Nineteen years on from their self-titled debut album you would think the novelty for virtual band Gorillaz was wearing off. Their last two albums were okay without being amazing, while the whole cartoon shtick you could argue has become quite dated. Not so, according to Gorillaz mastermind Damon Albarn, who has just dropped their seventh studio album Song Machine, Season One: Strange Timez, their third in three years.
Things were slightly different this time around, with Albarn, the former Blur frontman creating a web series for the album’s release rollout consisting of singles and accompanying music videos dubbed episodes. Each featured a guest artist and spanned a range of different styles as is the Gorillaz way.
There is punk on here, hip hop, pop, R&B and more with Albarn gathering up some of the best talent he could both new and old to contribute. Albarn seems to have this uncanny knack of teaming up artists on complete opposite ends of the musical spectrum. For example, where else would you hear Elton John sharing a song with rapper 6LACK, or Slowthai with Slaves.
Albarn has always been one for creativity, and the eclectic nature of Gorillaz albums has always made them an interesting prospect to listen to. Song Machine, Season One: Strange Timez is no different, if anything, for the roll call of artists.
The Cure’s Robert Smith takes the vocal reigns on album opener "Strange Timez", while Beck is superb on "The Valley of the Pagans". Albarn also shows he is tapped into the most exciting young talent going around with strong appearances from the likes of CHAI and JPEGMAFIA bringing a fresh energy to proceedings. Many artists from this generation are aware of the pedigree of Gorillaz and I am sure it would have been a thrill for them to be included.
Where does Song Machine stand in the Gorillaz canon? Well, although it doesn’t reach the heights of the outstanding Demon Days it certainly is their best album since 2010’s Plastic Beach and might even be on par with that release.
This is a definite return to form for Albarn under the Gorillaz guise and shows that the small blip of the previous two records was a stalling more than anything. Albarn sounds reinvigorated on here working with a great assortment of artists and that Gorillaz spark seems to have returned with songs as good as "Aries" and the beautiful "Dead Butterflies" the proof in the pudding.
A follow-up Song Machine 2 is planned, meaning this out of the box concept seems to be a sticker for now. With this in mind, it will be interesting what Albarn decides to do with this idea next and what names he can attract to be part of the Gorillaz all-stars stable.
Against the odds and with time having seemingly moved on, Gorillaz is not over yet. And with live music stalled in these COVID times, maybe the idea of a virtual band performing for us is what is needed as we see out 2020.