songs, making the album sound relatively cohesive despite the large number of people involved in the project. It is very clear that from the beginning, Albarn had a clear vision of how he wanted this album to sound.
The last song (if you don’t buy the extended version and get another six tracks) is the album’s true nugget, “Momentary Bliss.”. Rappers slowthai and Slaves contribute to the greatest fusion of trap-infused rap and ska-infused punk rock I have ever heard before, a song that really pushes both genres into brand new and unexpected directions. Regarding the six deluxe tracks, they are hardly worth spending your money on unless you are a diehard Gorillaz fan.
With the first chapter of the Sound Machine project, Gorillaz has put together a charming list of artists, paired with great hooks and excellent production. The occasionally weak moments are overshadowed by several highs, and Albarn has been smart enough to put the less successful tracks as additional listening. This is, in many ways, a rebirth for this weird concept of a group, and now I can’t wait to see what the Sound Machine will bring us in the future.