May 6, 2017

TEST SPIN: Gorillaz — Humanz

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There are few things more complex and engaging than a virtual band in the era of technology and the internet. British virtual band Gorillaz, created by Damon Albarn and Jamie Hewlett, has been around since 1998. Since then, the band and technology have been pushing forward rapidly. The four members — 2D, Murdoc, Noodle and Russel — are not meant to be a normal band. They have an unusual dynamic, and as Russel described in a recent Skype interview, their “history is a dirty, shallow lake, clogged up with grievances, grudges, decomposing bodies.” Indeed, for 2010 album Plastic Beach, Murdoc kidnapped 2D and forced him to make the album with him. Following his escape, 2D then made an album in the U.S, The Fall. The Fall was released on Christmas Day 2010 and has left me sad and wanting more ever since. Suddenly, on March 23, Gorillaz surprised the world with four tracks that were to appear on their album Humanz, out now.

Since the release of the first four songs, Albarn and Hewlett have been promoting the band and the album in unprecedented ways. The music video for the most popular track, “Saturnz Barz,” was released with a 360° video, providing an extremely engaging, intimate experience. Additionally, a pop-up haunted house was organized in various locations to provide audiences with an even closer look at the “spirit house” in the music video. Murdoc and 2D did a live Q&A session with Mistajam, an animated TV series for the band has been confirmed, a Pandora station was made featuring music that influenced Humanz, and the new Gorillaz app — like Pokemon Go — led users to locations where they could listen to the album before its release. Now that the long-awaited album has been released, it has evoked generally mixed feelings.

Except for “Busted and Blue,” all of the 26 tracks on the album feature other artists — who, according to Murdoc, were all kidnapped and forced to collaborate. While features are not uncommon, perhaps even defining for Gorillaz, Humanz had too many. The results of this massive collaboration were not bad, but I found myself wanting more of Damon Albarn’s vocals. With or without reverb, Albarn’s vocals give every song an emotional, soothing touch that makes listeners want him to read a bedtime story, which is what made The Fall such an emotional, intimate album. By covering up his writing and vocals with other artists’ work, Albarn takes away from 2D’s character (whom he voices) and the ongoing Gorillaz story. Since Plastic Beach, very little has been revealed about the whereabouts of each member after their escape from Plastic Beach, and Humanz provides neither closure nor development. Regardless, Humanz had good things happening throughout its 26 tracks.

Past albums, especially Gorillaz, Plastic Beach and The Fall, didn’t have grand, unifying themes, but they revolved around the band, told their story and communicated the members’ thoughts. Humanz, on the other hand, has a political theme, but as Albarn told Mistajam on a BBC Radio 1 interview, “[Humanz is] not about Donald Trump at all, but it was imagining that happening. In a way that was our dark fantasy, and, unfortunately, it became reality.” The tracks “Ascension,” “Let Me Out,” “Hallelujah Money” and “We Got the Power” have evident political and social commentary, as seen in the lyrics “And I thought the best way to protect our tree/Is by building walls/Walls like unicorns/In full glory/And galore/And even stronger/Than the walls of Jericho” from “Hallelujah Money.” Additionally, when Mistajam mentioned Donald Trump during his interview with Murdoc and 2D, Murdoc went into a small panic episode and 2D had to calm him down. However, this political theme is not the only found in Humanz, even if is the more evident one.

As mentioned, Humanz lacks insight into the members’ thoughts and feelings. The intro track “I Switched off My Robot,” “Busted and Blue” and “Out of Body” are the only songs that convey some 2D’s emotions, but the album in general lacks the rest of the members. As far as 2D and Albarn go, we can see their struggle between technology and reality. In the past, Gorillaz has blurred the line between fantasy and reality, but we never saw a conflict like this. For example, The Fall was written by Albarn but revolved solely about 2D’s experience in the U.S. However, it often becomes unclear whether the listeners are seeing through Albarn or 2D’s eyes. “Busted and Blue,” the saddest track on the upbeat, apocalypse party album, can be seen as 2D sending a message to Albarn, “All my life/Be my light/On me, I am a satellite/And I can’t get back without you.”

Overall, Humanz features different sounds ranging from the laidback reggae beats from “Saturnz Barz” to the soul and R&B sounds on “The Apprentice,” as well as the familiar spacey beats on “Hallelujah Money” that remind one of “Cloud of Unknowing” from Plastic Beach. Regardless of the album being a mass collaboration and lacking Noodle, Murdoc and Russel’s personalities, Humanz was a successful comeback after seven years. The genre-less, uncanny sound of Gorillaz was there, and hopefully Albarn and Hewlett are working on filling the gaps in the band’s story. The seven-year wait was worthwhile and now more than ever, the possibilities for Gorillaz are endless.

Viri Garcia is a freshman in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected]