Gorillaz present ‘Song Machine’: Genre-bending music from your favourite virtual band

With their seventh studio album, Gorillaz remain true to their alternative selves. The British virtual band released ‘Song Machine, Season One: Strange Timez’ in October 2020, an extraordinary audiovisual project that sees the fictional bandmates embark on new episodic adventures. This article explores alternative music and some of the best tracks from ‘Song Machine’.

As a child, I believed that I was going to become the best DJ of my generation. My mum had a glorious rack of her favourite CDs neatly stacked between the slots. From 2Pac and other hip-hop legends to Sweet Female Attitude with their UK garage classic ‘Flowers’, I performed mixes that were unheard of on my imaginary decks. I didn’t lift any needles and the crossfader remained untouched because I was scratching my poor mum’s CDs into the carpet and against everything else that lay hidden between the fibres.

The fine scratches that were barely visible in bright light struck seconds from the discs, leaving some tracks jumping into eternity.

Recalling these actions now feels like a nightmare. It wasn’t until I bought my own CDs that I began to comprehend the sins of my childhood. I don’t remember where I bought ‘The OF Tape Vol. 2’, nor do I know why my mum wasn’t concerned by its lyrical content, but I played the album on repeat. By the release of the Odd Future record in 2012, I had already fallen in love with rap and hip-hop, especially the alternative kind. In these early days, ‘Kickin’ Incredibly Dope Sh*t’ with Mac Miller and the sheer oddness of OF were liberating. Not everything they did or said made sense. Still, I could go to their shows as my full self, unravelling the quirky parts of my personality that I might otherwise conceal. To get my alt- fix these days, I just lock into DJ SavsSounds’ show on NoSignal every other week because it’s a no genre just vibes affair.

Frank Ocean performing ‘Oldie’ as part of Odd Future via Reddit (HipHopHeads)

Yet, Gorillaz had pulled me into their eclectic universe even before I encountered the outrageousness of Odd Future. With Zoom calls becoming the new normal in 2020, the idea of a virtual band doesn’t seem too forward-thinking. But when Gorillaz launched their project in 1998, they were going completely against the grain. The four animated members, 2-D, Murdoc Niccals, Noodle, and Russel Hobbs, are a striking bunch of misfits. As a band of travellers, they cross the realms of physical and virtual reality, leaving trails of social commentary in their wake. Sometimes as holograms, and always accompanied by the most talented musicians, Gorillaz perform with a timeless swagger and style that comes with age. This, paired with the air of nonchalance fixed to the band’s characters makes them feel all the more real.

Gorillaz (Murdoc Niccals, Russel Hobbs, Noodle and 2-D) alongside Damon Albarn and Jamie Hewlett via BBC

But what is alternative hip-hop? As with alt-rap or any other alt- genre, it’s music that defies the norms of its time until it develops into its own distinct sound with recognisable characteristics. The term ‘alternative’ is catch-all because what’s normal is constantly shifting and evolving. As such, what’s alt- now, might become its own sub-genre tomorrow (as with grime and, more recently, drill).

“No one knows what [alternative] means, but it’s provocative… it gets the people going.”

— Chazz Michael Michaels in Blades of Glory (2007).

The infamous line from Will Ferrell’s ‘Ni**as in Paris’ cameo (Jay-Z and Kanye West) captures the true essence of genre-bending; we don’t have to shove music into a box before we’re able to appreciate an artist’s work.

By virtue of the band’s fictional composition, Gorillaz are locked into a quasi-permanent alt- state. Features span Little Simz on ‘Garage Palace’, (see the unbearably trippy visuals here) to the late, great MF Doom on ‘November Has Come’ as they constantly experiment with artists willing to take on the challenge of rapping over unorthodox beats. At their core, Gorillaz present themselves as an otherworldly band on a mission to inject creativity into every record, and at the same time, break with convention.

Little Simz with Gorillaz as the supporting act on the Humanz World Tour in 2017 via Little Simz

The classics ‘Clint Eastwood’ (2001), ‘Feel Good Inc’ (2005), and more recently, ‘Saturnz Barz’ (2017), from the epic comeback album ‘Humanz’, are anthems that everyone should listen to at least once in their lives. Gorillaz tuned my ears into rap over unusual beats and melodies—a kind of alt- hip-hop. Staying true to their virtual form, the band consistently produces electronic music, but critics struggle to define their musical output by genre. They are often dubbed alternative rock, trip hop, and sometimes, even art pop—whatever that means. As I have said before on defining genre, “going back and forth between what [genre] is and isn’t is a waste of time”. Instead, we ought to look at art as a free form of expression and ask ourselves what it is doing, is it making us feel good?

Popcaan’s familiar call “Woii yoii” in ‘Saturnz Barz’ does just that. The dancehall artist’s greeting in the track’s opening sets the tone for the genre-bending that follows. If you had told me Gorillaz next release would feature Popcaan when I was a teenager, I would have laughed wholeheartedly. But as the Bounty Killer and Beenie Man’s Verzuz clash reminded us last year, (and less so ‘Not Ok’ by Vybz Kartel,) dancehall artists will always experiment with their sound and production.

Gorillaz went on to break a YouTube record with the ‘Spirit House’ VR video (extended version). ‘Saturnz Barz’ demonstrates just how far working with the least expected can propel artists into leagues of their own. But musical innovation isn’t by any means new for the band. As Jamie Milton reports in NME, “Over the years, Gorillaz’s live shows have evolved from make-do blueprints to wild, interactive frenzies.” This evolution can also be seen in the evermore emboldened characters, whose rich colours, greater depth and movement allows them to slip into and out of our world on the screen.

With their latest project in 2020, ‘Song Machine, Season One: Stange Timez’, Gorillaz served up a series of musical delights. Damon Albarn enlisted a 14-piece band, including Ezra Collective drummer Femi Koleoso and countless special guests for the virtual live performances that surpassed 1 million viewers.

“The layering on of animations, holograms and special guests, set against mesmerising moving images, powerful performances and the talents of everyone involved to bring to life the basement of Kong Studios. This show was truly pioneering, giving us a glimpse of what the future holds for virtual, livestreamed shows,” describes Marc Watson, director at LiveNow.

Here are my top five tracks from ‘Song Machine’.

5. ‘Opium’

I’m hardly ever a fan of long intros, but it works on ‘Opium’. By closing my eyes and tuning into the futuristic beat, I blink away our current strange times. I envision myself sat in a bar, a leather booth in the corner of a dimly lit room with a musky smell trapped in the air. Enter EARTHGANG, who command me to the dancefloor at 2 minutes 40 seconds with their words spilling over into the irresistible rhythms:

“Grindin’, lovin’, singin’, huggin’, livin’, get it, stack it
Runnin’, dancin’, flyin’, people wake up
Come on, keep on dreamin’, don’t stop
Lovin’, tryin’, growin’, don’t stop”

4. ‘PAC-MAN’

Inspired by the classic video game, Gorillaz play with nostalgia in Episode Five. The track goes from 2-D’s low whispers over a bassy rhythm into a verse by Schoolboy Q, who raps candidly about what has made him the man he is today.

3. ‘How Far?’

Gorillaz released ‘How Far?’ as a tribute to the late Afrobeat pioneer and drummer, Tony Allen. Dropping bar after bar into the pockets of Allen’s drumbeat, Skepta raps:

“A zombie knows who to frighten
Just know I love the action but I move in silence
And, right now, I’m just takin’ what’s mine
’Til Elizabeth returns to diamonds”

2. ‘Dead Butterflies’

The track produced by Mike WiLL Made-It sets off with clumsy and chaotic keys but melts into 2-D’s mellow chorus. It’s not the first time Gorillaz have teamed up with Kano, their paths crossed on ‘White Flag’ from the iconic ‘Plastic Beach’ album in 2010. Kano delivers chilled bars on ‘Dead Butterflies’ alongside the sweet vocals of Roxani Arias:

“Deja que fluya pa no perder el control
No queda de otra, vamos a estar en lo mismo
Estoy dispuesta a darte todo el cariño”

Let it flow so you don’t lose control
There’s no other way, we’ll be in this together
I’m prepared to give you all my affection

1. ‘Désolé’

With Fatoumata Diawara’s calming voice, worries drift up into the clouds. In this episode of ‘Song Machine’, Captain 2-D takes us on a boat ride around a weird and wonderful lake. Silhouettes of strange creatures lurk in the fog beyond the natural landscape, and yet Damon Albarn and Diawara are so relaxed that they can’t help but break into laughter. 2-D sings along to the melody with ease, but he doesn’t actually know what he’s saying, so he whips out a French phrasebook by British Hairways.

It’s the consistent playfulness and surrealism of ‘Song Machine’ that initially drew me into Gorillaz; it has kept me hooked until now and forevermore.

Writer, Journalist and Editor

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