Album review: Gorillaz – ‘Humanz’
For much of last decade, Gorillaz’ music (and their unique place as the world’s most successful virtual band) was pioneering for being able to take multiple genres, smash them together and make it sound fantastic. With their alternative rock-driven self-titled debut from Damon Albarn (of Blur) and animations by Jamie Hewlett, the band were thoroughly unique for the times.
But, both Albarn and Hewlett began to push themselves creatively with their sophomore effort, Demon Days. This effort became one of the most celebrated records of last decade, through its meshing of rock, funk and hip hop together in a commercial way. 2009’s Plastic Beach brought a more pop and trip hop-inspired sound, but also new electronic elements that were reused on 2011’s The Fall, easily the worst Gorillaz effort. Then for six years, Gorillaz went silent, barring the occasional small release.
However, in January this year, they dropped the non-commercial track Hallelujah Money featuring Benjamin Clementine, which received a somewhat mixed reception from both critics and fans. However, all worries quickly dissipated when the band dropped four animated music videos for Saturnz Barz, We Got the Power, Ascension and Andromeda. These tracks seem to signal yet another radical change in direction towards a less commercial sound, instead serving us up a sequenced, electronic sound combined with rap, hip hop, pop and more.
The finished record we’re getting is just as weird and wacky, jumping from one crazy idea to the next in such a way that it may challenge some fans. But it is certainly wonderful: Humanz is Gorillaz back in winning form, and more Gorillaz than they ever have been.
Albarn has spared no expense raiding the music genre candy store. Having cited Simple Minds for inspiration on this record, much like many of their tracks the percussion is incredibly important to Humanz. Unlike previous Gorillaz records that used live instrumentation, sequenced beats with an almost robotic quality exist all over many tracks here. Yet, Albarn also pulls from other genres like gospel, with singers and choirs adding in a much-needed human layer to the instrumentation. It’s an intoxicating and fascinating blend.
Albarn also pulls from other genres like gospel, with singers and choirs adding in a much-needed human layer to the instrumentation. It’s an intoxicating and fascinating blend.
Albarn also gives the many collaborators plenty of space to shine. The album kicks off with Ascension, with Vince Staples, but this is followed by the stellar Strobelite, with Peven Everett. This funk-infused track is a catchy number, with Everett’s vocals lending that gospel ‘human’ element, yet the rest of the instrumentation makes the track feel like it’s being rocketed into space (much like the Hewlett-directed music video for Saturnz Barz).
Other exceptional collaborations (to name a few on this record), include Grace Jones on the electronic, heavy distorted rock track Charger, Danny Brown and Kelela on the softer Submission which serves as a nice break from the rap-driven tracks, and the propulsive closer We Got the Power with Jehnny Beth and Albarn’s former Britpop rival, now collaborator, Noel Gallagher of Oasis. However, the one collaboration to trump them all is that of De La Soul (who has previously collaborated with Gorillaz on many occasions, most notably on Feel Good Inc.). De La Soul owns the track Momentz, a gospel-inspired rap with a swaggering rhythm reminiscent of White Light (from 2005 release Demon Dayz) that is the hidden gem of this record.
Albarn also gives plenty of time for himself and virtual vocalist 2D, especially on the quiet ballad, Busted and Blue, which is a much-needed breather from the denser tracks of the record. The gospel and synth climax of this song is one of the most beautiful moments on the entire record. The rest of the record also provides plenty of breathers, with several hilarious interludes that will either make you laugh your head off or scratch your head in confusion. That being said, lyrically, Humanz focuses heavily around themes of emotional reactions to significant events, so it makes sense that the emotional reactions are wild and varied, both lyrically and musically.
If there is a low point on the record, it is the last few tracks Let Me Out, Sex Murder Party, She’s My Collar and Hallelujah Money, which despite being entertaining, feel a lot less hard-hitting and less chaotically spectacular than the early half of the record.
In short though, Humanz is a stunning achievement. Genre-jumping styles and sounds have been done before (such as Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo), but Gorillaz have done it better than anyone else in recent memory. Those six years were worth the wait.
Humanz is out Friday, April 28.