Gorillaz and the rise of digital bands

Very few bands can say they are fronted entirely by animated drawings that have manifested into something beyond moving images, despite technically not existing. The lovechild of musician Damon Albarn and artist, Jamie Hewlett, Gorillaz represents a highly ambitious and creative project that has evolved into a defining act of our generation. The term ‘virtual band’ was popularized by Gorillaz in 2001 with the release of their self-titled album, essentially meaning any group whose members are not corporal musicians but animated characters.

The creation of 2D, Murdoc, Russel and Noodle as characters who exist within their own universes, whilst still being present on our very own three-dimensional world, represents somewhat of a paradox. The band was Initially developed by Albarn and Hewlett in 1998, having grown disillusioned with the so-called manufactured bands heralded by MTV and the general lack of substance and creativity within the music industry. Consequently, both artists created a world which was so vibrant and oddly realistic that the distinction between virtual and reality became blurred. Real life personalities, including Del the Funky Homosapien, Dan the Automator and Kid Koala, alongside Albarn became the musicians hidden behind phase one. A wide range of collaborators also mould the virtual bands musical image, but still existing within our world and theirs.

The Gorillaz universe itself has developed into a complex and surreal version of our reality, with every detail meticulously developed. Each member has their own backstory which has been carved out through the various use of multimedia. Whether it’s fake ‘interviews’ with band members, interactive tours or the phenomenal music videos which explore the adventures of 2D, Murdoc, Russel and Noodle, the Gorillaz world is so well developed that they have become their own entity. Arguably, the Gorillaz storyline and subsequent artistry that arises from it, can be defined as a product of the digital age- utilising the internet to develop each character whilst simultaneously growing it impressive fan base.

However, while the centrepiece of Gorillaz is, no doubt, the artful creation of a virtual band, the desire to create vastly unique music certainly underpins the entire project. Albarn constantly pushes the boundaries both lyrically and musically, therefore encompassing an immense array of genres. Despite being dubbed a ‘virtual R&B band’ by many critics, four albums have been produced which experiment with genres such as electronica, acid jazz, punk rock and trip hop. The limitless zeal of musical experiment that has defined the Gorillaz sound no doubt ensures that they remain unique. Indeed, the expansive exploration of many genres has ensured that the band has become a popular cultural icon.

The success of such an innovative project is demonstrated through the sheer number of sales and accolades Gorillaz has received. The band’s second album, Demon Days, went 5 times platinum in the UK, while going double platinum in the US. Alongside this, one Grammy Award, two MTV Video Music Awards, an NME Award, three MTV Europe Music Awards and nine Brit Awards encompass widespread success. Albarn and Hewlett, as artists, completely reinvented what a band could create and their influence, no doubt, is immense.


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