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Monkey: Journey To The West
Reviewed by The Independent, 8 August 2008

coverA series of songs written using the Chinese pentatonic scale and sung in Mandarin might be considered a hard sell, but with Jamie Hewlett's animations of Monkey, Pigsy and Sandy now on TV rotation in trailers for the BBC's Olympics coverage, Journey to the West appears to be in the process of becoming a cultural benchmark. Rightly so: there can't be many multimedia projects that are quite as satisfying and entertaining as this phantasmagoria of myth, music and mummery.

Unless my ears deceive me, there have been changes to Damon Albarn's score between last June's Manchester premiere and the run at the Royal Opera House. Recorded over the past year in London and Beijing, with a phalanx of European and Chinese musicians, it has a more unified character, the original show's diverse musical elements harnessed in a more homogeneous experience, but without sacrificing its variety of musical colour.

Some of the shorter pieces – the sleek strings and monkey-chatter of "Iron Rod", the cycling synths of "Into the Eastern Sea" and "Out of the Eastern Sea" – are incidental music. The longer tracks are much more rewarding: "Heavenly Peach Banquet" corrals glittering harps, strings and toytown keyboard rhythms into an enchanting slice of delicate Chinese folk-pop, while "The Living Sea", a wistful blend of Chinese mandolin, oboe and musical saw, has one of the most beautiful melodies I've heard this year.

It's not all cute and cuddly. As the quest progresses into darker realms, so does the music. "Battle in Heaven" is one of several pieces recalling the avant-rock of The Residents, while "Tripitaka's Curse" and "Confessions of a Pig" employ challenging string arrangements – the atonal squawkings of the former somehow reaching a swooning conclusion, before Pigsy's grunted mea culpa is borne along by the latter's seesawing minimalist lines and madly soaring chorale.

Throughout, there's a subtle accommodation between Chinese and European traditions, a gentle tug-o'-war between oriental folk and classical music modes, European electropop and avant-garde, nowhere more dramatically than in the marvellous "Monkey Bee", which builds through Chinese chant-song and glacial keyboard glissandi to a pounding art-rock climax. There's more than enough going on here to satisfy the most jaded of palates.

Pick of the album: 'Heavenly Peach Banquet', 'The Living Sea', 'Monkey Bee', 'Battle in Heaven'

star star star star  (4/5) Andy Gill

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