There is nothing in music quite like the Gorillaz.
Later this week the band’s 5th album (counting The Fall) will be released, marking the end of a seven year absence for one of mainstream music’s most unique groups. New music should always be cause for celebration, but what they bring to the table stretches far beyond some new songs – they represent the potential of entertainment as a multi-faceted concept, embracing transmedia storytelling beyond just producing a musical identity, and fusing ideas from within the musical genre classification.
Looking at the band at a base level, you can draw similarities from a range on concepts – the faceless musicians of Daft Punk, the collaborator heavy nature found in hip hop and the EDM scene, to the idea of a virtual artist like Hatsune Miku. But what the Gorillaz are is a blending of music and other facets of entertainment, which mirrors the band’s musical ability to flow from genre to genre in a steadfast refusal to be tied down to an ‘easy to define’ label. It’s entirely possible you’ve heard songs from the Gorillaz and not even realised, because their sound can radically change between songs – and not just from album to album like some bands, but within albums. Compare some of the songs off the new album Humanz, the reggae inspired ‘Saturn Barz’ is a world apart from the boppy high energy anthem ‘We Got the Power’. Following the band is as much about following an idea rather than a audible style.
This does make the Gorillaz a band that aren’t an easy one to casually get into. For a lot of people, the legendary ‘Feel Good Inc.’ might have been their first introduction to their music. But newcomers expecting more in line with that track might be disappointed to find that it isn’t the norm for them, and might forever merely associate the band as ‘the group with that one song…’. But for those who can accept the genre bending nature of the group, the Gorillaz become an entry point for new styles and a bridge between thematic and audio gaps, providing an introduction to genres you might have never expected you would like.
It’s easy to box yourself into genres, especially as you begin to develop your musical taste. Growing up I remember you more or less had to lean towards one of pop, rock or rap, and after picking a style you automatically thought the other two sucked. I was firmly in the rock category, to the point I was ashamed at myself for enjoying music from the other two styles. This lasted for longer than it had any right to, but it’s not all that uncommon of a story. But if you like the Gorillaz, it’s virtually impossible to think along those lines.
It’s not just the blend of musical influences that makes the Gorillaz special. Every band has an ‘origin story’ of how the members came together, but while generally they’re school friends or meeting at gigs, the fictional nature of the four virtual faces of the band allows for a more extravagant tale. Lead vocalist and keyboardist 2D (Stu-Pot) met bassist Murdoc when the latter drove his Vauxhall Astra through the music store 2D worked in, concussing the employee and permanently damaging his eye – with the incident putting 2D in Murdoc’s care as community service. A second crash would subsequently bring 2D out of that coma and damage his other eye. Drummer Russel? Not only was he kidnapped by Murdoc, but he was possessed by the ghost of a rapper (as seen in some of the early music video’s like Clint Eastwood). Their then ten year old Japanese guitarist Noodle arrived via Fed-ex after they placed an ad in NME.
This off-beat origin story forms the foundation of what the group can do. Their music videos tell stories, which isn’t in of itself unusual, but each video builds upon the lore of the band, forging a narrative like individual comic issues or television episodes might. From album to album the characters grow and change much like their music; we see Noodle grow from kid to teen to adult, seemingly getting killed at the end of ‘El’ Manana’ before returning in ‘On Melancholy Hill’ despite being replaced by a Cyborg version of herself created by Murdoc. Taylor Swift’s career doesn’t have a narrative like that, and even when artists like Eminem build an extension of the basic concept of artist (switching between the alter-egos of Marshall Mathers, Eminem and Slim Shady), they never carry the depth that the Gorillaz do.
The full possibility of the band hasn’t yet been realised, though there are steps being made. Fans have long been clamouring for a movie or series to fully flesh out the world of the Gorillaz but previous attempts have fallen to the wayside. However in the promotion and buildup to Humanz, it was announced that a ten episode television series was in the works. The world of the Gorillaz has been developed through a variety of media from web shorts and augmented reality media, but getting the expansive narrative possibilities of a series will help develop the potential for transmedia storytelling – and help a broader audience appreciate the depth of the concept beyond that group with the cool animated videos.
The whole concept of the Gorillaz was formed by creators Damon Albarn and Jamie Hewlett as a commentary on the lack of substance in the MTV generation of popular music. The band has grown beyond this expression now, though elements of it can still be found through the band’s presentation and style. Now, they best represent the freedom of what a virtual band can do. When you strip away the requirement for a real ‘face’ for a band or artist, the freedom in music and entertainment is opened up. Each member of the Gorillaz have gone through different voice actors for the various songs or projects, musicians come and go to contribute without affecting the make-up of the band.
In theory, the Gorillaz could continue forever – Albarn and Hewlett could pass on the reigns to some new creatives – destroying the usual lifespan for a musical group. As technology improves, their live shows can become more dynamic, blending the real and the virtual with the use of holograms and other visual effects. And they can always adapt to provide commentary on whatever the world of music is doing at the time, just like how they began. But even if they don’t, the band still acts as a standard bearer for what can be accomplished with both music and the musical image.