The exceptionally inventive seventh album by Gorillaz is a joyful celebration of collaboration and a sublime standalone record itself.
Rolled out over the course of 2020 with monthly episodic installments dating back to January, Gorillaz' seventh studio album dropped as a full length LP at the tail end of October, arriving as part of the larger audiovisual project that Song Machine comprises. From the Machine Bitez skits scattered throughout each episode, to some typically dazzling music video accompaniments and a recent Netflix film announcement, Damon Albarn and Jamie Hewlett have found a way to outdo themselves this time around with a presentation of epic proportions to match the constant invention that Gorillaz have thrived on since 2D, Murdoc, Russell and Noodle were birthed into existence back in 1998.
The Song Machine project seems to have gifted new life to Gorillaz' creators themselves, after some hit (The Now Now) and miss (Humanz) efforts following their 2017 reemergence, as Albarn and Hewlett's unique launch has no doubt coincided with some of the band's most impressive singles since 2011's Plastic Beach, with tracks like 'Aries' and 'The Pink Phantom' boasting Albarn in his creative element - a most welcome return to full form from the fifty two year old Londoner, who spent the best part of the 2010's decade conducting various solo experiments with curious, yet ultimately mixed, results.
The thing about Season One: Strange Timez's singular release format is that we were already in the curious position of knowing the majority of the album's contents, and therefore with the somewhat dangerous knowledge of a frighteningly good collection of singles that perhaps threatened to lead to inevitable disappointment upon the release of a full length LP. So it's especially rewarding to hear Strange Timez's vastly different compositions come together so cohesively on a record with such energy and flow as Gorillaz' more solid concepts like Demon Days and Plastic Beach. Even more pleasing still are the variety of excellent deep cuts that justify Strange Timez full length standalone release, with barnstorming tracks like deliriously fun Beck feature 'The Valley of the Pagans' and 'Chalk Tablet Towers' with artpop powerhouse St Vincent gifting the album a sense of newness and earning its identity as a Gorillaz album in its own right.
And what about those features? It's not just that Gorillaz have amassed one of the most incredible casts of any pop or hip-hop album in recent memory, the amazing thing is that not a single one of these appearances are shallow cameos. Each individual track is drawing on its featured artist specifically to bring their own signature voice or talent, and shape the given track in their image, while never losing the feel of a Gorillaz work. The fundamental flaw of Humanz was that it wasn't identifiable as a Gorillaz record, instead coming off as a random compilation of artists executively produced by Gorillaz, but these songs are so intrinsically bathed in Albarn's touch that the final result is collaborative in the most perfect sense. For legends like Robert Smith and Elton John, there's a daring sense of rejuvenation in the fresh electro backdrops of 'Strange Timez' and 'The Pink Phantom', while younger artists prove their hunger to step up on the biggest stage of their careers, with Octavian, Slowthai and Earthgang all excelling on standout moments across 'Friday the 13th', closer 'Momentary Bliss' and bonus track 'Opium' respectively.
The ultimate sum of Season One: Strange Timez's parts is a joyful celebration of collaboration and quite simply an outstanding assembly of great music, individually and collectively. Nearly each of these tracks is single worthy, yet Strange Timez still manages to pace itself to perfection and find a coherent quality that has been lacking in Gorillaz since their last great album in Plastic Beach. The event that is Song Machine paves bold new territory for a band renowned for breaking the mold, and gifts us the most inventive album of the year, bar none.
9.0 / A
Best Tracks: 'The Valley of the Pagans (featuring Beck)'/'The Lost Chord (featuring Leee John)'/'Pac-Man (featuring Schoolboy Q)'/'Chalk Tablet Towers (featuring St Vincent)'/'The Pink Phantom (featuring Elton John & 6LACK'/'Aries (featuring Peter Hook & Georgia)'/'Friday the 13th (featuring Octavian)'/'Momentary Bliss (featuring Slowthai and Slaves)'
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