Title: Song Machine Season 1: Strange Timez

Artist: Gorillaz
Label: Gorillaz Productions / Parlophone / Warner
Genre: Synth Pop / Alternative Rock / Hip-hop
Released: 23 October 2020


Song machine season 1: Strange timez

"It makes me sick to think you ain't happy in your skin
It's wearing thin to think light bulb don't blink
Just flickers, so dim, then it pops and withers
You're a Turkey Twizzler, you deserve school dinners
Makes me sick"

The past decade has been a bit of a lacklustre period for Gorillaz. After releasing some of the band’s best material with ‘Plastic Beach’ back in 2010, Damon Albarn and Jamie Hewlett decided to put the project on hold for a few years. And while they eventually followed it up with ‘Humanz’ and ‘The Now Now’ after a seven-year hiatus, neither record really managed to recapture the magic of the band. Although the extensive lore continued to keep the attention of die-hard fans, even Albarn and Hewlett were beginning to wonder whether the project had much of a lifespan left [1]. It was clear they needed to take a new direction if Gorillaz was going to continue, with ‘Humanz’ and ‘The Now Now’ lacking the distinguished personality of their earlier albums. Neither were bad records, but they didn’t hold anywhere near the same standard of quality as the likes of ‘Demon Days’, or even their self-titled debut from 2005.

But two years after the release of ‘The Now Now’, back in January of this year, the phenomenal ‘Momentary Bliss’ was released. And this would mark the beginning of a series of episodic instalments that the band would release throughout 2020, which month after month managed to deliver some of Gorillaz’ best material to date. It was a strange way of distributing new music from the band, and it was unclear for much of the year whether or not ‘Song Machine’ was actually going to end up as an official studio album from Gorillaz. But in September it was revealed that this was in fact going to be the next record from the group. And although it functions much more like a loose collection of excellent singles from the virtual-band, ‘Song Machine: Season 1’ is undoubtedly the best material they've put out in a decade.

One of the key criticisms many had for ‘Humanz’ was its over-reliance on features on nearly every single track. There was almost no ‘Gorillaz’ on the album, feeling especially absent of the band’s lead character, 2-D. And because of this, many might take one look at the track-list for ‘Song Machine’ and immediately have a bad taste in their mouth from the sheer amount of featured artists that are stacked onto every single song. But Albarn has done a far better job here in balancing the weight of the features with enough ‘Gorillaz’ to ensure that the band’s unique identity isn’t completely lost in a sea of collaboration. Along with this, the selection of artists on this record is really something special. Albarn has been known to collaborate with a wide variety of extremely talented people in the past, ranging from Lou Reed to Andre 3000, and ‘Song Machine’ is no exception. There are some amazing performances from Elton John, Slowthai, Robert Smith, Peter Hook among many others here, and Albarn does a great job of moulding different sounds and styles around each of them.

The absolutely gorgeous ‘Pink Phantom’ features the unlikely combination of Elton John and 6lack, and the contrast between their styles is a strange yet beautiful blend that you wouldn’t hear anywhere other than a Gorillaz record. And this is just one example of what makes this album so special. Everything here is sort of stuff that just wouldn’t happen outside a Gorillaz album. It’s the project at its very best, taking old and new talent and using them to make some of the most inventive pop music around. ‘Aries’ is a perfect tribute to early New Order, with the band’s very own Peter Hook on bass. But despite sounding like it could have come straight off ‘Power, Corruption and Lies’, there’s a distinct flavour given by Albarn that makes it unmistakeably Gorillaz. And this is the missing link that was lost with ‘Humanz’. Instead of substituting the band with features to the extent that the album could simply be labelled as ‘various artists’, ‘Song Machine Season 1’ is a beautiful celebration of Gorillaz’ ability to bring together artists of all kinds and combinations and have them work perfectly with the band’s already rich sound.

Other excellent highlights on the base album include the absolutely intoxicating ‘Pac-Man’, with an incredible feature from ScHoolboy Q, the disco-funk bop ‘Valley of the Pagans’ featuring Beck, as well as the gorgeous RnB track ‘Désolé’ featuring Fatoumata Diawara. Also standing out immediately, the opening title track with Robert Smith is a weird and wonderful way to introduce the album, with the lyrics also vaguely reflecting on the bizarrity of 2020 as Smith’s iconic vocal style resonates over ominous arpeggiating synths. It’s a great way to start an album, and is immediately followed by a constant flow of wonderfully diverse and quality music.

"Spinning around the world at night

Spin around in black and white

Spinning around until the Sun comes up

Strange time to see the light"

In fact, there really aren’t any moments on the album which don’t stand out, which is possibly due to this large variety in style delivered by such a wide range of artists. The only track that hasn’t had me constantly coming back for more is ‘Chalk Tablet Towers’, but even that song has a really nice groove and charming performance from 2-D that makes for a decent listen. And apart from this slight dip, the album has an astonishingly good flow to it, despite acting more like a collection of singles. The marketing up until ‘Song Machine’s release included multiple mixes of the album from the various band members, which indicated that it was designed to be shuffled around and treated very loosely as more of a mixtape. And this only further demonstrates just how quality these songs are; the album’s sequencing really doesn’t matter since the material here is of such high standard that no matter the order, they’re guaranteed to flow perfectly.

‘Song Machine Season 1’ also includes six bonus tracks that are included on the deluxe edition. And while these extra cuts are a bit more of a mixed bag, they also include some of the best stuff here. ‘MLS’ featuring JPEGMAFIA and CHAI is so good I think it should have been included on the main album, replacing ‘Chalk Tablet Towers’, and the absolutely gorgeous ethereal odyssey ‘Opium’, spearheaded by EARTHGANG, is one of ‘Song Machine’s most interesting inclusions.

‘Song Machine Season 1: Strange Timez’ is the perfect comeback for Gorillaz, rekindling the magic that had been lost from the project over their last few releases. What’s more, the ‘season 1’ of the title seems to suggest that this could be an ongoing series, delivering even more eclectic collaborations with each instalment. And after such an impressive first season, I’m itching to hear the various different avenues that Albarn and Hewlett have planned out for their future releases. Including by far some of the band’s best work since the beginning of the last decade, ‘Song Machine Season 1’ is exactly the quality return to form that Gorillaz needed. And until the second season drops, ‘Strange Timez’ will give you more than enough enjoyment to hold out for whatever exciting new music Albarn and Hewlett have up their sleeves for us next.

"I tried to say I love you
But you didn't listen (Summer lines)
I tried to give you everything you might need (Summer lines)
In a sky made of diamonds
Where the world is flawless
I'll be waiting for you on the other side"

Reviewed by Layton Bryce - 23/12/20