The multi-instrumental, genre-defying group Gorillaz are back with a new album. This one is titled “Song Machine, Season One: Strange Timez.” It is the seventh studio album by the virtual British band and the follow-up to 2018’s “The Now Now.”
On this project, the band decided to shake things up and stray away from the typical album and single release cycle. Instead, according to an official statement, the band chose to break “convention in their own round the door back fashion with the spontaneous delivery of episodes throughout the year.”
This release strategy started back on Jan. 30 with the release of episode one “Momentary Bliss.” Subsequent episodes were released on an almost monthly basis.
The album is comprised of 11 tracks along with a deluxe version that adds six extra tracks. Every track on the album contains at least one feature. Due to the inclusion of numerous features, there is a lot of variety in genre and style.
The opening track of the project is titled “Strange Timez” and features the vocals of Cure member, Robert Smith. This song addresses the very “strange” time we are living in politically and socially. The track begins with a siren and distorted chimes that build up to the chorus by Smith.
He delivers the vocals in an eerie fashion that give the track a dark and fittingly strange personality. This chorus is followed by a verse from virtual band member, 2-D. The lyrics mention “presidents,” a “surgical glove world” and even the state of “Belarus.” It is an ominous introduction to a somewhat reflective and sometimes upbeat album.
The second track is “The Valley of The Pagans,” featuring Beck. A track that is immediately different tonally from the former. The beat is funky and the song has a pop feel. The song opens with a groovy bassline on top of a steady drumbeat. Beck opens the lyrical portion of the track with an overstated sarcastic delivery. The hook, delivered by 2-D and Beck, is about “how good” it “feels” to have a “perfect soul” and be in “total control.”
“The Lost Chord” is an excellent change of pace from the first two tracks, as this one is more understated and relaxed. The beat is groovy and has a cymbal tap alongside whirling synths. The chorus lyrics of the phrase “The Lost Chord” is cool and ghostly. 2-D’s lyrics meld well with Leee John’s voice. The track is sonically reminiscent of Gorillaz’s 2010 album “Plastic Beach,” especially due to the fade out at the end with the sounds of seagulls and the ocean.
“Chalk Tablet Towers” features the talents of Annie Clarke, also known as St. Vincent. The track has a simple, wonky beat with a click. 2-D leads the first verse into the chorus which both him and St. Vincent sing. The songs namesake, “chalk tablet towers” are described as a “chemical distraction” which is why both parties sing about wanting to “get drunk” and “stoned” on the chorus. Despite being clear references to drug use, it seems that they are also a metaphor for relationships and addictive lovers. Unfortunately, St. Vincent’s contributions to the track are less pronounced than other features and the track could have benefitted by granting her a stand-alone verse.
“The Pink Phantom” is a definite highlight of the album. The track features both 6LACK and Elton John, a bizarre combination that works surprisingly well. 6LACK’s vocals are strongly autotuned and jarring at first, but with repeated listens they become one of catchiest aspects of the song. Elton John’s performance is reserved for the hook and he delivers an emotional climax that is a mix of sorrow and optimism. The instrumental portion of the track is a mix of elegant piano, a bassy beat and wacky synths. The vocals of both features and 2-D coalesce by the end of the song beautifully.
The following track, “Aries,” builds off the previous track’s momentum but takes it in a new direction. Featuring Peter Hook of New Order, the song goes for a mellow and sonorous feeling. The track also features UK pop talent Georgia who contributed to the drumbeat. 2-D’s relaxed vocals add to the dream-like vibe of the track. The song crescendos into the chorus of the lyric ‘High Tide” which features the vocals of both 2-D and Peter Hook. However, despite the rise in tone the track does not lose its hazy quality.
“Désolé” was the second track to be released in the song machine lineup and has an extended version on the final album. Guest performer, Fatoumata Diawara, provided a memorable vocal performance. Her singing is jovial, and the French provides the song with a unique feeling in the track list. The instrumental comprises of a prominent mix of acoustic guitar and a cabasa. 2-D’s lyrics are sorrowful, especially the lyrics “I’m trying to hold on to you.”
The closing track of the album is “Momentary Bliss” which was, ironically, the first release in the “Song Machine” individual releases. It features the talents of British punk-rock band “Slaves” and the British rapper, Slowthai. Guitars open the track with a warped surf rock progression in tandem with a drum-kick. Slowthai’s lyrical delivery is aggressive and condemning. The chorus consists of the lyrics “we could do so much better than this emotionally in fences and momentary bliss.” It is one of the catchiest tunes on the whole project.
Despite being filled with constant features, similarly to the disappointing 2016 album “Humanz,” most of the tracks are given room to breathe and can display the talents of the artists without sacrificing the recognizable Gorillaz style. The variety of artists and sounds creates that blend of genre Gorillaz have been known for.
“Song Machine” has been a constant good in a very inconsistent year. “Song Machine, Season One: Strange Timez” demonstrates a return to form for the group and hopefully there will be a second season in the near future.