The Fall (2011), the album that preceded Humanz by six years, felt like a brooding coda to their then recent experimental apex Plastic Beach (2010). It was a surprisingly somber start to a semi-hiatus for Gorillaz, a virtual band who usurped the popular music culture a decade prior with their own form of musical anarchy and hedonism. Gorillaz, comprised of 2D (vocals, keyboards), Noodle (guitar), Russel Hobbs (drums, percussion) and Murdoc Niccals (vocals, bass), were the brainchild of Blur frontman Damon Albarn and graphic visionary Jamie Hewlett.
Via Hewlett's engrossing designs, Albarn used Gorillaz to survey genres he had only dreamed of; the fictional group holds steadfast as his secondary artistic outlet. However, Albarn is a man of sonic community and collaboration, and the previous Gorillaz sets were renowned for their guest lists. Humanz possesses a motley collection of features that include (but aren't limited to) De La Soul, Grace Jones, Popcaan, Mavis Staples, Carly Simon, Anthony Hamilton, Peven Everett, Noel Gallagher (of Oasis), and Vince Staples.
The artists assembled come to the party as themselves or give themselves over to Gorillaz’ spirit, almost becoming them. This lack of separation is what makes the listener traverse further and further down the sonic rabbit hole that is Humanz. But aside from the intriguing acts brought together by Albarn, the record's thematic temperament is key to everything.
Gorillaz had come of age in the 2000s, a decade known for its social and political upheaval. Their grade of alternative pop had always played as an ideal dystopian soundtrack then. Their new LP is right on time in 2017 to do the dance apocalyptic, returning Gorillaz to the cultural boil of Demon Days (2005).
Humanz mixes a variety of dance and urban phonics into a tasty gestalt, its aural flavors shifting from song to song. Listeners are given politi-funk hip-hop on “Ascension” (with Vince Staples), a rewrite of late ‘90s dance music on “Strobelite” (with Peven Everett), and grinding guitar hypnotica on “Charger” (with Grace Jones) within the first half of a project whose sprawl evokes a double album―especially on the LP’s deluxe, two-disc version.
By the time the center of the record is reached, Albarn (guised as 2D), takes the lead with his exquisitely taciturn vocal on “Andromeda” and “Busted and Blue.” For longtime Albarn fans, they'll hear echoes of not only The Fall, but his solo affair Everyday Robots (2014) and the second-to-last Blur effort Think Tank (2003). Each utilized a spacey, R&B-lite vibe to awesome effect, and similar sonics unfold once again here.
The second half of the record returns to its “end of the world” festivities quickly. But interestingly, as the record draws closer to its conclusion, an upswelling of tenderness drives “We Got the Power” and “Circle of Friendz,” each cut a warm, “morning after” affirmation that life will go on despite the mania sweeping around Gorillaz and their audiences. In particular, “We Got the Power” draws in Savages’ frontwoman Jehnny Beth, alongside Britpop icon and one-time Albarn rival Noel Gallagher to join his former tabloid-fueled nemesis in a testament of unity.
Humanz is a filling work, but it doesn't leave its participants and listeners feeling stuffed. Instead, it keeps us wanting more of its humorous, prudent, and post-modern pop hijinks. You know, musical anarchy and hedonism, what Gorillaz do best in times of need.
Notable Tracks: “Ascension” | “Busted and Blue” | “Strobelite” | “Ticker Tape”