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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. It’s a presentation of epic proportions, matching the constant invention that Gorillaz have thrived on since 2D, Murdoc, Russell, and Noodle were born 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, Albarn and Hewlett’s unique launch has no doubt coincided with some of the band’s most impressive singles since 2011’s Plastic Beach. Tracks like ‘Aries’ and ‘The Pink Phantom’ see Albarn in his creative element—a most welcome return to form from the fifty-two-year-old Londoner, who spent the best part of the 2010s 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, held the somewhat dangerous knowledge of a frighteningly good collection of singles that, perhaps, threatened to lead to inevitable disappointment upon the LP’s release.
So it’s especially rewarding to hear the vastly different compositions of Strange Timez come together so cohesively on a record with the energy and flow of 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 as a full-length, standalone release. Barnstorming tracks like the deliriously fun Beck feature ‘The Valley of the Pagans’ and ‘Chalk Tablet Towers’ with art-pop powerhouse St. Vincent gift the record a sense of newness and earn 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 song. The fundamental flaw of Humanz was that it wasn’t identifiable as a Gorillaz record. Instead, it came 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. Octavian, Slowthai, and Earthgang all excel 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 every track 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.