Song Machine, Season One: Strange Timez is not a normal album. None of Damon Albarn’s music has been ‘normal’, but his recent musical explorations with Gorillaz have been received with mix reviews. Partially, I feel because of their constant efforts to try and make ‘different’ music to what they have received immense commercial success with.
This latest project somewhat highlighting just why a group once seen as the most interesting, exciting and ground breaking of a generation, sounds and feels confused. Just gazing at the track-list gave me an excited and apprehensive feeling. Interesting collaborations with Slaves, Elton John and Unknown Mortal Orchestra, intertwined with a determined effort by Albarn to feature some of the most ‘exciting’ names in Hip-Hop.
Opening track; Strange Timez is a spooky yet sparkly presentation to the times we live in.
Potentially the most surprisingly effective feature on the album is with singer/songwriter Beck. The Valley of The Pagans has a catchy and creative bop to it. The signature Albarn groan accompanying intricate instrumentals fans of The Gorillaz will instant recognise and resonate with.
The best tracks from this album are, in my opinion, the ones which take me back to my teenage years of listening to the Gorillaz, with bold and broad reminders of their first two records.
The Lost Chord is a groovy and captivating collaboration with soul artist Leee John. Like much of the album, catchy and enticing productions simply aren’t matched by interesting or engaging lyrics. This song the most clear example of this.
As expected arguably, the best lyricism in this record comes from the hip-hop figures featured. First of whom, ScHoolboy Q has always been in my eyes an underrated and under-appreciated figure in the hip-hop scene. In ‘Pac-Man’ Albarn opens with a trudged vocal accompanying a fantastic use of drums and bass, before Q slams in with a verse that hardly makes much sense let alone interests or excites the listener. However, his second verse is tackled with a more mellow and easier approach, and is accompanied by more useful and relevant lyrics.
It should also come of no surprise that in a tracklist full of male musicians that the albums best feature comes from St. Vincent. She helps form an uplifting and psychedelic atmosphere which breaks down beautifully.
What should have been a beautiful ballad between Albarn and Elton John is crudely interrupted by the abrupt autotune of 6LACK. A collaboration between the Gorillaz and Valentine could have sounded great but I find the contrasting acoustic styles of Elton John and 6LACK a little too different to find any significant synergy.
The less said about Octavian the better.
Further collaborations with British artists Kano, Slowthai and Slaves are both solid, any music involving Kano has found itself being incredible.
Earthgang I have followed closely since I saw them in London in what feels like a lifetime ago. Their contribution to this confused album is also solid, they are one of the few American artists who present an interesting and alternative take on hip-hop and are sure to be a group I would recommend to fans of the genre.
The record concludes with a track featuring the late and exceptionally talented Tony Allen as well as Skepta. The contrasting styles of Allen’s dynamic drumming, Gorillaz spooky instrumentals and Skepta’s flow blend beautifully.
Overall, this album has moments of brilliance, dreamy collaborations, arranged and produced somewhat awkwardly. It is an album which has personally left me waiting and wanting another full length, featureless record from the Gorillaz, something I hope isn’t far away.