Monkey – ‘Journey to the West’

September 28, 2008 § Leave a comment

Published: The Vine, September 11, 2008.

Monkey
Journey to the West
(XL/Remote Control)

Monkey, you might say, is the more agile and accomplished reincarnation of Gorillaz. Following their two hugely popular excursions through catchy electronic pop, hip-hop hook-craft and group characterisation (via animated primate), Blur’s Damon Albarn and Tank Girl illustrator James Hewlett have flipped the script somewhat with their third collaboration and first under the Monkey nom-de-plume. Indeed, Journey to the West is anything but another Gorillaz record. Rather, its half-orchestral, half-synthesized sound-worlds take the collective form of a fully-fledged Chinese opera.

We should all be familiar enough with the story. Monkey, Journey to the West is based on the same texts that informed cult TV series Monkey Magic – but with Albarn composing the soundtrack under the watchful eye and ear of Chinese actor-director Chen Shi-Zheng. It’s a fascinating and genuinely unusual listen.

Vocalised entirely in Mandarin, the soundtrack visits moments of weird-arse electronica and pop, beauteously fragile traditional Chinese folk, rollicking, drama-filled jaunts and wondrous Chinese torch ballads. Sketches like the stunning ‘Heavenly Peach Banquet’, the ominous ‘Battle in Heaven’ and electronic scourge of ‘O Mi To Fu’ each make for thrilling moments. The processional ‘White Skeleton Demon’ and beautifully ornate ‘Monk’s Song’ continue the trend.

Without sufficient knowledge of Chinese music, it’s difficult to ascertain Journey to the West’s success on that front, but it’s easy enough to sing its praises on a majority of others. This isn’t a pop album, nor a record you could slip into the player at any old time. It’s challenging, playfully mysterious and, in moments, downright bizarre. It’s also one of Albarn’s finest and most striking achievements to date.

Dan Rule

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