How one of Damon Albarn’s many side-projects managed to capture his truest voice…

There are two valid biographies that can be assigned to the Gorillaz project. The first is that the group is just your everyday disaster-prone two dimensional quartet founded by a Stoke-born Satanist (Murdoc Niccals) and populated by a 14 year old Japanese martial arts expert (Noodle), a drummer possessed by dead rappers’ spirits (Russel Hobbs), and blue-haired frontman 2D - who recently spent an extended sojourn inside the belly of a whale, no less.

The second, and considerably less entertaining, story is that Gorillaz is a multi-disciplinary music and art collaboration between Tank Girl cartoonist Jamie Hewlett and Blur head honcho Damon Albarn, a man for whom the word ‘collaboration’ seems to be relatively interchangeable with the word ‘breakfast’.

Starting with a string of sprawling dub/reggae/punk tracks and a relatively cohesive accompanying cartoon storyline, the Gorillaz experiment was meant to function as a friendly dig at the superficial nature of popular music. But as the project snowballed Hewlett’s drawings became ever more abstract and non-linear, while Albarn’s knack for a pop melody developed until he was sitting astride the same charts he once disdained.

As their live shows attest, the balance between Gorillaz’ nature as an artistic and a musical endeavour has definitely leaned further in favour of the latter as time has progressed. Nevertheless, it is still impossible to disassociate new tracks such as ‘Saturnz Barz’ and ‘Andromeda’ from Jamie Hewlett’s increasingly experimental visuals. So, without further ado, let’s take a stroll round the hallowed halls of Kong Studios...

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'Gorillaz’ (2001)

Two beguiling videos for singles ‘Tomorrow Comes Today’ and ‘Clint Eastwood’ preceded the group’s self-titled debut. At the time no one really knew what to make of them. Who were the Gorillaz? Was that Damon Albarn they got in to voice that rather odd looking cartoon? Was it an extension of producer Dan The Automator and guest Del Tha Funkee Homosapien’s ‘Deltron 3030’ project, released a year previously? All of these questions would be answered in time, but for a short while the group commanded genuine anonymity.

This was an album that encouraged listeners to widen their horizons in both a musical and more basic sense. In the first case Albarn obviously relished introducing his old Britpop fans to his own eclectic music tastes, squeezing in everything from the twisted incarnation dub-reggae of ‘Sound Check (Gravity)’ to the Buena Vista Social Club homage that is ‘Latin Simone’ (which features an early Gorillaz guest spot highlight in the form of the Club’s very own Ibrahim Ferrer).

But, like an iceberg, much of the record’s innovation was hidden online on the band’s website, where an inquisitive listener could find a plethora of games, videos and other extra content. ‘Gorillaz’ tried to overhaul the aging album format before anyone else had even considered that it might have a sell by date.

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'Demon Days’ (2005)

It could be argued that ‘Demon Days’ was the definitive album of the 00s. Not only did ridiculously catchy singles like ‘Feel Good Inc’ and ‘Dirty Harry’ allow Gorillaz ride roughshod across the charts, but thanks in part to their ability to transcend any residual musical tribalism left over from the 90s, it also embodied the fast-paced changes that were going on everywhere in the music industry at the time.

Old walls were being knocked down at the same rate that old bridges were being burned, creating a sense of temporal transition in which a semi-transient project like Gorillaz could thrive.

For the first half of the 00s fans of hip-hop and fans of indie music had kept each other at arms length. So when Damon Albarn brought in boundary-pushing rappers such as MF Doom, De La Soul and the UK’s very own Roots Manuva in to pour holy fire down upon hotly tipped newcomer Danger Mouse’s scattershot beats, he opened up a whole new world to some of his less open-minded fans.

The group's repertoire of guest artists also blossomed out to encompass the myriad likes of fading Madchester trailblazer Shaun Ryder, character actor Dennis Hopper and the London Community Gospel Choir, foreseeing the more ‘post-genre’ pick and choose approach that would become the norm over the next decade.

Animation-wise this era saw Hewlett similarly pushing visual boundaries with a groundbreaking saga of beautiful, part-3D music videos. He was also responsible for what one of the greatest Grammy moments in the awards’ history when he treated the world to the sight of a holographic version of the cartoon band performing alongside Madonna.

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'Plastic Beach’ (2010)

Though Albarn had toyed with the idea of a concept album on ‘Demon Days’, ‘Plastic Beach’ saw him embracing the format to its full extent.

With Murdoch and Co. decamping to a floating island made entirely out of human waste (beautifully realised as a miniature model that would serve as the basis for most of Hewlett’s artwork this time around), Albarn started injecting a little more social commentary into his often nonsensically ad-libbed lyrics. Anxious words about plastic trees and taps left on for thousands of years were balanced out by some of the most chilled out songs he’d written since ‘19-2000’. And by ‘chilled out’ we’re talking about Snoop Dogg-relaxing-in-a-bubble-bath levels of chill here.

Sweet tracks like ‘On Melancholy Hill’ and the Little Dragon-featuring ‘To Binge’ foreshadowed Albarn’s work yet to come on both Doctor Dee and his first genuine solo album over the next few years. His Tarantino-esque love of breathing new life into the careers of performers commonly perceived as irrelevant also reached it’s zenith here with the resurrection of the legendary Bobby Womack, with whom he would go on to write and record a full length comeback album with in 2012.

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'The Fall’ (2010)

It should be noted that this list does not include ‘Laika Come Home’, ‘G-Sides’ or ‘D-Sides’, three excellent re-edit/remix albums that nonetheless do not qualify as full Gorillaz records.

What does qualify, however, is this oddity. Recorded on Albarn’s iPad while on tour in the States, ‘The Fall’ lacked music videos, radio-friendly singles or marketing of any kind (it was released for free on Christmas Day) meaning it is often forgotten or dismissed as the runt of the litter when it comes to discussing Gorillaz’ discography. Conversely, this diminished status actually means it’s ended up becoming a bit a lost gem, the audio equivalent of a straight to DVD Steven Seagal film that ends up gaining cult status.

With only one guest appearance (Bobby Womack on the mysterious ‘Bobby In Phoenix’), ‘The Fall’ allows the listener to travel deeper into Albarn’s creative process than on any of his previous albums. Songs like ‘Phoner To Arizona’ and ‘Amarillo’ are sparse, evocative creations that perfectly capture the listless restlessness of being on the road. It’s less a record to drop at a house party than it is one to endure an overlong coach journey with, its strange cocktail of squelching synths and simple, repetitive beats lulling you into something of a fugue state.

That being said, it’s probably a good thing that it didn’t turn out to be the group’s last release.

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Gorillaz new album 'Humanz' is out now (Clash review HERE).

Gorillaz new Demon Dayz Festival takes place at Dreamland, Margate on June 10th.

Words: Josh Gray

For tickets to the latest Gorillaz shows click HERE.

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