Craig looks back on the animated band’s defining album.
May 11, 2005 was when we were first treated to the second album from everyone’s favourite animated band – Gorillaz! This time round proved to be a deeper more confident foray into the Hip-Hop genre and managed to fuse elements of Pop and Rock expertly to create a sound that was unmistakably their own, which would act as the building blocks for their future albums. Seeing as it’s fifteen years (and one week) since its release, let’s take a look back at what makes Demon Days such an iconic album.
It had been three years since the Gorillaz self-titled debut album, on which we saw Damon Albarn depart Blur and the Britpop genre that he was most known for to take on a more eccentric approach to music. So eccentric in fact that he decided the band should be entirely virtual – and to that end, Albarn teamed up with Jamie Hewlett to design what would become the Gorillaz.
The friendship should not have worked. Hewlett initially thought Albarn was “arsey, a wanker”; they often did not get on, especially after Hewlett began seeing Graham Coxon’s (Albarn’s Blur bandmate) ex-girlfriend, Jane Olliver. Despite the drama, they came together and created a debut album which released to a positive critical response. After three years, it was time to create a follow-up: could they prove they were more than just Clint Eastwood? Or were they destined to be labelled a gimmick band for the rest of eternity?
As of 2020 there have been six studio albums and whilst each new album by the Gorillaz brings new guests, genres and themes, the most successful both critically and commercially is Demon Days. It reached number one in the UK, France and Switzerland album charts, received multiple platinum certifications and had a number one single in DARE, the second single released from the album.
Let’s talk about the sound of Demon Days. In contrast to the genre mish-mash of the self titled debut, Demon Days is much more focused in terms of what it presents. The intro track contains alarms, horns, a variety of wooden instruments and samples from Dawn of the Dead, which all come together to create something quite unsettling – readying the listener for the darker and more sinister undertones that will be present across the album. It features the words ‘You are now entering the Harmonic Realm’, perhaps to reinforce that what you’re about to listen to won’t necessarily be like other albums, but will instead be a journey with many twists and turns that you may not be expecting.
The first few songs of the album are quite dark indeed. Last Living Souls starts off with a quite a simple beat with sweet guitar and piano within the bridge, but as the song comes to a close we are treated to an orchestral pleasure. Kids With Guns follows suit with a simple yet dark sounding rock song that crescendos right at the end. O Green World has an even sadder tone. In these songs 2D is reflecting upon the world and within this we can feel an apocalyptic vibe throughout.
Dirty Harry is where the album gets funky, it’s been a heavy ordeal but this song shows us that synthesizers are welcome. It’s a breath of fresh air and The San Fernandez Youth Chorus really helps to sell that. It’s not all sunshine however as the overall sinister themes still creep in when Bootie Brown’s rap verse is put upon us (probably why it was edited out on radio plays). Feel Good Inc. is where we are treated to 2D’s first foray into using the megaphone, using it to awaken the evil spirits known as De La Soul. Noodle tries to vanquish them with her acoustic guitar but going up against the team-up of De La Soul and Murdoc’s bass line just proves too much. The mix of alternative rock and rap in this song easily make it one of the best songs from the album.
El Mañana is easily the most depressing song on Demon Days. The phrase “Maybe in time, you’ll want to be mine” speaks of opportunities lost in life and the constant repetition makes us feel as though they are constantly beating themselves up over it. The drama of the strings adds to the tension as if to say the anxiety is reaching its breaking point. Every Planet We Reach Is Dead shows us that calmness between the more hectic parts of life. Electric guitar, bass and synths litter a chorus that has no words, whilst the verses have a succinct calmness to them, speaking about someone down on their luck. The final chorus has Ike Turner going for it on the keys whilst strings rise up around him. This is the Gorillaz take on the blues and it is expertly done.
November Has Come shows us that simplicity is sometimes the best way to create a song. Opening with MF DOOM rapping over a simple beat with 2D adding his two cents to the chorus, the song is a chill time and a needed one after the emotional turmoil brought by the two preceding songs. All Alone is the opposite of the song before it. The various voices throughout singing “all alone” is seemingly meant to confuse the listener whilst the middle of the song features a ferocious rap by Roots Manuva, before Martina Topley-Bird shows us there is light at the end of the tunnel. The drums and bass in this song are powerful throughout and gives you appreciation that Gorillaz enhance any rap style they come into contact with.
White Light is 2 minutes of punk chaos for you to mosh too. A tiny slither of calmness midpoint with strings and an almost heavenly chorus before slamming you back into reality which in this instance is DARE, the most poppy of songs on the album. A synth heavy dance track with Rosie Wilson and Damon Albarn’s vocals merged together to create a song that’ll always make you want to dance. Adding Shaun Ryder’s chorus to the mix, it makes one of Gorillaz most memorable songs to date.
Fire Coming Out of the Monkey’s Head is a strange one as it is more of a spoken word track than a song. Dennis Hopper narrates the story of the Happy Folk and the encroaching darkness upon them with the occasional chorus from 2D. Hopper’s storytelling and the accompanying sinister instruments fill you with dread and because of how different the song is you find yourself lured in, almost hanging off his every word until its ending lyric “and then nothing”, as if to say that is always going to be the end of everyone’s story.
Don’t Get Lost In Heaven/Demon Days provide a more hopeful feeling than the rest of the album. DGLIH comprises a multitude of strings, after feeling down in so many songs in the album this is a song about realising horribleness and how to overcome it with lyrics like “Don’t go over the edge. You’ll make a big mistake.” The second part, Demon Days shows this positivity coming to life. Starting off with violins and a more positive tone we hear this message influencing others as heard from the gospel spreading this too.We’re given the reminder to “pick yourself up, it’s a brand new day” over a somewhat reggae beat to remind us that we should always be hopeful.
The main theme of the album is destruction and the culture that humans are creating. Albarn has said the album is meant to be a depiction of the night and each track represents a confrontation with a different ‘demon’. A few examples of this are; Kids with Guns, which shows us the reality of children and the availability of weapons; O Green World, which comments on how as a society we live in a throwaway culture (which is further expanded upon in the later album, Plastic Beach); and Fire Coming Out of the Monkey’s Head which envisions the story of what the world will be like once we have drained the resources from the Earth.
It is hard to place what genre the album fits into even fifteen years later. Most fans have taken to calling it a ‘dark pop’ album, which is defined as “popular music that incorporates synthesizers or a minor key” and whilst that term could be construed as vague and encompassing, it may just be perfect for the overall tone and feel for the album.
On Gorillaz’ debut album, people thought they were a gimmick. Perhaps not even real musicians. Demon Days was Gorillaz’ album to prove those people wrong, to show that they could make music alongside the best of them and, most importantly, show the world that they were here to stay – and they succeeded in all three! They weren’t going to be defined by any genre, they would make songs that would fit the narrative they were trying to tell and because of all this Demon Days is an album that is well regarded still to this day. It has been listed in several ‘Albums of the Century’ lists and won multiple awards, and fifteen years later Demon Days is still the closing song at Gorillaz concerts. Even though they could have been seen as a gimmick, Demon Days was the album that proved Gorillaz were more than just a virtual band – they were a real band.
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