Gorillaz are just a mighty cool entity, in so many ways. They're a virtual band, and the most successful ever... They're in the Guinness Book of Records for goodness’ sake. Most importantly though, their music is brilliantly innovative, and their use of synthesis is very praise-worthy.
It's the sort of style I'd like to emulate in my own EMP (specifically the Baseline project).
Gorillaz are the brain-child of Damon Albarn, Blur frontman (and all-round pretty genius muso), so the music has a soft/prog-rock, pop vibe, with hints of that funky, spirited Britpop; harking 90s Blur.
Gorillaz creators Jamie Hewlett (Visual Artist/Designer/Animator) and Damon Albarn.
Being a new, contemporary endeavour though, the Gorillaz's music is based more heavily on creativity through digital sound.
Their most recent album, for example, The Fall (2011), was created almost entirely on an iPad (Watkinson, 2011).
Whilst that's extremely impressive, the Gorillaz work I mostly enjoy (especially in the way they use synthesis) is the group’s ‘transitional’ work (I guess you could call it) - where there is a blend between 'real' and 'virtual', analogue and digital.
In general, I prefer when electronic synthesis is used in partnership with acoustic instruments; each imparting their distinctive character to the whole (which then becomes an interesting soundscape of miscellany and assortment).
Gorillaz have proven how perfectly they can balance these two aspects. All the separate parts, whilst being different and often contrasting, have their own space, and perfectly compliment each other (synths often adding to the thickness of an acoustic part).
Synthesis adds depth, as well as speckled diversity to the songs - they do not overtake or outshine... It's a healthy union.
Gorillaz use of analogue and electronic means they are able to perform live, using 'real' instruments and performers, with the electronic and virtual side of their music and image incorporated.
Plastic Beach is the group’s third album (released in 2010) and is an unbelievably creative product of unbelievably interesting collaboration.
Most exciting in my point of view is the inclusion of Paul Simonon of The Clash! The odd and eclectic list of collaborators is reflected in the complete mash-up of styles across the album -
From the soulful howls in Stylo (by the brilliant Bobby Womack), the Brit-style spoken lyrics in Rhinestone Eyes, and the chaotic nature of Glitter Freeze, to the surprise of oriental, Arabic-style rhythms coupled with rap on White Flag - it’s just a genuinely eccentric and inimitable collection of songs.
It is devoid of a single genre; unrestricted and without 'rules' -
hip hop, pop, rock and alternative come together with electronic in an all-inclusive, somewhat conceptual, album (complete with virtual characters entwined in a narrative).
Here's a real interesting behind the scenes video - "The Making of Plastic Beach" - the whole clip is long but worth checking out if you're.. interested.
(Stylo section at 10 minutes is very side-note great; hearing Albarn's idea behind the song... And also in Syria at 19 minutes).
The use of synths on the album is very diverse and creative, and some is evident within the video - at 22 minutes you can see Albarn playing a melody on a MIDI with a bright, sparkly synth sound (for the song To Binge), and from 29:30 is a snippet of synth playing with added modulation (for the title song, Plastic Beach).
"The Making of Plastic Beach". URL: https://youtu.be/Itp1lkxRA8s
Gorillaz do mostly employ MIDI to generate their desired synth sounds.
They perfectly layer MIDI tracks to create an interwoven synth image - without over-production - just a bunch of unique and cool individual sounds that work well within the whole sound.
What I really dig about Gorrilaz's use of synthesis is that it's not a huge synth-party of convoluted clutter (although that is nice sometimes). Rather, they create instrumental features really - catchy riffs that spur the song, the melody itself, the back-beat and even the solo break - it's how regular instruments would generally be used, but with customised sound thanks to synthesis.
Like the wicked bass-y, fuzzy, riff in Stylo - one of my absolute favourite Gorillaz tracks, and such a fine synth performance. It really is the song, like how a killer guitar riff is - it gives the song it's vibe, and it's the line that you recall and remember.
The synth is a harsh, powerful and prominent sound that drives the entire song (haha.. cars), and almost evokes an engine.
The brilliant synth undercurrent (first played at 39 seconds) so perfectly complements the riff - the chords played on a MIDI with a simpler-built synth, more reminiscent of a regular instrument. It sounds like a piano mixed with a woodwind instrument, with an extending sound (long sustain), and gives a hollow, calming, grounded quality to the song.
The layering and how the space is filled is wholesome but not over-busy, even though the track is densely intricate and multifaceted.
There are even all the added effects and samples, which emphasize the feel of the song alongside its clip (you can almost 'hear' the film clip). Such as the siren sounds, and the vibrato being created through frequency modulation (FM) synthesis, that is implicative of a helicopter (first coming in at 20 seconds).
Everything still works collectively and fits ingeniously - with synths, an integral part, also maintaining a level of unanimity (the silent hero).
Stylo (feat. Mos Def And Bobby Womack) (Plastic Beach)
On Melancholy Hill is another track from Plastic Beach that I find extremely well-crafted, with an elegant use of synthesis.
It sounds quite gentle and simple, with the main light and chirpy MIDI riff (coming in at 51 seconds). I like how softly it overlays the constant synth part that underlies the song - the long-sustained chords with tremolo - and that it is sweet and simple. It is an extremely catchy melody (which often the simplest parts are).
On Melancholy Hill (Plastic Beach)
Diverting from Plastic Beach - a special mention to my favourite synth part in any Gorillaz song -
the funky break that comes in at 1:20 in Dirty Harry (released in 2005 on the album Demon Days).
It's pretty great by itself, but it's its integration within the whole song (and that wicked rhythm) that makes it so ridiculously cool... and makes ya dance.
Dirty Harry (Demon Days)
Watkinson, Mike. (March, 2011). “iPad”. Sound On Sound. Retrieved: http://www.soundonsound.com/techniques/ipad