Home Music Holy Hell Holy Hell! Gorillaz Turns 20

Holy Hell! Gorillaz Turns 20

Spawned as a creative effort between proven musician, Damon Albarn, and comic artist, Jamie Hewlett, Gorillaz’ origins came as a means to criticize the newer visual and social aspects of music, saying about MTV, “there’s nothing of substance there.” Ironically enough, they would become the most successful internet band after just their first release, spawn millions of obsessors, and two decades later, go on to create a collaborative singles project with tens of established artists. But the rarely-mentioned Gorillaz came before the phenomenon, and stands as not only the most unique Gorillaz project, but also the most intriguing.

Many people—myself included—divide the Gorillaz’ musical releases pre and post-hiatus, honing in on the excessive features following the release of Plastic Beach, but even in the 2000s-era Gorillaz discography, their debut stands alone in its ability to create dystopian environments, purely through its production. The more successful and perhaps more artistic Demon Days and Plastic Beach relied heavily on visual and vocal storytelling, featuring narrative cuts like “Fire Coming out of the Monkey’s Head,” and the vast improvement of their music videos. Instead, Gorillaz relies on empty space, lo-fi beats, and a variety of sound effects to fully place you in the corrupted heads of the band’s members.

Unlike their future projects, much of Gorillaz is the same—combining simple, danceable beats with unsettling electronica—but for that reason, the upbeat and joyful “Re-Hash” acts as the perfect entrance to the Gorillaz universe. Despite its playful Britpop feel, the album intro is a healthy collection of folk and trip-hop themes, mixing wistful acoustic guitars with various, pattern-altering sound effects, welcoming you happily to your unnatural surroundings. Followed by “5/4’s” wonky melody and crushing, drug-related themes, “Magic’s funny / Magic get me through,” Gorillaz starts off with powerful, but fun, dystopian ammo.

Themes of loneliness and isolation also fill the project from front to back, often initiated by lone instruments, like on the melancholic “Tomorrow Comes Today.” Albarn’s strained, unintelligible voice sings into the nothingness of it and its follower, “New Genius (Brother),” as harmonicas and violins pull the brunt of the emotional weight amidst the cold winds and deep hums. Both tracks rely on the background’s white noise, or lack thereof, to actually place audiences in the shoes of 2D and co., furthering the horror associated with lines like “Don’t trust people you meet.” Perhaps the worst case of this is the haunting, five-minute interlude, “Double Bass,” bringing the singular “All of which makes me anxious / At times, unbearably so.”

Importantly, hits do line the project, with the lone “Clint Eastwood” still standing as a Gorillaz classic. But unlike other popular Gorillaz tracks, its success is grounded in the greatness of its mind-numbing trip-hop, and a legendary verse from Del the Funky Homosapien. Similarly, the bouncy techno-funk on “19-2000” spawned another catchy cut, and the even catchier Soulchild remix, whose strongest aspects are their production. At times not even pop-friendly, Gorillaz’ debut effort is full of tracks that shouldn’t be catchy—yet they consistently are.

This brings things to “Rock the House,” another example of the one-off success found on Gorillaz. Anchored by Del once again, Gorillaz accomplish a perfect fusion of jazz, hip-hop, rock, and more, in a track whose main highlight might be its flute solo and Charlie Brown-esque piano. While there’s sure to be another track out there accomplishing similar feats, nothing is like it in the Gorillaz discography, and we’re unlikely to see that change. Partnered with the gritty, quick, and passionate, “Punk,” Gorillaz offers arguably the most varied version of the group, willing to make an attempt at every genre out there.

Finally, the album’s ending track serves to remind you of Gorillaz’ lasting eccentricities and experimentation. Before kicking into a high-powered offense of guitars from “Song 2”-era Blur, “M1A1” opens with a dramatic, cinematic representation of someone screaming out for help (sampled from Day of the Dead). Though its meaning is primarily tied to the video that goes along with it, the sample makes for a startling entrance and exit to this section of the track. For those with the U.S. bonus tracks, this continues with the always-weird “Left Hand Suzuki Method”—a song whose bong-ripping beginning may be the least strange part about it. With the hardest hitting guitar chord I’ve ever heard, soft, wispy strings, and joyful piano chords, it’s the closest the Gorillaz have been to plunderphonics. I still can’t tell how you’re supposed to react to it, but it works nonetheless.

Full of one-off experimental projects, and only occasional pop-friendly tracks, Gorillaz’ debut record is the least Gorillaz project Gorillaz will ever release, but more importantly, it’s the most experimental, while being the most limited. Albarn and co. seamlessly create this new, dystopian, and online universe mainly through clever sonic tools, where today, it’s easily constructed through the visuals presented alongside them. Hits like “Clint Eastwood” have persevered to today thanks to the group’s genius production and Del’s strong lyricism, but Gorillaz mostly offers up unique production choices, and wonky worldbuilding. And though it’s regarded as the rawest Gorillaz project, it might just be the most impressive.

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