- Burnaby, British Columbia - 2001 saw the arrival of Gorillaz, a band of animated fictional characters that took the world by storm with their smash hit, “Clint Eastwood.” It consisted of 2D on vocals, Murdoc on Bass, Russel on drums and Noodle on guitar. The cartoon characters took on a life of their own, participating in the music videos, interviews, and even a book; the band biography called, Rise of the Ogre.
In reality, these Gorillaz were the mad workings of Blur front man, Damon Albarn, and comic book artist, Jamie Hewlett. The idea of the cartoon band was supposed to be a statement on the shallowness of MTV, but was likely in heavy rotation on the channel as their self-titled debut album went on to sell over 7 million copies. Their second album, 2005's Demon Days charted even higher with their single, “Feel Good Inc.” and performed just as well selling over 10 million copies. The future of the band was unclear as years went by with very little activity. There were rumours of a feature film, but things hadn't panned out due to some unsatisfying scripts. Hewlett was also expressing a disinterest in drawing the characters anymore.
Fortunately, the Gorillaz are back with Plastic Beach. I entered this one with more excitement than I had for their last two albums. It took me a while to get into the other albums, but once I did I found the music to be quite rewarding, especially Demon Days. The opening single was Stylo, an upbeat electronic song, featuring Mos Def and soul singer Bobby Womack. I quickly fell in love with it and its strangely hilarious music video.
The purchase of the album when it hit stores was speedy and I wasted no time giving the disc a spin. My initial reaction was disappointment. It didn't last too long fortunately. I even remember the specific moment in the album where I was won over. The first portion of the album left me underwhelmed; I was not impressed with Snoop Dogg's less than enthusiastic contribution and most of it seemed too hip-hop heavy. Then the song “Empire Ants” started playing. At first I thought very little of it, but then the song takes a very dramatic turn almost exactly half way through. At that moment, I was sold.
Upon revisiting the album I grew more and more fond of it and developed an appreciation for every song to some extent. Even Snoop Dogg's track is enjoyable for the head-bopping beat and brass band contribution, though I am convinced would be better as an instrumental or with... anyone else. “Rhinestone Eyes” was one I thought little of the first time around, but quickly developed into one my favorite tracks on the album. It sustains an old school hip-hop beat contrasted by 2D's (Albarn's) spoken word vocals. The lyrics hold a poetic beauty that I haven't heard from the band before.
My appreciation for the album grew even more very recently when I saw their live show. At some point during the concert, I finally understood the project as a whole. The album, the tour and the videos are all part of the big Plastic Beach concept. The Plastic Beach is the fictional new studio and home for the Gorillaz characters. It's an island made of garbage in the middle of the ocean. In the music video of “On Melancholy Hill,” the band and all of its guest artists are in submarines approaching the beach. On the tour, they have put the fictional band on the back burner, focusing on all of the musicians who contributed. The stage was packed with a colourful array of personalities. I understood. The Plastic Beach was a place where musicians and creative minds from all sorts of backgrounds could collaborate on an album free of outside influence. This album is the culmination of their efforts.
The names within are an eclectic collection of artists from many musical directions. Mick Jones and Paul Simonon from The Clash appeared on the album and played on stage. Lou Reed, originally from The Velvet Underground, lends his vocals to “Some Kind Of Nature.” Yukimi Nagano from the Swedish electronic band Little Dragon sings on two tracks and performed on stage. There was a string section and the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble, as well as a Middle Eastern quartet. Music from all around the world was playing on the same stage accompanied by a whole collection of rappers and singers.
The album seems to draw much inspiration from acts that have come before it. “Empire Ants” feels like a tribute to Jean Michel Jarre, a pioneer of electronic music. “To Binge” feels like one of those classic soul love duets that aren't really done anymore. “Cloud of Unknowing” feels like a crisp missing track from Marvin Gaye's What's Going On.
Despite all of the influences, Plastic Beach more often than not feels like something original and creative. Damon Albarn gives many nods to the acts of the past, but very much keeps his eyes ahead. He takes hip-hop in all kinds of exciting directions and mixes electronic soundscapes with traditional instruments. The albums covers so much ground in tone; “Glitter Freeze” is a thundering dramatic sonic experience, while “Superfast Jellyfish” is a goofy fake commercial jingle. Both I enjoy immensely.
It's a bold step for Gorillaz, but it really pays off. They cover more ground in this album than most bands will in their entire careers. So, perhaps it's ironic that the band started as a statement of the shallowness of MTV, because they may have released one of the most rich and engrossing albums of the year.
Rating: 5/5 Sour Grapes