The band’s live show has moved past its early use of avatars but is still a visual delight.
When Britpop was at its peak in the mid-1990s, you’d have been hard-pressed to convince anyone that, in 2017, it’d be Blur’s Damon Albarn — and not Oasis — who’d still be playing arenas and making critically respected, culturally relevant music. An even tougher sell is that he’d be doing it as the leader of a high-concept electronic pop act with a multimedia component in which the group is represented by a four-piece band of cartoon apes.
To be sure, many aspects of our present cultural moment would seem unbelievable to someone from the not-so-distant past. Even so, Albarn’s second act as the creative vision behind Gorillaz, which plays Saturday (Sept. 30) at KeyArena, counts as a surprise.
As the leader of Blur, which, for a time, was one of the U.K.’s most popular rock bands, Albarn honed his skills as a frontman and pop songwriter. In 1998, with Britpop fading, Albarn and comic-book artist Jamie Hewlett got the idea for a new project while watching MTV. The so-called virtual band, with music written by Albarn, would be represented visually by cartoon characters that Hewlett created.
8 p.m., Saturday, Sept. 30, KeyArena, 305 Harrison St., Seattle; sold out (800-745-3000 or ticketmaster.com)
The project’s anonymous mystique and emphasis on the digital over the corporeal was revelatory back then, when the internet was still a novelty. On stage, Albarn and a backing band performed behind a gigantic projection screen that completely obscured the musicians, displaying their primate avatars instead. Gorillaz was also a financial coup. The band’s 2001 self-titled debut went on to sell more than 7 million copies.
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Gorillaz has moved beyond that cartoony conceit that first defined it. Apart from stepping out from behind the curtain, Albarn has also evolved the group’s sound. Once rooted in old-school hip-hop — the band’s most recognizable tracks, “Clint Eastwood” and “Feel Good Inc.,” feature verses from Del The Funky Homosapien and De La Soul, respectively — Gorillaz now traffics in urbane, genre-blending pop.
“Humanz,” the fifth and latest Gorillaz record, comes across more like a supercharged playlist than a traditional album, its songs united more by curatorial acumen than a cohesive vision or message. It’s a jumble of styles (electro-pop, soul, R&B, hip-hop, prog rock) and the guest list is extensive — rappers Vince Staples, Pusha T, D.R.A.M. and Danny Brown are all present, as are singers Kelela and Mavis Staples. That Albarn can avoid being overshadowed by the talent on hand while incorporating so many less-than-compatible musical ideas is an achievement in itself.
There’s always a sense of political unease that underpins Gorillaz’s music; the band’s cartoons and videos have long had a dystopian, steampunk sort of vibe. Though “Humanz” has its strident moments (especially closer “We Got the Power”), the politics don’t come through as strongly, perhaps because Albarn made a point to scrub all explicit references to Trump from the lyrics.
Though Gorillaz’s cartoons have become an increasingly smaller part of its identity, the group’s live show is still a visual spectacle, with thematically related graphics and a gigantic backing band. Attendees might also expect some additional starpower — quite a few of the myriad guests from “Humanz” have been making one-off cameos on this tour.