Wednesday, July 12, 2017

The State of Gorillaz

If you have even the slightest knowledge of me, it's obvious that I'm a huge fan of Damon Albarn and Jamie Hewlett's 'Gesamtkunstwerk' creation Gorillaz. Part band, part art series, part cartoon, part display of innovation; as a whole scope, it's a rare modern example of unrelenting, honest creativity.

I caught their first North American performance of the year on the eighth of this month; and, hell, what a show. Pounding music, electricity anywhere you look, and an excellent sense of life no matter how eerie the music or accompanying visuals grew.

However - that aforementioned 'life' has been dividing fans as of late.

As most will know, Gorillaz' claim to fame is most often cited as their slew of animated 'faces'; parodies of pop music tropes, taking the place of Albarn himself as a satire on both modern music and his lightheaded past with Blur. It's not hard to argue that they themselves have grown far more famous than the men behind the masks, in fact - the fictional 2-D is far more marketable than the human being that fills the digital shoes. Though Albarn and Hewlett have consistently been known as the true creators of these frontmen, they've decidedly taken a 'behind the scenes' role; as would a puppeteer, hoping to bring life to the lifeless.

That very choice was what a semblance of reality to what ought to be a cheap gimmick - one never felt as though the cartoon cast were merely Hot Topic ploys, designed to draw in a less musically inclined crowd. They were part of the package - they filled the gaps between the two primary forms of art at hand, and vice versa. The strongest issue comes in the fall of this concept - Gorillaz is no longer the parody, nor the magic trick it was designed to be. The cast of 'false' musicians are now essentially the mascots for Albarn and his touring band - staying comfortably on Hewlett's end of the court, in art and videos, with the occasional obscured cameo on a screen behind the far more engaging band. These two dimensions almost never intertwine; gone are the days of cartoons performing onstage, writing about the making of their albums, and feeling perhaps more real than their living, breathing fathers.

Gorillaz' real-life history hardly makes this a shock; months before the announcement of an upcoming album (which grew into this year's release, Humanz), Albarn told NME that he "...Could put a Gorillaz record out next week,". While this may seem an oddly brash comment, ignoring the usual importance of Hewlett's end of the spectrum, one must recall that he almost literally has done exactly this with the Gorillaz name - releasing 2011's The Fall, a small scale album comprised of demo-like tracks made while on the previous year's Escape to Plastic Beach tour. It was essentially an Albarn solo record with the Gorillaz title pasted on out of relevance - Hewlett's only contributions being in the form of cover artwork, minor photos to accompany each track (none of which feature the characters in any form), and a music video comprised of tour footage (again, basically character-free).

Plastic Beach
's era as a whole - entitled Phase 3, going by Gorillaz' DVD based terminology - was where the classic Gorillaz formula began to falter. Inspired by previous Gorillaz-but-without-the-name production, Journey to the West, a large scale plot and scope of estimated three albums was presented by the band; a far cry from the laid-back, oddball Cartoon Network vibes of the previous two Phases of Celebrity Take Down and Slowboat to Hades. Money was blown out the window by extravagant concepts, tensions rose as creators couldn't find a reasonable balance between the relevance of the virtual concepts and the actual music, and everything cascaded into what seemed to be one final grave for what became far too tall a titan to confront for both main contributors. Many questions were left entirely unanswered, plotlines unresolved, and the future hardly looking bright - with allegations of Albarn and Hewlett's growing animosity budding left and right. With 2012's late collaboration with Converse - spawning the track DoYaThing, complete alongside a notably conclusive music video - it seemed that the tale of Gorillaz had come to a shambling conclusion.

Compare this previous era to the current one - little to no plot, characters far separated from the music... and, yet, things seem to be running like a well-oiled machine. We've received stellar results from both courts - the aforementioned live performances are an excellent experience, new innovation has made the cartoon crew more accessible than ever, the album itself has seen huge success, there are plans to create a full animated series featuring the cast, and much more. It's an exciting time, and everyone involved seems very energized and enthralled to be back at the reigns. It raises the point; perhaps this is the way Gorillaz needs to be run, at least in it's current state. Phase 3's core issues raised from overabundance; Phase 4 has plenty of room to breathe, and then some. It's worth noting that, character relevance aside, this was also true of Phases One and Two - essentially successes, as far as the 'completeness' of their respective goals is concerned. Sacrifices are certainly being made - but, perhaps, the sacrifice of the project's initial goals in the name of continued survival is one that will prove the most wise in the long run. Albarn is the star; Gorillaz are his cohorts.

I personally see this as a watering down and perhaps reversal of the originally critical views presented by the band - however, alternatively, this is a far more streamlined approach than the endless correcting, explaining, and developing concerning storylines and what have you as seen in the past. It's quite similar to Daft Punk's own mascots, the Robots; there is no hiding who the men within the machines are, but it's fare more exciting to suspend disbelief and ignore the truth. Perhaps that applies best here, as well. It also begs the mostly personal question; what exactly is the heart of Gorillaz? Does it matter which component of the creation is strongest? Should they - or maybe, can they - be balanced properly?

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