Gorillaz - Humanz
Reviewed by Record Collector, May 2017
“Fake” band plays Trump card, keeps it real
Was a time when the relentless flow of new Gorillaz material seemed to come not just from a desire to capture each new creative leap – in both Damon Albarn’s music and Jamie Hewlett’s graphic design – but also to assert their claim to being the most modern band on the planet. After a seven-year lay-off between albums, however, and a well-publicised spat between Gorillaz’s two creative masterminds, the group now returns to a very different world indeed. At least technology has somewhat caught up with their lofty ambitions. If Hewlett was once concerned that his visuals had taken a back seat to Albarn’s music, with Humanz he more than asserts how vital they are to the whole project, turning in a stunning virtual reality video for Saturnz Barz – and casually breaking the record for YouTube VR video views in the process.
In fact, if anything, the initial concern may have been over the music. When Hallelujah Money was released on the same day as Trump’s inauguration, it seemed an easy shot – not just that, but a song that could have been recorded at any point in 2016, held back to make a sarky statement no matter which candidate had won the presidency. The music was an uneasy, shifting soundscape that would have been compelling enough on its own, but Benjamin Clementine’s vocals were suffocating, and it seemed as though the new material would fall into the same trap as previous album Plastic Beach: too much message, not enough music you actually want to listen to.
In situ, as the penultimate track on Humanz, Hallelujah Money works – but that’s also largely because the majority of the preceding 12 tracks find Gorillaz fully rejuvenated. Kanye West might have made bold claims as to The Life Of Pablo’s status as a gospel album, but on Ascension, Albarn takes Kanye’s ADHD tendencies, interjects blasts of gospel harmonies and arguably more convincingly plants his flag in that territory. And then he goes even bolder, placing Mavis Staples alongside Pusha T on Let Me Out for a ghostly cut that’s something of an auditory manifestation of death’s limbo.
The aforementioned Ascension sets the scene for a skittish, fragmented work that, yes, somewhat reasserts Gorillaz’s cutting-edge credentials. The only thing Humanz settles into is grooves, but even a relatively straightforward hip-hop song such as Momentz is antsy, switching from loping beats to hallucinatory, high-pitched vocals and electro breakdowns that seem to want to get the song over with as quickly as possible.
Such is the burden of a relentless flow of ideas. Humanz’s flaw is what gives it its energy: like the scattered flashes of (mis) information flying out from every handheld and household device, the album throws it all at you in one gloriously delirious barrage that has no real anchor. Richly energised and energising, it’s not only infectious for the listener: Charger gets the best out of Grace Jones, with her most disconnected and disdainful vocal since Warm Leatherette, and the presence of some of the most exciting rappers of the moment (Vince Staples, Danny Brown) shows that Albarn’s knack for tapping into the zeitgeist remains undiminished.
Recording the album Albarn reportedly told his collaborators to imagine a world in which Donald Trump had won the election. Humanz emerges as the perfect soundtrack to that reality. In a world obsessed with “fake news”, this virtual band’s confused tantrum feels like a very real response.
© 2017 Record Collector
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