Techno

Gorillaz – Humanz

God this album is bad.  Every year there’s bound to be one massive disappointment from a critically revered artist, and thus far this year Damon Albarn’s beloved Gorillaz project is winning (losing?) that race by a landslide.  The first Gorillaz album since 2010’s solid Plastic Beach, Humanz arrives two years after Albarn reunited Blur for The Magic Whip, a so-so album that sounds exactly like you’d expect Blur to sound 15 years after their heyday, and three years since his sad, grey, lonely and boring solo album, Everyday Robots.  And it’s a mess in all the worst ways possible.  It’s dense in songs, features and ideas but next to none of them succeed.  It’s way too long, a 20 track, 48 minute slog that feels much longer.  There are six needless, corny interludes.  The vocal features are all over the place; verses from solid performers sound completely out of place on the instrumentals Albarn has built for them, and others are just awful regardless of what they’re rapping / singing over.  There is no trace of personality or presence from the imaginary band that the project takes its name for; rather, Humanz sounds like a collection of unsuccessful demos that should have been titled “Damon Albarn writes subpar, half-baked songs for people he thinks are cool and wants to work with.”

Humanz, like other Gorillaz releases, is a pseudo concept album about the slow, deliberate destruction of humanity at the hands of greed, warfare, deceit, inept government and late stage market capitalism.  And for the most part, the featured vocalists adhere to the theme in their lyrical content.  The album also has a cohesive production aesthetic; dark, heavy, bassy tracks with little in the way of colorful synthesizers or guitars.  And those are the only compliments I can give Humanz.  It’s sort of remarkable that Damon Albarn wrote hits like “Clint Eastwood” and “Feel Good Inc.“, but couldn’t manage to put together one catchy song anyone would remember five minutes after it’s ended.  It’s perhaps even more remarkable that he wrote beautiful, melancholy ballads like “El Manana“, yet not a single song here pulls at any heartstring or impresses with synthetic production.  The instrumentals are incredibly boring, repetitive and lack imagination completely.  Every track is just a 4/4 pounding bass rhythm with a few low, ominous synths, a rap verse or speak-singing passage followed by a ‘hook’ or ‘chorus’ that sounds almost exactly like the rest of the track, like the rest of the whole album, except with some sad, faux-tragic female vocalist or Albarn’s own voice singing banal, nondescript lyrics about how much the world sucks.

The proper opener  is Vince Staples on “Ascension”, probably the best song here (Vince Staples can’t really deliver a bad verse), but the production fails to impress, an uptempo, vaguely dark, vaguely electronic haberdashery featuring a canned gospel chorus sample chanting “higher”.  Things only get worse after that.  “Strobelite” is the worst combination of Albarn’s dancey, techno impulses and inoffensive 80s disco pastiche.  “Momentz” is practically unlistenable, not because De La Soul isn’t spitting as fast as he can, but because the underlying bass pounding out every quarter note sounds fucking awful, the chanted “Momentz!” vocal sample spliced in every 12 seconds or so sounds fucking awful, and the shrieking, wailing “Plastic on the ceiling!” bridge sounds fucking awful.  All the interludes are heavy-handed and completely unnecessary, such as “The Non-Conformist Oath”, where the ‘irony’ of a crowd repeating in unison “I promise not to repeat what other people say!” makes 50 Cent’s fellatio reference on “Candy Shop” appear subtle in comparison.

No song is pretty.  No vocal take is especially memorable or enjoyable.  Danny Brown probably has the best verse here (another rapper who rarely fails to be exciting) but the droning techno R&B number he’s paired on compliments his vocal style like salad dressing compliments ice cream.  There’s a track called “Sex Murder Party” that’s as bad as a song called “Sex Murder Party” could have been (yes, the chorus whispers “Sex murder party”), but far more boring – nothing fucking happens on this song at all!  The record stumbles and face-plants out the door with the penultimate “Hallelujah Money”, which features a bizarre baritone vocal from Benjamin Clementine reciting revolutionary lyrical content expressing the concept that money is the root of all evil (Gasp!).  But the closer is miles worse; an upbeat, positive song that sounds like it was Albarn’s attempt to write for Sesame Street (“We got the power to be loving each other no matter what happens!  We got hte power to do that!”) before Savages’ Jehnny Beth (yes, you read that right) shows up with an incredibly awkward and uncomfortable, nearly campy vocal take that makes me want to kill myself.

And through it all, where the hell are the Gorillaz?  The fictional band is nowhere to be found, no guitar lines from Noodle, no acoustic bass lines from Murdoch, minimal live drumming from Russel and only occasional vocal takes from 2-D (aka Albarn himself).  Albarn stated in an interview that he has 40 more Gorillaz songs that didn’t make the album (there are also six ‘deluxe edition’ songs you can get on iTunes or something).  If these were the 14 best songs he could put together, I can’t even begin to imagine the steaming pile of shit that are those other 40.

Score:  2 / 13

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Actress – AZD

Actress is the pseudonym of British electronic musician Darren Cunningham, a veteran of the genre for over a decade the man behind four well-received LPs, spaced enough apart to allow Cunningham time to develop and hone in on a new idea and give each record a definitive sound.  His latest, AZD, feels cold and calculated, whirring with machinery and industrial noises to create a thematically consistent record in agreement with the record’s robotic, metallic cover artwork.

The songs on AZD are more often than not danceable and pulsating, preferring tinkling, minimalist riffs and white noise to huge moments of bass or synths.  Such is true on proper opener “Untitled 7”, a good bellwether of the album’s overall sound before fading into the followup “Fantasynth”, which loops pitched up bells alongside a dusty piano hook, all to a pumping, organic backbeat.  The track, like others on AZD, develops slowly, becoming encompassed by a subtle but steady stream of snowy noise before ending as mysteriously and unceremoniously as it began, with a simple fade out.  “Blue Window” follows a similar formula, changing its hook, tempo and murky, muffled back beat just enough to distinguish itself while remaining firmly within the sonic palette the album paints early on.  The cross fading of tracks gives the opening third a DJ set list vibe, which slowly juxtaposes itself to the standalone, more conceptual tracks that appear as the record progresses.

“CYN” is the album’s first detour, going with a heavier, more dynamic arrangement that brings in various buzzsaws, theremins and organs built around intense 90s hip hop and spoken word samples.  The song dissipates quickly and is picked up by “X22RME”, which, as the title suggests, is the heaviest song on the record, mixing darker techno with Classixx-like triplet arpeggios before going full-throttle on the fuzz and noise.  “Runner” concludes the album’s second phase with a driving beat, insistent synth instrumentation and a flurry of static that masks human conversation, distorting it to sound completely artificial.

The final third of “AZD” begins with the ambient “Falling Rizlas”, a delicate piece of music lacking in a rhythmic beat and featuring synthetic string arrangements and deep bass around snowy chimes.  The track is beautiful and serves as an eye of the hurricane before “Dancing in the Smoke” affronts the listener with a hail of glitchy, clashing, squealing synths, ray guns and broken glass.  Experimental and occasionally intriguing, the track nonetheless feels chaotic and claustrophobic.  “Faure in Chrome” is the album’s climax, a dramatic string piece that features the ingratiating sound of metallic welding and buzzing, not far from the sound of a dentist’s drill into teeth.  It sounds like the soundtrack to fatal robotic surgery, and I can appreciate the conceptual nature of the song, which feels related to the story on the cover art, but the high pitched buzzing is just too unpleasant for me to enjoy listening through it.  The record closes with the mysterious, alien come-down “There’s an Angel in the Shower” and “Visa”, an uptempo, nostalgic techno throwback that doesn’t make a lot of sense sequencing wise, sort of reminding me of a bonus single or deluxe track tacked onto the album’s end.

I think AZD develops a signature sound early and provides a solid mix of minimalist production and catchy, dancey hooks, but its indulgence into clashing, grating and wholly unenjoyable experimentation on the back end is a huge downer and a strike against the album for me.  I think there was a great idea behind these dark, metallic tracks, and I can see a record that does such a concept beautifully, but AZD is not it.  The center of the record, while fine, isn’t as strong as the first third, and I think the end truly is a sequencing mishap, as “Angel in the Shower” works better than anything else here as the closer (though clearly Actress felt otherwise).  There are good ideas and a deft hand behind AZD, but the record itself feels like a missed opportunity.

Score: 6/13