Gorillaz, The Fall, album review – by John Robb

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Gorillaz

Damon Albarn recorded the new Gorillaz album on the road on his iPad. John Robbreviewed it on the road with his iPad…

I like this Gorillaz thing. I like the way they are fucking with the formulae. I like the way they take the rules of pop and mangle them all out of shape.
Their whole concept was great from the start.
A cartoon pop band who were mashing up the adventure of Beefheart with the hi tech of the modern, who were taking the freedom provided by hip hop and that creative template of Massive Attack and taking it somewhere else.  A band who were not a band but a concept dreamt up by the lead singer from indie icons Blur and, Jamie Hewlitt, one of the best cartoonists of his generation. When you start with this as your inner core it’s going to go somewhere else than two guitar players jamming
Realising that the boring old alpha model of pop- the four blokes in a band Beatle beat group- had run its course, they put together something supremely 21st century. This was a real fantasy group that when you needed a vocal that sounded like, let’s say, Lou Reed, you didn’t do a rubbish copy of him, you actually phoned him up to guest on the track.
They then hid the whole thing behind a concept cartoon band with pastiche characters of the sort of thousand yard stare hopefuls hanging around Camden pubs dreaming of escape.
It worked beautifully and the first two two albums are not just cutting edge pop gems, they redefined just where the edge was. There are nods to the technology of hip hop- the no holds barred gadgetry of the modern world that guitar music shuns, a deft looseness of song writing, the break out from boring verses and choruses and the utilising of the cut and paste culture of the form…it’s a liberating music that escapes the tight rigour and convention of most of indie rock.
Somehow they turned this into pop music, Damon Albarn is, after all, a clever bastard even if he knows it. They even turned the whole thing into an amazing play- a musical of flying dancers and a thrilling martial arts ballet. I went to see it in Manchester a couple of years ago. It was a bit different to going to a normal gig, for a start I was sat next to the late, great Dennis Hopper. It was a breath taking show and the Gorillaz were in outer space escaping at high velocity all the rules and regulations of pop and gone way beyond, mashing hip hop, pop and indie underground, they were now mashing all aspects of showbiz and theatre into one mind blowing whole.
Where could they go after that?
Well back to earth. The Gorillaz now became a band, not a normal band though. They sort of reformed the Clash- the wet dream of most middle aged men. It was great to see Simonon and Jones swaggering around stage again and even if there was a pretty big hole were Joe should have been, this was still something else.
They then went on a. Sweaty flesh and bone world tour supporting their third album, the not quite as good but still great ‘Plastic Beach’ to rave reviews.
On the road there was the promise of a new album that would be recorded exclusively on an iPad and released at Xmas as a download on the Gorillaz own website.
Well here it is and as a mark of hi tech respect here I am reviewing the album on my iPad. Like Damon Albern I love my iPad. When you travel all the time the compact lightweight communication tool is a gem and I do nearly all my writing on it. I have also recorded music on it and many bands use it live for their keyboard parts because of the stunning keyboard apps that come with it.
‘the Fall’ ( is the title a nod to Mark E Smith’s musical vehicle ?) is arguably the first iPad album and it’s hard to work out how much extra technology has been involved in it’s creation. My guess is not much if any atall, it is perfectly feasible to record an album that sounds like this and the Gorillaz have also handily released a list of apps that they used in the making of the album underlining the way that Apple and its releases from iPhones to Apps are the equal in pop culture power moments to what the single used to be when anyone gave a toss about the charts.
The album is less of a collection of songs than a series of on the road sketches from Albarn from the band’s American tour. Inspired by that endless Americana that stretches out from beyond the window of the tour bus. The fascinating continent that still captivates in the 21st century, that strange dislocation of familiarity from the content pop culture referencing is perfect for a pop magpie and Albarn sketches the scenario out in the electronic blips of his iPad.
The following track by track breakdown of the album is like a series of postcards from the pop culture cutting edge and all the better for it. few bands in their position would make such an introspective work and few would give it away from the website, but then few bands are the Gorillaz and few bands are not even a band anyway.

Phoner To Arizona
Where once you would have had an orchestra tuning up before the show- an idea revamped by the Beatles for ‘Sgt Peppers’, the 21st century group makes squishy noises on its iPad as it seeks the groove- mashed up vocals and digital weirdness float through the air in search of a song but instead create a mood of anticipation.

Revolving Doors
Switching the mood to an almost pastoral human feel with Albarn lamenting over atmospheric guitars and hypnotic chanting in a moment of introspection that comes from the detachment of the road.

HillBilly Man
Albarn was always good at those falsettos and they make a welcome return here as the ante is upped with some synths providing the digital rifting that steps the album a gear. The keyboard apps on iPad are astonishing. Mimicking keyboard sound perfectly, The Ipad apps are about to be one of the key ways of creating music in our times, and its not only trad keyboards that sound good, I’ve got marimbas and sitars in my iPad that sound astonishing. The taught, tight programmed backing of the track is the the perfect back drop from the frailties of the vocals. It’s that same sort of man and machine stand off that worked so perfectly for New Order for years.
.

Detroit
Detroit is arguably THE music city in America. I know New York and LA are the driving force on the fabled continent and that they have provided endless layers of key music but Detroit seems to have the knack of being bang on the cutting edge when the cutting edge really mattered. From Motown to the Stooges/MC5 to George Clinton to techno and acid house and onwards the motor city has been there. Albarn gives the city a knowing nod with this instrumental that flirts with the city’s stark techno template without ever getting in there too deep but ends up with an effectively dazzling track.

Shy-town
Shy town or shite town? The mood lightens with a bass driven, outer space slice of sweetness proving that pop has not been totally abandoned.

Little Pink Plastic Bags
Off the wall grower that build subtly into a jagged ambitious beast and perhaps the most challenging to record on an iPad.

The Joplin Spider
Sometimes when you listen to the Gorillaz you feel like like you are peering into the future, a sci fi future that’s hinted at in the almost soundtrack, future war, rush of the intro before Albarn’s spoken vocal gives the song a spine over the stripped down Terminator like pulse of the track.

The Parish Of Space Dust
The fizz and blip of radio waves crackle across the universe in another soundtrack style intro that slowly morphs into a synth driven ocean swell of chords that again proves that a pop ear is dabbling in the mix. That’s one of the great things about the Gorillaz, they always remain pop, pop in the way that early XTC messed with the form and remained inside it (this is a good time to mention XTC frontman Andy Partridge’s great remix of the band’s second ‘Go 2’ album into the great ‘Go Plus’

The Snake In Dallas
Massive Attack style beats give a nod to the group who provided the framework for the very idea of the Gorillaz- that inner core with shifting vocalist and open mind assimilation of styles that combined the post punk ear of John Peel’s genius radio show with modern technology. Another instrumental and my current favourite track on the album.
The word futuristic was invented for songs like this.

Amarillo
A big open song for a big open space. The hinterland and heartland of America are so powerfully evocative that a reverb drenched song like this could only have been written for it.
Melancholic and euphoric this song capture the eternal emptiness of the real America beyond the razzmatazz of the more familiar cities.

The Speak It Mountains
A mesh of ideas and radio noise- the random junk noise that floats around the tour bus on the road in America

Aspen Forest
Another instrumental with a piano rising above the the sound of rain drops

Bobby In Phoenix
The Bobby is Bobby Womack, who lends his powerful and distinctive vocals to an almost trad song of bluesy neo Stones licks that also brings in the Syrian musicians who were sat on the tour bus as well being part of the Gorillaz live experience

California And The Slipping Of The Sun
Funky disco ambiance as Albarn finds his beloved megaphone underneath the tour bus bunk.

Seattle Yodel
Some lunatic sounding sampling as the tour bus arrives in Seattle, must have been those giant redwoods on the road up there…

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11 comments on “Gorillaz, The Fall, album review – by John Robb”

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  1. Great review, total cost of iPad apps used to make the album would probably come in at circa £50 ish, what he has used to record into is a mystery tho, two ipads ? One to play and one as a sequencer? Either way its a game changing album. I suppose it goes to prove how talented he is, ( even if he knows it himself ) stand back and watch the deluge of iPad / phone albums, you never know, it just could be the Bill Grundy moment we have been waiting for, for the hooded generation.

    • good point Neil…it’s not the first stuff to be recorded on an ipad but the first high profile release recorded on an ipad…
      I like the idea of hit tech being used to keep music raw and outside the mainstream, Gorillaz are sort of part of that…

  2. Gorrillaz finally made sense to me when I watched a hundred primary school kids (with a hundred different languages) dancing to Clint Eastwood at my daughter’s primary school in Hackney (just after Missy Elliot’s Get Your Freak On – all of them singing along with the words: ‘spit it out – give you a taste’ etc – upsetting to some…). Damon Albarn managed to do what he never did with Blur: something truly original that had its own place in culture and that could only have come from the UK.

    I’ll admit I couldn’t stand Blur or the Albarn persona. I watched him climb all over the PA stack at The Bull & Gate as the band did their 60s thing (before doing their Wire 70s thing) & realised I’d been left behind. Brit Pop is right down there with 1976 (Terry Jacks/David Dundas/Captain & Tennile) as an era that churns my stomach.

    But, with Gorrillaz, I forgive and try to forget. He even squeezed a wet thing from the corner of my eye when I watched the live televised Demon Dayz and the kids came on at the end.

    For services to reggae B lines and the county of Essex all is forgiven.

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