Stepping into the seemingly dystopian world of Gorillaz, their first live stream show this Saturday led people to an animated scene of grim skies and an apocalyptic wreckage on empty streets. In contrast, waiting inside the brick building of Kong Studios are the lively acts from album Song Machine Season One: Strange Timez released this year. The walls, piano and curtains were spray painted with “stay negative,” but the set proved that to be impossible, featuring several distinct collaborative artists appearing both in person, on screen and as digital holographs. With Gorillaz’s roots in virtual realities and animated characters, 2-D, Murdoc Niccals, Noodle and Russel Hobbs also made several appearances paralleling the live action band.
With iconic frazzled locks of teased hair, black eyeliner and red lipstick, Robert Smith of The Cure sang the opening track of Song Machine Season One: Strange Timez, (also titled “Strange Timez”) as a cosmic spacescape of the moon shifted behind him. His feature on the song reflected his quintessential vocals that make him so distinguishable. In no time, following Smith’s intro, Gorillaz frontman Damon Albarn appeared in glittery pineapple-shaped sunglasses singing up close and personal in the camera with his handheld microphone. As the ominous, hypnotic beat continued and added percussion and the piano picked up pace, an animated Murdoc was ejected from a spacecraft on screen and appeared on stage, disoriented.
Albarn, strapped up with his melodica, jigged to the groovy opening of “The Valley of the Pagans” as the camera panned across more elaborate parts of the stage’s set up. Spray painted mannequins, one naked with horse mask, and the other with a helmet on sitting in a car, were positioned to the side of the stage next to a rack that displayed Gorillaz’s new action figure collection. Fusing the digital world with present time, Beck made appearances on the big screen backdrop and also took the stage in the form of a holograph. In this trippy feature, he danced along with Albarn in his own pair of cool white shades.
The set changed tones as Leee John stepped on stage, shimmying and grooving with every step in his charcoal gray leather suit for “The Last Chord.” The backdrop screen displayed a halcyon aquatic scene of bright sea life, a sinking car drifting to its depths and jellyfish seamlessly floating by. In a similar fashion, John sailed across the stage and flawlessly pirouetted as he hit smooth falsettos. For this calmer jazzy track, Albarn sat at the piano coaxing out gorgeous chords and harmonizing with John’s vocals, grinning all the way. His last remark for the song was simply, “Beautiful, thank you Leee.”
More animated characters made an appearance “on stage” for “Pac-Man,” featuring 2-D playing the classic arcade game as Schoolboy Q rapped on the screen as a pixelated video game character. Russel tentatively hit a punching bag, and at the end of the song, Noodle pulled the power chord, and the stage went black. On Song Machine Season One: Strange Timez, and during the live stream set, Albarn collaborated with several rap artists including JPEGMAFIA & CHAI on “MLS,” and “Opium” featuring EARTHGANG. “Dead Butterflies,” featuring British rapper Kano and debut artist Roxani Arias combined R&B, rap and a jazzy piano ballad all in one (with a physical appearance from Kano for the show). These tracks produced high energy performances that would no doubt be a blast at a festival or actual live show. During “Opium,” the six backup singers of the Gorillaz live band carried a hearty powerful sound, boosting Albarn’s vocals, and setting up a dramatic transition for EARTHGANG to shine on screen. The trippy visuals were like watching the performance through the end of a kaleidoscope, and enhanced the fun, colorful energy of the track that even got Albarn dancing across the stage.
During “The Pink Phantom,” the song opened up with an intro verse from rapper 6lack on-screen before transitioning into a duet piano ballad between 2-D and cartoon Elton John. A realistic capture of Elton John, his character was dressed in an all-pink suit and flashy pink shades akin to the ones Albarn wore for the set. Pink mandala designs flowered out over the screen as Albarn played the piano part live, and Murdoc tip-toed in the background with a net chasing an elusive pink phantom. The somber tune was a gorgeous collaboration between both legendary artists.
A fan favorite for obvious reasons, “Aries,” kicked the energy up a notch as Georgia hammered at her drum pads and legendary bass player of Joy Division and New Order, Peter Hook, effortlessly produced the iconic bass line of the track. 2-D and Murdoc rode off into the sunset on a motorcycle, which is the ideal way to experience this song. During the chorus that repeats “High Tide/ High Tide/ High Tide,” the entirety of everyone on stage jumped up and down, sharing large grins. The song ended with a loud crack of thunder. The energy continued for “Désolé,” when a hologram of featured artist Fatoumata Diawara danced alongside Albarn for the one of a kind bossa nova inspired track.
“Alright now we’re gonna make a noise,” Albarn said as a fair warning for “Momentary Bliss,” the last track of the show from the new album. People could feel the energy building up from British rapper Slowthai, standing on a couch in the corner in his sweatshirt with devil horns on the hood. The drummer of punk rock duo, Slaves, looked like his mission was to obliterate his kit, and the guitarist went all out as he spun around, shredding every note. The rowdiness and enthusiasm of the group brought out a genuine laugh from Albarn. This song was no doubt the most fun to experience.
A surprise track, “Fire Coming Out Of The Monkey’s Head,” from Demon Days released in 2005, acted as a smooth transition into the rest of the set. An ominous hooded figure approached a pulpit shaped like an eagle as doomsday red skies rolled on the background screen. When the hood was drawn back, the face of popular actor and comedian, Matt Berry, appeared to narrate a dark tale. The original track uses the voice of Dennis Hopper as narrator, but Matt Berry delivered it perfectly with a convincing performance. Albarn made sounds from the melodica that resembled an eerie song of birds, and the band played a jumping beat in the background.
Like a character in a James Bond movie, Albarn carefully scaled the stage with his blue squirt pistol in hand, transitioning the audience to the acoustic stage. A small room cast in dark red light with a Christmas tree, an upside down cross as its topper and strings of lights, set the scene for a strange celebration. In a more relaxed environment, percussionists sat on a couch and background singers swayed in the background for older tracks “Last Living Souls,” “Dracula” and “Don’t Get Lost In Heaven.”
For the finishing touch and perfect closer on this incredible lineup, Albarn appeared alone in the acoustic room, presenting his omnicord to the audience. “I want to introduce you to my very good friend. This is my omnicord,” said Albarn. “It seems to be making a funny sound…When I bought this the first thing I did was switch it on and press this button.” As he hit the button, mischievously grinning into the camera, the intro to the famous track “Clint Eastwood” began. He sang the well-known chorus, and in a live show situation, the crowd would’ve been ecstatic. Suddenly interrupted by a voice off-screen, the camera shifted to the main stage where British reggae singer Sweetie Irie was pumped up and ready to go. Joined by Albarn, they playfully hopped up and down singing to each other. In his deep raspy voice, Irie added a playful remix twist to the popular song. Like a New Years’ celebration, Albarn blew a horn into the microphone as the lights flashed, and with a wave and a bow, the show drew to a close.