Gorillaz, Demon Days

One of the first records I ever owned was Gorillaz’ eponymous debut album – to be totally honest, it was my older brother’s, but who is writing about it 18 years later? I still remember listening to Clint Eastwood for the first time and being absolutely fascinated by it. The weirdly zen combination of hip-hop, funk, dub and electronic, coupled with Albarn’s distinctive, sorrowful voice, and the cartoons that came with it, revolutionized the game. Gorillaz was a 21st century band – a virtual project created for the MTV era, where music videos had gotten us used to the idea that we did not have to see an actual band to listen to their music.

In due time I will better explore the origins of Damon Albarn and Jamie Hewlett’s cartoon band and the impact their debut album had on the music industry and my life, but this article is not about that, nor is Gorillaz the album we are reviewing. For now it is sufficient to say that, despite being a total game changer, their self-named EP always felt somewhat more like a collection of ideas and fragmented songs rather than a finished album. Even as a kid I often found myself skipping from one track to the other in no particular order, with no particular “flow”. And there is nothing wrong it. When Albarn and Hewlett began their cartoon band project and recorded their debut album (in Jamaica, I may add), they were far from imagining the global success that Gorillaz would eventually reach – their main idea was simply to entertain. Demon Days, on the other hand, is a “grown-up” project.

9/11 darkened the tone of the world. With terrorism growing to never before seen numbers, and torture and executions filling the news, conflict and fear became, once again, part of our world. The rapid growth of the Internet and the appearance of the first Social Media networks drove the rapid dissemination of Information digitally, real or not. America’s invasion of Iraq, coupled with Tony Blair’s decision to support George W. Bush by sending troops into the ground back in 2003, were still very fresh wounds across the UK – those were Demon Days. For a very political Albarn, this was the perfect setting to write his dark testament to modern world history and culture. Convinced by the success of their debut album, he decided to use Gorillaz as a means to explore what was going on around him, rather than taking listeners into the fictional world he and Hewlett created for the virtual band. The result – Demon Days, a record of apocalypse, violence, war, brutality, dystopia and fire. In short, a messed- up mirror of our own world rather than a fantastic window into theirs.

Fittingly, the album opens on a pessimistic tone with Last Living Souls. As the name suggests, it addresses the theme of loneliness and impending finality of death. Gorillaz’ lead singer 2D is a character consumed by anxiety and fear and, in Damon’s bleak vision of the world, his fears are only amplified. As the track builds up, more synthesizers and guitars are added to the mix before the track breaks completely and the dub sounds blend into an orchestral-rock soundscape that becomes characteristic of Demon Days. It i’s at this point that Albarn desperately shouts the song’s title, caught in this battle between the dub groove (brought by bass player Morgon Nichols) and an increasingly louder drum beat. For most bands, Last Living Souls would be the highlight of their careers, their greatest musical achievement, but for 2D, Murdoc, Noodle and Russel, it is just the beginning of their Demon Days.

Drawing comparisons between Demon Days’ tracklist and the everyday concerns of the world in 2005 is essentially unavoidable. After questioning their own existence and place in the world (just as the Western world did in attempting to reassert dominance via the War on Terror), Kids with Guns addresses the apathy and infantilisation surrounding violence and guns, a concern as real and present today, 14 years later, as it was in 2005. Supposedly inspired by a child at his daughter’s school, who innocently brought a knife in to show to his classmates, Kids With Guns dwells on how violent Media and TV will shape up our youth in years to come, convincing poor men and women that enlisting serves some noble purpose, when most wars are driven by greed. 2D, talking about these “soldiers,”, laments how “they’re mesmerized / skeletons / kids with guns,” and “[…] they turn us into monsters / turning us into fire / turning us into monsters / it’s all desire”. Of course, none of these profound lyrics would hit as hard if the music wasn’t there, but it is – oh, how it is. From the subtle piano to the distorted guitars, all phenomenally mixed by a 28-year old Danger Mouse, Kids with Guns is a brilliant art statement. It is one of Demon Days’ most famous anthems and a perfect example of how Gorillaz’ sophomore album’s introspective maturity took the band to from novelty to global stardom.

After O Green World, one of the darkest tracks on the record, about a man who has lost faith in everything (in which even Cortez, Murdoc’s pet raven, has a central place), we continue exploring the idea of false pretexts and icons – a recurring theme influenced by the 2003 invasion of Iraq. As we all now know, the pursuit of the so-called “Weapons of Mass Destruction” in Iraq had, in fact, a concealed motive: Oil. 16 years later, Iraq’s once state-owned, national oil industry is now largely privatized and dominated by foreign investors and shareholders. Albarn addresses this with Dirty Harry, an absolute belter narrated from the perspective of an American soldier (in case the lyrics are not clear enough, one quick look at the music video should clear any doubts). Phenomenally accompanied by the San Fernando Valley Youth Chorus, Pharcyde’s Bootie Brown raps “The war is over, so said the speaker, with the flight suit on,”, a direct reference to George W. Bush who, a couple of months prior to Demon Days’ release, stood on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln, in a flight suit, announcing that “in the battle of Iraq, the United States and our allies have prevailed.”. However, unlike what the banner behind the then American President joyfully announced, the mission was not accomplished and the war was, of course, not over – in fact, the vast majority of victims came after this statement.

Feel Good Inc., Demon Days’ first single, follows Dirty Harry. Albarn wanted American hip-hop legends De La Soul to rap in any Demon Days track of their choosing, but while Posdunos wanted to rap over Kids with Guns, Dave and Maseo had their eyes on the rough demo that was Feel Good Inc. It addresses a society brainwashed into blissful ignorance, a predicament that drives 2D insane. Feel Good Inc. is a 21st Century representation of the dangers of consumerism. The rest? Well, the rest is history. Feel Good Inc. went on to shatter records and awards – in addition to winning a Grammy for Best Pop Collaboration in 2006, the single amassed 2 other nominations and was listed by Pitchfork Media and Rolling Stone magazine as one the best songs of the 2000s, amongst several other awards – and deservedly. The groovy beat, folksy indie drum, exquisite production, Maseo’s evil laughter and Albarn’s fantastic vocal delivery all turn Feel Good Inc. into one of the biggest anthems of the 21st Century to-date.

Violence within Demon Days is evident not only in Albarn’s lyrics, but also in Jamie Hewlett’s exquisite cartoon videos – on El Mañana, for example, the band goes as far as (apparently) killing Noodle. The song is arguably the climax of Demon Days. A conversation between a hopeless man and his god, it is one of the deepest and most beautiful songs Albarn has written, and the song’s composition is probably one of Gorillaz’ best: a mix of gospel, soul and blues, with all sorts of experimentation, distortion and background vocals (impressively delivered by the London Community Gospel Choir). Subtly using a siren in the background, the song also inspires a constant feeling of fear and danger, returning to the recurrent theme of despair within Demon Days. El Mañana is the perfect example of how Gorillaz allowed Albarn to explore musical genres in a way he could never do as Blur. 2D explores a different side to Albarn – a dark, isolated and anxious persona that grew out of 13 and Think Tank. On El Mañana we are faced with an emotional masterpiece that tries to address Albarn’s paranoia and turmoil in a post-9/11 world. El Mañana (“the morning”) has finally arrived, only to reveal that nothing has really changed.

El Mañana paves the way for Every Planet We Reach is Dead, a personal favourite. Of all the songs that characterize Gorillaz’ ability to mash-up different genres and influences, Every Planet We Reach is Dead is probably one of the best. Elements of blues, jazz and even funk can be found hidden in plain sight amidst frenzied electric guitars, African percussion and endless layers of synthesizers and background vocals. The song perfectly captures the desperate and lost atmosphere of Demon Days, highlighted in Albarn’s melancholic vocals as he questions “what are we going to do?”. As he realizes there is nothing he can do, the song falls into a beautiful chaos. In the middle of this cacophony is Ike Turner. Perhaps more famous now for his problems with drug abuse and violent mistreatment of his partner and lead singer Tina Turner, Ike was one of the first Rock-and-Roll pioneers, and his piano solo on Every Planet We Reach is Dead is nothing short of a masterpiece. Commanding the Gorillaz orchestra through his piano, Ike launches the song into pandemonium before the unrelenting noise of what seems to be a million instruments dissolves into nothingness. The world is dead, and so are the people that live in it.

November Has Come likely addresses what took place the November before Demon Days‘ 2005 release – the re-election of the man who was responsible for the never-ending chaos that surrounded Albarn’s life, and the centrepiece behind many of the issues addressed in Demon Days. The song is a collaboration with MF DOOM, an artist famously known for hiding himself behind a mask – much like Albarn and his fictional band at the time (nowadays Albarn lets the cartoons take a backseat when performing live). After spending hours battling their personal demons and questioning their god in the hope of answers to fix the world, the band realise they are All Alone on a catchy but ominous track that sees Roots Manuva coming back to life with a soothing Martina Toply-Bird that ask us to “close your eyes and see, where there ain’t no light”. In other words, they should take a step back and calm down. But this calm does not last long, as they are then faced with White Light, a song about substance abuse and addiction that’s arguably the most forgettable song of the record – suitably, Albarn sings this song in the voice of Murdoc, the band’s bass player and resident alcoholic.

It’s important to consider the impact that Gorillaz in general, and Demon Days in particular, had on the careers of nearly everyone involved in the record. When Albarn decided to replace long time collaborator Dan the Automator with the now-legendary New York producer Danger Mouse, he was a relatively unknown name in the industry, having released little more than his mashup of Jay-Z’s The Black Album with The Beatles’ White Album. Yet, and just like in the aptly-named The Grey Album, in Demon Days Danger Mouse mixes completely different worlds together to create an impressive range and complexity of sounds. This, coupled with the anonymity of the Gorillaz project, might also help explain how artists like De La Soul or Bootie Brown enjoyed success in the UK charts, famously known for rarely praising anything resembling hip-hop. Gorillaz allowed these artists to tap into otherwise unreachable audiences – a good example of this is DARE, an unlikely electronic-pop collaboration with Shaun Ryder and Neneh Cherry that also reached number one in the British market.

The consumption of the world’s natural resources and environmental decay has always been a preoccupation for Albarn. In an interview with Notion magazine ahead of Demon Days’ release, Albarn asked “what is going to happen when they’ve taken all of the oil out of earth?”. This terrifying thought of his is explored in Fire Coming Out of the Monkey’s Head. Narrated by the late actor Dennis Hopper, it tells the story of a village that is invaded by strange folk hoping to mine the resources of a mountain called Monkey. Although nearly impossible not to see the similarities between this tale and America’s true motivation behind the Iraq war, ultimately the song is about the consequences of draining our planet dry of natural resources. Needless to say, the story does not end well for the foreigners, as the deeper they dig, the angrier the spirit of the mountain became, to a point where “(…) there came a sound, distant first, that grew into castrophany so immense / That it could be heard far away in space / There were no screams, there was no time / The mountain called Monkey had spoken / There was only fire, and then / Nothing.”

On the Beach Boys-influenced Don’t Get Lost in Heaven, Albarn dwells on how religion consumes people and how we shouldn’t get tied up in the idea of “Heaven” and “Hell.”. Spending most of the album seeking answers to his questions, he finishes Demon Days with a sort of “fuck you” to a saviour that did nothing to help him in his hour of need (“But you left me, you don’t know my soul / You’re a hoe girl, yeah you’re a hobo”), while returning to his rock and roll lifestyle. At the same time, the London Community Gospel Choir tell him “Don’t go over the edge / You’ll make a big mistake.” Albarn is telling the listener he should control not only his drug addiction, but also his fear of a higher entity. As the song reaches the end, the vocals seamlessly transition into the album’s grand finale, the titular Demon Days. With a build-up of strings and sustained gospel singing, it is probably one of the most elaborate tracks Gorillaz ever made, and a beautiful closer to a lyrically dark record.

Demon Days is a colossal musical step forward when compared to its predecessor. There are, of course, similarities between both albums – both sample scores from zombie movies (Dawn of the Dead during Demon DaysIntro and Day of the Dead on M1 A1), and there are obvious homages to American actor Clint Eastwood, first via their debut album’s single with the same name, and then with Dirty Harry, but we can pretty much leave it at that. Demon Days is undoubtedly grimmer than Gorillaz, and Albarn’s sorrowful and melancholic voice marries perfectly with the tone of the album. But it is so much more than that – a record packed with number one pop songs, exquisite and inventive production, and an incredible mix of different influences and artists that showcase how Gorillaz have risen to become a world-class group. By assembling a cast of true superstars, both on record and in the music videos, Albarn meaningfully broadened the band’s public appeal and musical horizons. Whether it is Ike Turner on Every Planet we Reach is Dead, Neneh Cherry sensually supporting 2D in Kids with Guns, Dennis Hopper happily narrating the destruction of a village on Fire Coming Out of the Monkey’s Head, or De La Soul’s laughter providing the evil touch in Feel Good Inc., Albarn is not concerned with retreating into the shade and letting these heavy-hitters take central stage. Ultimately he is the star of the show – and we know it.

In retrospect, maybe Albarn’s message was lost in the middle of the experimentation and “sci fi kitsch” that some magazines and critics used to describe Demon Days at the time. Maybe it was regarded as overly pessimistic – after all, the Iraq war was “only” 2 years old at the time, the Financial Crisis was yet to emerge and we were very far away from the austerity and rising extremist regimes that dominate the political and economic landscape to this day. Or maybe this doomsday scenario was simply viewed as a self-indulgent and pretentious move from Albarn, but, 14 years later, the messages and problems explored in Demon Days are more pertinent than ever: overpopulation, false gods, guns, violence, depression, corruption and greed. The world is not better than it was, and this is precisely why listening to Demon Days today is even more interesting than in 2005 – these are the true Demon Days. It has rightfully won its place as one of the best and most rewarding records of the 21st century so far and, just like the good wine you should open while listening to it (take the advice of someone prone to hedonism), Demon Days seems to get better with age. It is a message to today’s audience, delivered yesterday, by a band from tomorrow. Brilliant.