29 June 2010

Modal Nodes: Gorillaz - the Strength, Limitations and Bending Realities of a Virtual Band

Despite my obvious proclivities towards Pop Music and obsession with temporal mass consumption of Shit American Culture, I do take a lot of Music pretty seriously. Music is like movies and beer. It all has its place. Undercover Brother (2002) is a horrendous affair, but it'll get me through a Hungover Sunday Afternoon. Pabst isn't an enjoyable beer, but it's got its use and price for a good game of Beer Pong. Usher and Ke$ha don't good music but it's part of Summer Party Fun.

So while I've got that side down, I also have a place for insanely good music. My favourite Band of the Decade undoubtedly has been Gorillaz. Their latest Album, Plastic Beach, I believe to be their best yet and with their recent video for the best track on the Album, "On Melancholy Hill" premiering a couple weeks ago I thought I'd go in for a closer look here.

For a Few Dollars More

What's most unique about the Band is that it doesn't actually exist in our physical world. Instead it is a self-referenced "Virtual Band." Through animated bandmates and carefully constructed stories through music video, internet and apocrypha the band has both its real history and "Virtual History." This has allowed an incredible amount of freedom as well as its obvious limitations.

The major creators of the band are artist Jamie Hewlett (Tank Girl) and musician Damon Albarn (Blur). By unforeseen fusion of art and music they formed Gorillaz. Thus in our Physical World there are much collaboration and composition of tracks and video animation only available in the Digital Age. In the World that the animated band members exist in however (by all rights seemingly identical to our own World in every respect [except maybe the acknowledged presence of ghosts and demons - but this really is just a factual take on legend], thus further blurring the lines of what a "real" band is supposed to be) there is a very detailed history of the Band's formation and Character Backstories. I won't get into them here but Wikipedia will. There is thus this ongoing factual history as well as a "manufactured evolution" of the Characters which is really interesting.

Of course this comes with very obvious limitations. Although they have attempted Live Shows, I don't believe they can really effectively pull them off. It also makes for difficulty for interviews, red carpet appearances, anything that you really would have to do in person actually. It is also somewhat more difficult to describe or sum up neatly for anyone not previously sold on the idea. It's a tough concept to pitch with credence and back-up that the group is genuinely innovative as well as highly listenable. Plastic Beach in particular is a much more chill album than Demon Days, although possibly more abstract. There is also the obvious toll it creates on its creators - instead of a genuine free-flowing band narrative, it must be constructed. This bolds as many problems as solutions it generates as I'll get into shortly.

High Plains Drifter

Their first, self-title album (2001) utilized many advantages of a studio-created band, including many songs crossing genres, different singers and guests that could all be said to come from the same cloth and experimental styles and tracks. They didn't play around with their reality as much as their later albums and videos did. The big one is of course "Clint Eastwood" which to its credit forms the basis of future Gorillaz Music Videos - that uncertain boundary of whether or not it is a video produced out of fiction like any other Band would or if it is actually a documentation of real events that has befallen the band. Take a look:

This continued with Demon Days (2005), a bit of a darker album that has this constant eerie Halloween tone to it. The animation shifted to a much less cartoony style, favouring instead inspiration from the Real World. The videos such as "Feel Good, Inc" and "El Mañana" are also breathtaking to watch. "El Mañana" continues this dark trend towards their reality, supposedly featuring the death of Asian Guitarist Noodle "while filming the video" according to some source material. Whether or not this fictional character actually "died" wasn't fully revealed until the video for Plastic Beach track "On Melancholy Hill" (although to be fair she's wearing a mask...) thus creating this narrative reality between music videos really unsurpassed by any other musical performer. This is also achieved while maintaining significant different in tone and background. Simultaneously Gorillaz bends its own history around its Music Videos - is it staged or reality? That is - a reality for the Fictional Band itself? Take a gander at "El Mañana" here.

Demon Days also increases the Gorillaz status as almost an Alt Rock / Rap band with well blends of Reggae, Techno and Latin even ranging to Spoken Word and Choir in its final, most epic tracks. Needless to say I'm still somehow leaving out some of the best tracks on Demon Days, it's a fantastic album.

Pink Cadillac

So, from this point the Gorillaz with Plastic Beach have extrapolated the tenuous nature of their reality. Plastic Beach has a very detailed backstory and execution, this time told through a handful of "Idents," websites, as well as music videos. It's a perfect culmination of our Digital Age - relying on viral marketing, a cutting blend of CGI and Traditional Animation, hip beats and even shades of mainstream collaboration (There are tracks with Snoop Dogg as well as appearances by Bruce Willis in "Stylo." Yeah - Bruce Willis!) In fact, just about everything in Plastic Beach so far is summed up here:

While Plastic Beach has a decidedly more Pop Tone than Demon Days (that might be where my appreciation comes from...dammit...) it's still got that Gorillaz edge, that recrudescent half-sardonic gloom that catches my interest. It might be its nautical theme (just like how Donkey Kong Country 2: Diddy's Kong Quest [1995] is my favourite SNES game of all time) or its greater affinity for Hip-Hop guests but this is an unparalleled Summer Delight. Now, I haven't really had a chance to listen to this entire album 15 times in a row in my basement while dripping on Salvia yet, but my favourite tracks so far included 03 -"White Flag," 04 - "Rhinestone Eyes," 10 - "On Melancholy Hill" and 16 - "Pirate Jet." There's a lot of good in this album and the Gorillaz certainly deserve some credit for pulling off a narrative complexity unheard of elsewhere in the music industry.

So - do you feel lucky?

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