Review Summary: An awkward, cartoonish opera from the man behind Blur & the Gorillaz...Monkey: Journey to The West
In 2007 a theater adaption of one of the four great classical novels of Chinese literature, Journey to the West (also known simply as Monkey) premiered in Manchester, England. The creation of Chinese actor and director Chen Shi-zheng, teaming up with Damon Albarn and artist Jamie Hewlett (Albarn best known as the frontman of Britpop staples Blur, together with Hewlett the co-creators of the popular virtual band Gorillaz), Monkey: Journey to the West
ultimately received several positive reviews for it's modern retelling of the ancient legend. Albarn composed the score whilst Hewlett designed the visual concept, and in 2008 Albarn decided to release an album based on the compositions he worked on here.
Monkey: Journey to the West
, the Damon Albarn album is a curious idea. How does music designed to accompany lavish sets and over the top performances fare when removed from such an arrangement? The fact Albarn has recorded this opera with a rather lo-fi setup involving analogue synthesizers, an ondes-martenot and various drum machines also piques ones interest. Add in vocal choirs singing Cantonese lyrics, violins, Chinese instrumentation, a brass section, a unique acrylic instrument invented by Albarn and associates to recreate the sound of many car-horns blaring on Chinese roads and it sounds rather ambitious and promising.
Unfortunately, Monkey: Journey to the West
is a very inconsistent listen. It is a collection of 22 tracks, each one more or less an exercise in rudimentary music composition with a few wonderful ideas thrown in sparingly as a spice. The offbeat, cartoonish feel of The Gorillaz is present through Albarn's use of analogue electronics, lending a decidedly cheesy New Wave feel which ends up awkwardly off center alongside the use of traditional instruments.
There are lack of any real songs here, they all flow into one another. This might be fine except nothing really stands out, nothing really goes anywhere. Though on occasion merging several instruments in a fleeting moment of manic brilliance, most sections here are based around one or two simple ideas at work and whilst they sound nice isolated from one another they often don't feel complete and something is definitely lacking trying to piece the entire album together as a consistent listen. It is very avant-garde in a way, with a lot of varied textures and multilayered instruments but the compositions themselves do this little justice and it feels very watered down. Vocal sections can be either pleasant or grating, the female singing and choir sections appropriate enough but the irritating grunts, groans and barking not sitting right.
The biggest problem faced by the compositions featured on Monkey: Journey to the West
may well have been it's transition from the stage format to a studio recording. Albarn has injected his unique quirkiness into the production making it Gorrilaz-esque in many ways, and it is an admittedly fun effort at times with some sound ideas. Unfortunately, it is a mostly unremarkable listen.