August 14, 2008
Monkey: Journey To The West
7 / 10
No-one, you have to conclude, hated Britpop more than Damon Albarn. Ever since he bid English whimsy a two-fingered farewell with 1995’s ‘The Great Escape’, Albarn’s muse has followed such a wayward path it’s occasionally resembled one of Alan Partridge’s more desperate pitching sessions. So how about the world’s first virtual cartoon rap crew? A punk Afrobeat supergroup? Um… monkey opera? Sung in Mandarin Chinese? Well, it beats doing ‘Country House’ again, doesn’t it? Here then, is what happened when Albarn and Gorillaz illustrator Jamie Hewlett flew out to China with the plan to write a modern stage production about the 16th century legend behind the 1970s TV show Monkey. To cut quite a convoluted story short, a monkey is born from a stone egg, decides he wants to live forever and sets off on a quest for immortality that sees him travel to an underwater kingdom, fight countless dragons, demons and monks and get trapped under the giant hand of Buddha for 500 years in what appears to be the ancient Chinese version of an Asbo. You won’t actually know this from listening to ‘Journey To The West’ unless you’re pretty hot at ancient Mandarin, although with the help of titles like ‘The Dragon King’ and ‘Sandy The River Demon’ you can probably use your imagination to fill in the gaps.
The big question: is it any good? Well, in places. While crucial to the plot, a gruff-voiced pig-man boasting about his magic rake doesn’t have that much replay value. But then there’s ‘Monkey Bee’, a whooshing, motorik pop track that sounds like Japanese synth wizard Cornelius. Meanwhile, there’s some sweet female-sung Oriental ballads pieced together with a mix of folk instruments, electronics and orchestra that, thanks to Albarn’s adherence to the pentatonic scale – you know, stupid, the five-note scale in which all traditional Chinese music is written – have
a surprisingly authentic feel.
If you’re listening hard, you can occasionally spot Albarn’s fingerprints here and there – a characteristic synth flourish, a playful pop melody – but it’s safe to say if you didn’t know that he was involved there’s no way you’d guess. This might be bad news for the Blur devotee eagerly awaiting their next chart hit, but you suspect it makes Damon Albarn very happy indeed.
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