The 16th century Chinese classic story Xi You Ji (Journey To The West) tells the tale of a little monkey who could transform himself into different creatures and conquer all the obstacles in his life. Damon Albarn and Jamie Hewlett (the minds behind Gorillaz) are Monkey, and have joined with director and choreographer Chen Shi-Zheng to create a 21st century opera retelling this story, replete with new and original music and visuals. The BBC's coverage of the 2008 Beijing Olympics will utilize some of Monkey's music and animations in the weeks leading up to and during the Olympics.
You could never accuse Damon Albarn of resting on his laurels. Whether it's forming supergroups (The Good, The Bad & The Queen), working with cult animators (The Gorillaz) or making music with musicians from Mali, the former Blur frontman has nurtured a restless, questing spirit not normally encountered in Britop stars. As if to underline his diverse interests, he now turns his attention to Chinese theatre. Monkey: Journey to the West is a theatrical collaboration between Albarn (music), Jamie Hewlett of Gorillaz fame (designs, costumes) and Chinese opera specialist Chen Shi-Zheng. The show itself is an explosive 90-minute circus featuring Chinese acrobats, martial arts experts and contortionists, though the album condenses the experience into 22 songs lasting an hour or so. Recorded in London and Beijing with a mix of European and Chinese musicians, Monkey ... is a genuine attempt at East-West fusion. Featuring a dizzying array of instrumentation--rock guitars, electronics, harps, mandolins, drum machines, strings, plinky-plonk keyboards, giggling girls, chants, even pigs--it's the sort of project that could so easily have gone awry. Yet Albarn, who allegedly mastered the Chinese pentatonic scale, seems to have made it work. Songs like the fluttery "Heavenly Peach Banquet" and the wistful "The Living Sea" are utterly beguiling, and stand in stark contrast to guitar-heavy behemoths like "Battle in Heaven" and the climactic "Monkey Bee." These longer songs are punctuated with incidental pieces such as "Iron Rod", "Into the Eastern Sea" and "Out of the Eastern Sea". While such interludes may distract from a 'normal' album experience, there's enough melodious charm and imaginative whimsy scattered throughout to satisfy even ardent skeptics. --Paul Sullivan
The latest creative endeavor of erstwhile Blur frontman Damon Albarn is Monkey: Journey to the West. Again teamed with his partner in Gorillaz, Jamie Hewlett, this is the soundtrack to the theatrical production of the same name, which is something of a Cirque du Soleil-like presentation of choreography and acrobatics. The fifty minute disc works powerfully on its own, moving with utter confidence from rock propulsion to electronics, and all woven through with Chinese instrumentation, occasional vocals and the utilization of the pentatonic scale. The folkish intimacy of "The Living Sea" sits comfortably alongside the cinematic marches of ""the Dragon King." While the show this accompanies is a cavalcade of physical prowess and dazzle, the passage through this disc is wonderfully cerebral. East meets west, in the center of your brain. --David Greenberger