When the animated band Gorillaz was first conceptualized back in 1998, creators Damon Albarn and Jamie Hewlett had a simple goal: break away from the lack of substance on platforms like MTV. The videos seemed disconnected from any part of the song, and there were so many that the mediocrity seemed non-stop. As a virtual entity, Gorillaz could make visually appealing music videos on a somewhat more limited budget than other bands. The format of the band also allows for a seamless transition in styles (such as musical genres and art styles) by adding storytelling elements as if presenting a cartoon TV show. Certain songs introduce new characters or explore different backstories while continuing to build the overall lore. This world-building gives depth to the cartoon members and makes the fans feel that at any point one of the members could walk among them, in the real world. Gorillaz as a concept required constant innovation, but most of all, the band craved inclusion in broader society—
barn, all other members have boasted other figures as their voice actors or musicians in the band’s 22-year run.
Gorillaz has had its share of gimmicks and silliness during these two decades. They added an actual Powerpuff Girls villain to the band, though Ace (the leader of the Ganggreen Gang) was only temporarily filling in while usual bassist Murdoc was in prison. Then there was that “MTV Cribs” parody with Murdoc draped in a towel, showing the camera-crew around Kong Studios (their fictional recording company). Hijinks aside, Albarn and Hewlett have always managed to keep pushing the boundaries of their imagination, especially in the realm of technology. When they dropped “Stylo” 10 years ago, the video features 2D (the character), in a real car, interacting with real-life objects. Granted, the 3D rendering would be considered horrific by today’s standards, but it showed what Gorillaz really wanted to do: break from the cartoon world of its own creation and join its fans.
For an animated band, they had a deep yearning to belong in our living, breathing 3D world, yet they also wanted to remain themselves. So when animation tech kept evolving, Gorillaz kept knocking on the door to reality, and when “Humility” was released in 2018, the door swung wide open. The video showed the entire band in Muscle Beach, California, frolicking, roller skating, touching real objects, interacting with Jack Black and weightlifters. The colors and lighting of the characters were perfectly placed; it truly felt like when the video was shot, the passers-by could see the characters in the environment. It was obvious Gorillaz had finally landed on the visuals they were so long searching for.
When they announced their “Song Machine” project in January, only mentioning that it would be a jam session with the band, fans had no idea what to expect. Maybe a behind-the-scenes production? Perhaps a look at the musicians as one of their songs was in progress? A few weeks later when the first episode (as of writing, the only episode), “Momentary Bliss,” dropped, it became clear that Gorillaz had found its proper showcase. The video, which takes place in a living room, very much feels like a group of friends just got together to jam— and some of those friends just happened to be animated. The informality of the location, and the opening scenes of people setting up the space, make for a sense of intimacy. Of course, unlike close friends, the people gathered in the room are cartoons. 2D, Murdock, Noodle, and Russel seem to no longer occupy their own world separately. They are singing, dancing, drinking coffee, poisoning coffee (Murdoc isn’t the nicest guy in the world) and just performing normal tasks that one would see in any “Tiny Desk” video. And the human musicians who occupy the space also flare with cartoonish elements. Their eyes flatten, flare and glow, some have horse tongues and they touch animated objects around the room, all of which further solidifies the reality of this interaction.
“Momentary Bliss” is a perfect name for the first episode because it encapsulates the feeling I had when watching this as a long-time fan. It really shows how much personality and depth Gorillaz has given to its members over the years, so much that they could be animated characters hosting real bands as the featured acts, not the headliners. “Song Machine” is a fascinating experience because it represents the climax of this 22-year journey. It let Gorillaz break away from their lonely 2D world, where (lore aside) there existed no other bands or competition. It also represents a new path, in which we see how reality mingles with fantasy. Indeed, they can belong to our world; they don’t have to bring us to theirs. Questions aside, this first episode made me feel like one day I could come across one of the band members walking in the city and ask them for their autograph. It’s exciting to see where they may go from this point, but after 22 years, I am happy that this point has finally been reached. And I can’t wait for episode two.