Gorillaz: Plastic Beach


Like a long plane ride calmly careening through the air at 600 mph, the beautiful building classical piece from England’s orchestral "sinfonia ViVA," begins Gorillaz latest endeavor Plastic Beach. Signaling there is always more than first glance, the album mixes classical and hip hop and nearly every genre in between for easily one of the best recordings from any virtual band. Zing. 

Plastic Beach’s opening track lets hip-hop icon Snoop Dogg greet the crowd on “Welcome to the World of the Plastic Beach.”  The intro fills the bulk of the tune, mostly setting the sonic mood for the rest of the album with a hypnotic whirling background created before Snoop finally takes his verse.   Next it is another classical interlude to begin, but this time, it is The Lebanese National Orchestra for Oriental Arabic Music who contributes to the percussive opening, and naturally, contributes an Arabic flavored build before dropping leading into the grimey British hip-hop of “White Flag.” Tinted with electronic bass rumbles, British rappers MC’s Bashy and Kano bounce their hooks off the flute laden Arabic melodies that run through the song flawlessly trading of verses back and forth.

“Rhinestone Eyes” finds producer, and Gorillaz brainchild, Damon Albarn’s first vocal lead as a quiet disco introduction is filled with a falling electronic glittering melody.   Albarn’s sheepish voice peeks over the swaying sparkly disco song.  The albums first single, the step laddered “Stylo” finds Mos Def on a heavy reverb mic opposite Bobby Womack’s soulful vocal hits of the shuffling 80s pop synthesizer infused number.

The meat of the album finds some of the better tracks, starting with a meandering down a psychedelic hip-hop hallway which finds Gruff Rhys & De La Soul on the slightly silly, but catchy Caribbean tinged breakfast anthem “Superfast Jellyfish.” A smooth  funneling out into a clean, quiet calm piano twinkle of Albarn’s lead of the first half of “Empire Ants.”  The gentle noise behind Albarn’s piano slowly grows into a bass thumping stardust twinkle as Swedish electronic outfit Little Dragon steers us back down a twisting electronica bop groove with Yukimi Nagano’s soothing verses “working the machine.” 

The electronic tinge continues on “Glitter Freeze,” which also features former a few choice words from British punk singer of The Fall, Mark E. Smith, sprinkled amongst the dirty industrial chopping synthesizers pushing and pulling strains around his sparse vocals. The early punk influence is apparent in the album with another punk elder statesman joining Albarn next, as Lou Reed hops in on "Some Kind Of Nature," filling some of the void left from Smith’s light vocals. Reed brings the vintage bite paired with a piano twinkle that slowly transforms into a slugging crunch of the synthesizer for ‘some kind of mixture…”  that both coaxes the listener in, but still remains wary, like they are trying to lure you into a van from the playground. So get in already.

“On Melancholy Hill” provides more fun, floating 80’s poppy synths, with a bubbling up and down melody, the down falling into the shipwrecked deserted island spookiness of “Broken.”  A heavy bass leads into the Mos Def and Womack pairing again on the slightly cheesy, “Sweepstakes,” but hey for a song about sweepstakes what else can you expect.

Bouncing back into the punk channel of Reed and Smith, fellow punk pioneers Mick Jones and Paul Simonon of The Clash join for “Plastic Beach,” on another one of the albums many heavyweights. Synthesizer notes flow down gothic winding paths as if escaping from an old castle, all the while the whirling dark mutated chorus of dark voices pitch and bend like helium balloons with all the different ranges of ‘a casio on a plastic beach.’ 

Next Nagano and Little Dragon join Albarn again “To Binge.” A simple little organ strut begins the eerie tune with Nagano’s soft pillowy voice walking us home in the middle of a weeklong bender of whiskey and long nights at the circus. To wind down the album we find Womack, this time backed by sinfonia ViVA, as he tones down some of the over the top aspects of earlier tunes, for a smooth and soulful send off before the closing “Pirate Jet” takes off from Plastic Beach.

It would be easy to say Albarn and Gorillaz have done it again, and in a sense he has. Now is it the best Gorillaz album? Let’s hope that remains to be seen, as it fits in with the growing catalogue of the world’s most successful virtual band. Hopefully a tour can bring the sonically deep and challenging album to life in a whole new way as well.  

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