The virtual band are more electric than ever as they explore a twisted alternate future inspired by Donald Trump.
Damon Albarn must have mystical predictive powers. Six years after recording The Fall on his iPad while touring Plastic Beach, the Gorillaz co-creator invited an eclectic mix of guest voices into the recording studio for a project fantasizing some sort of “party for the end of the world if Trump were to win.” Months later, the unthinkable happened and Albarn’s parody became relevant satire, although fortunately Humanz hasn’t lost any of its power in the process. There is certainly fun to be found in the fifth studio album from his virtual band, but ultimately it serves as the darkly comedic tale of humanity turning on its head.
From the opening verse, Humanz hits you across the head with apocalyptic humour as Vince Staples rhetorically clamours “You are now tuned into the tomb of Jehovah / Play my tunes loud enough to shake the room, what’s the hold up?” Instantly we are launched into the dark fantasy spun by Gorillaz, with these rapid shouts of ‘Ascension’ contending with the heavy synth rythms of ‘Saturnz Barz’ and ‘Charger,’ whilst deep drum beats on ‘Strobelite’ and ‘Submission’ struggle to stand out from the crowd. It’s overwhelming, but that’s part of the power of it all. When Staples cries “Heard the world is ending soon, I assumed that they told ya / They tryna dinosaur us,” it sounds over-the-top and yet perfectly at home in the pulsating sonic landscape it inhabits.
There’s almost no let-up for the opening 25 minutes, at which point frontman 2-D slows the tempo for ‘Busted And Blue.’ Ironically for a record filled to the brim with guest talent, the one with no featured artists is the most beautiful standout, with 2-D alone to croon sadly to his machines. Exploring the same themes of isolation and disillusionment as touched upon elsewhere in the album without the fanfare of a guest turn, the track is made so much more powerful by his wallowing as wavey synth crashes over gorgeous digitised finger snaps that slowly spiral out of control whilst he mournfully wonders (“Where does it come from? / When everything was outside / Busted and blue”). It is Gorillaz at their best – without the pretense that can cloud his work as the virtual band, ‘Busted And Blue’ truly feels like a place for Albarn to treat the studio like his portal into dystopia and for us to join him.
With the next of Humanz‘s many interludes, we are quickly snapped back to the apocalyptic soirée and the pace once again shoots through the roof – the tale is once again of whether we are at the “right” party or the “wrong” party. ‘Carnival’ is an insane, pounding treat, and ‘Let Me Out’ is as catchy and rip-roaring as it is desperate and defiant against Trump’s America, but ‘She’s My Collar’ struggles to find the right footing. It’s a theme that is unfortunately reflected throughout the album, as featured artists jostle for attention whilst Albarn attempts desperately to keep that core Gorillaz feel alive. The persistent protest against Trump and the greed, apathy, and perversion he has come to represent doesn’t exactly help – whilst noble in sentiment, ‘Hallelujah Money‘ is muddled and at times obscure.
That said, Albarn and his guests do occasionally hit the nail on the head, with Savages‘ Jehnny Beth lifting the tone for the rip-roaring standard edition finale (and subtle Noel Gallagher showcase) ‘We Got The Power.’ Rag’n’Bone Man is similarly given the freedom to demonstrate his full vocal range in deluxe edition single ‘The Apprentice’ – probably the most personal Trump attack on the record, the track admirably assigns all three featured artists (the Human singer is joined by rapper Zebra Katz and BBC Sound of 2017 victor Ray BLK) ample breathing room.
Ultimately, it’s when all the over-the-top drum beats and starkly electric synths dial it back that Humanz is at its most affecting. Closing song ‘Circle Of Friendz’ leaves 2-D and Brandon Markell Holmes to despairingly declare the party as over, gently dropping us back off in the real world. Throughout, Albarn’s wistful, comet-tail synth serenely guides the flow of the track, as indeed it has the whole album. For although guest voices may come and go at the party, Albarn and his collection of dusty synthesizers are the reason the party is there at all – at times voltaic, at times tranquil, Humanz grabs your attention with Albarn’s mastery over his instruments and doesn’t let go, with Gorillaz’ bewitching post-apocalyptic fantasy providing only the side-dish to the main course that is the electric sound. The guests may struggle to find their footing, but as 2-D’s nostalgia fades away you can’t help but feel that – even just for a minute – you were in Gorillaz’ domain.
Humanz is out now via Parlophone