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At the end of October, virtual band Gorillaz released their new album Song Machine, Season One: Strange Timez. For anyone who hasn’t followed the band throughout the year, a perfectly natural response to this would be to ask “what on Earth is a song machine?” The short answer is that it’s a way of releasing music that prioritises the creation of individual songs one at a time, as opposed to the continuous studio sessions which are usually held for an album.
Looking at the style of Gorillaz’s music, this seems an initially good idea, for two reasons. Firstly, their music usually encompasses a wide range of genres, taking elements from pop, rock, hip-hop, and electronic music, to name a few, as well as an extended use of contributing artists, often featuring a wide and eclectic array. By focusing on individual songs, they are free to apply whatever genre influences they want for that song, as can be seen on the track ‘Aries’ which feels like a homage to the synth-pop sound of New Order, down to the guest feature of bassist Peter Hook. Likewise, each song features at least one guest artist, which gives the feeling of turning each one into a collaborative event; a certain degree of fun comes from seeing which artist will be featured next.
The concept has also allowed them to further explore the visual aspect of the band under the artistic direction of co-creator Jamie Hewlett, with each song releasing with an accompanying music video. Given the virtual aspect of the band, this offers the fun of getting to see the characters in action, with the blend of live-action and animation allowing them to interact with the collaborative artist (‘The Pink Phantom’ memorably features Elton John drawn in a similar cartoon style as the band). These videos not only help to add some character to the band but also are specialised for each song in a way that the visual aspect can feel as integral to the song as much as the audio. Certainly, this one of the greater strengths of the singles-orientated creative process, with their previous album, the admittedly more low-key The Now Now, only having music videos for 2 of their 11 tracks.
It is interesting to consider how this move reflects the style reflects wider changes in the music industries, as we move from physical, fixed albums towards the in-the-moment synchrony of streaming services. Since Kanye West continuously modified The Life of Pablo for 4 months after its release in 2016, it seems artists are beginning to reconsider what music release means in the digital era, with more recently Dua Lipa modifying the streaming version of Future Nostalgia to a ‘deluxe’ version which adds the 2 singles released since the album.
Regardless of the wider considerations around its innovative style, the most important thing is that it works. Simply put, this is the band’s most consistently strong output in a decade. The focus on individual songs means that the album tends to avoid the lull in quality that the weaker tracks on their two previous albums occasionally offered while maintaining a high quality which matches the high points of those albums. The range of genre influences makes for vibrant listening, as do the varied collaborators, the unusual pairing of Elton John and 6LACK being an inspired highlight. With Albarn already indicating that Song Machine will continue for a second season of songs it’ll be interesting to see how the project continues to develop, one can only hope it continues to let them ride this wave of brilliant creativity.