“Is anybody out there? Hello? Can you hear us?”
In a cavernous secret warehouse, there’s a party underway that would bring Matt Hancock to actual tears. Surrounded by motorbikes, horse-headed dummies, mysterious monoliths, shelves of bizarre bric-a-brac and amps and curtains scrawled with slogans – “STAY NEGATIVE”, “INNATE RASHES”, “IT’S BETTER TO SLEEP WITH A SOBER CANNIBAL THAN A DRUNK CHRISTIAN” – a motley crew of soul kings, bovver boys, rappers, indie heroes, druids and holograms are caught up in some wild midday revelry. It’s a miracle that, in almost 90 minutes, there’s absolutely no appearance whatsoever from Rita Ora.
And through the visual madness and sonic splatterfest grooves Damon Albarn, more rambunctious ringmaster than centrepiece. He raps into a megaphone, hammers keytars and parps toy trumpets in a bomber jacket, docker cap and glittery Elton pineapple shades, like someone sacked from Dexy’s Midnight Runners in 1980 for looking far too pleased with himself.
The cartoon wrapping of Gorillaz has always been there to give some form of coherence to a wildly disparate and dislocated sort of project, not least on their recent compilation of monthly lockdown tracks ‘Song Machine, Season One: Strange Timez’. So, up close and exposed in the livestream format, and playing the new album largely in order (plus some bonus track swap-ins), they rightly embrace the anything-goes jumble behind the ‘toons. Once Robert Smith has laced ‘Strange Timez’ with his aura of melodic anguish and holographic Beck has slipped’n’slid his way through the psych-pop ‘Valley Of The Pagans’, London singer Leee John twirls onto the cabaret stage in person, spinning falsetto soul harmonies over ‘The Lost Chord’. It’s like looking behind the Wizard Of Oz’s curtain to find there’s a wild-ass psychedelic punch party going on back there.
These are tracks that often feel like classic funk, pop, rap and soul music intermingled, encoded, beamed out into the cosmos and deciphered by some far advanced civilisation. It’s a futurist, universal melting pot approach that allows Damon to get away with crooning a desolate melody amid the orchestral rhumba party of ‘Désolé’; merging JPEGMafia’s sunny rap with CHAI’s J-Pop on ‘MLS’; and creating a raging miasma of future soul at the start of EarthGang’s psychedelic disco groover ‘Opium’.
It’s a methodology that also needs focus, though and, without any old hits for us to synchronise with every now and then, this falls to Damon’s more crystalline moments in the spotlight. On ‘Pink Phantom’ he duets with a cartoon Elton John, who sits at a grand piano festooned with a hairy hand candelabra. For ‘Dead Butterflies’, he teases emotive boudoir soul refrains from his keyboard, while Kano sits on a nearby riser paying tribute to the D-boss. When Peter Hook arrives to play cumulonimbus bass on the superb ‘Aries’, Damon beams and shrugs through his euphoric twist on a New Order tune as if he knocks out such glacial indie-pop brilliance in his sleep.
Slaves and Slowthai burst that blissful bubble, bawling into Damon’s face and flouting social distancing rules like a 2020 fresher’s week, for the gloriously exuberant punk of ‘Momentary Bliss’. From there, Gorillaz return to 2005 album ‘Demon Days’. Matt Berry emerges in a druid’s cape, lowers his hood and intones Dennis Hopper’s chilling parable of greed, exploitation and environmental destruction ‘Fire Coming Out Of The Monkey’s Head’ at an eagle lectern.
The band then retire to a side-lounge featuring a Christmas tree topped with an upside-down cross and a framed photo of old-timey comedian Ken Dodd, there to relax into an interlude of drowsy funk and tranquillised reggae on ‘Dracula’, ‘Demon Days’ and a ‘Last Living Souls’ with an optimistic coda. “Are we the last living souls?” Damon asks the camera, then whispers, “no”, with a smile that suggests he’s already off his face on top-grade Pfizer.
If Gorillaz live shows can sometimes feel like insider celebrity parties you’ve been permitted to press your nose to the window of, Live From Kong is the first time we’ve felt invited inside, amid the chaos.
‘The Valley of the Pagans’
‘The Lost Chord’
‘The Pink Phantom’
‘Fire Coming Out of the Monkey’s Head’
‘Last Living Souls’
‘Don’t Get Lost in Heaven’