Gorillaz — Song Machine, Season 1: Strange Timez — Album Review

Electronic | Alternative

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Note: This review will be taking into account the deluxe version of this album, and all of the tracks within it.

After some of the previous projects that virtual band Gorillaz put out before this one, It was a very pleasant surprise indeed that their newest album (or in this case, a project that is painted as more of a series), ultimately became my most anticipated project of the year.

In order to give this review a little bit more context, I will have to go through a story, which dates back to 2017, in which Gorillaz bounced back from a 7-year long hiatus with their fourth album (or fifth, if you want to include 2010’s The Fall), which was named Humanz. However, when I say that they “bounced back”, what that really means was that they just existed as a band again. And while it was indeed a relief to see Damon Albarn let the likes of his band Blur cool down for a bit, to put more care into his virtual band project, it definitely felt like something was missing.

After giving the Humanz album a few listens, I realised that the glaring issue was that this Gorillaz album didn’t have enough of…well…Gorillaz on it. While the extravagant and exciting list of featured artists, which included Danny Brown, Rag ’n’ Bone Man, Jehnny Beth, and even Grace Jones, definitely seemed promising, the band behind the album took an unnecessary back seat to all of the featured artists who were on it. And considering that this served as our first taste of the virtual band in over half the decade, Humanz became a gravely letdown.

Then as if Albarn realised that himself, we received another album only one year later. And while my first listen of 2018’s The Now Now left me with very divided feelings, I realised that this album also ended up being just as disappointing as Humanz, but for the completely opposite reason; there was now too much of the band, and a very scarce list of featured artists, which definitely play a vital role in the overall appeal of Gorillaz. As a result, The Now Now became a moment in the journey of Gorillaz that felt almost as forgettable and colourless as The Fall.

And then arrived 2020. With the title like Song Machine, I was anxious that it suggested a project that would feel very draft-like and incomplete (basically a pile-up of otherwise abandoned projects). However, it was quite the opposite indeed. Not only was this album going to have that brand-new feel, it also attempted to take a different approach in the way it was teased. As a project which Damon Albarn called a “series”, there was talk that it was going to span over the majority of the year.

And now that we have arrived at the moment that Gorillaz have been building up to over the course of 2020, the one thing that I wanted to mention, is that one of the best thing about this new album, was how it was teased. The almost monthly release of new neaser tracks, really allows Song Machine to feel like a project that represents 2020 masterfully well, and thus feels synonymous with the strange time that has been 2020.

The first of these teasers dates back to the very end of January. Titled “Momentary Bliss”, the track featured both slowthai and Slaves, two artists who I have enjoyed listening to previously. That being said, it was safe to say that I went into it with slightly higher hopes.

Those hopes were fortunately validated, by the fact that this track managed to represent both artists really well, whilst feeling unmistakably like a Gorillaz song. This was a balanced that felt sorely missed, and as a result, “Momentary Bliss” became a beacon of sort, giving listeners a small glimmer of hope that the virtual band were on their way to a return to form.

Things only seemed to get better from there on. With track like the gorgeously atmospheric “Désolé” and the deeply energetic “Aries”, Gorillaz were seemingly putting out banger after banger.

The only small speed-bump with the teasing of Song Machine, came with the single “How Far?” as well as “Friday the 13th”. I still found the former enjoyable, but it suffers the same problem as a lot of tracks on Humanz, in which it sort of just felt like a Skepta song, and also was oddly not listed as one of the “episode” in this musical series. However, the latter of the two track swas, and felt far more dull and shallow that what we had heard prior.

But with my hopes lowered to a more realistic viewpoint, Gorillaz reach a second wave of releasing more amazing teaser tracks, such as “Pac-Man”, the title track “Strange Timez”, and “The Pink Phantom”, which would serve as the final three teasers before the release of the full album. Absolutely no complaints here; they were all extremely enjoyable. But if I had to choose one of these three tracks to rave about, it would need to be “Pac-Man” the engaging beat and colourful atmosphere felt like it could effortlessly settle in to the likes of 2010’s Plastic Beach.

And much like how the first teaser gave me a glimmer of excitement, the tracklist for Song Machine boosted that excitement to 11. There were so many exciting featured artists scattered across this thing. Including those found on the teaser tracks, Song Machine brings us artists such as Beck, EARTHGANG, Elton John, GoldLink, Peter Hook, Robert Smith, ScHoolboy Q, Skepta, Slaves, slowthai, Unknown Mortal Orchestra, and many more.

I was happy to find that the semblance of the pre-2010’s Gorillaz also just didn’t stop with the teaser tracks; there were a handful of new tunes to get stuck in to, particularly tracks 2 and 3, which were especially enjoyable.

But on the flipside, there were also a handful of tracks that still carried similarities to the less-liked previous projects from the band; either because they didn’t fit in to the rest of the album, or because the musical build was far less colourful.

The final verdict I had on this album was that Gorillaz have one-hundred percent found their feet once-more and returned to their classic form. There is definitely no semblance of any torn or indefinite feeling like I had with Humanz or The Now Now; Song Machine is another great project from Gorillaz, and most certainly the best they have created in years.

However, it is still not a completely flawless project (realistically, it would’ve been extremely hard for this album to be just that), but as long as Gorillaz continue to abandon the extremes of being too dependant on other artists, or being too independent, and instead find a balance between the two as they have for the majority of Song Machine, Series 1, then the virtual band have landed firmly on the right track.

Favourite Tracks: The Lost Chord | Pac-Man | Désolé

Least Favourite Track: With Love To An Ex

Gorillaz Partnership | Parlophone Records

8/10

My articles mainly revolve around music reviews and analysis. A bit like Anthony Fantano, but just a decade behind.