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Journey to the West

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Monkey’s Journey to the West is one of the strangest things I’ve encountered in my music directing career, but with some intensive listening, also one of the most amazing.  Monkey is actually Jamie Hewlett and Damon Albarn of Gorillaz, and Journey to the West is actually an opera for the 21st century- an electro-rock opera if you will.  It’s also entirely in Chinese.  The story is based on an ancient Chinese fable of the same name which Albarn describes as “King Arthur meets Beowulf.”  Most of the album sounds exactly like what you’d expect from the men behind Gorillaz: complex electronic compositions with driving melodies and prominent rhythms.  But several songs feature sweeping string arrangements, sometimes by themselves and sometimes as part of a strange hybrid of classical composition and modern technology.  The highlight of the album is the second to last track, “Monkey Bee.”  It starts with a woman repeating a Chinese phrase on the notes of a pentatonic scale over and over accompanied by strings and a descending electronic line.  Two and a half minutes on, an almost inaudible electronic beat slowly works its way in and sets the stage for one of the most chill-inducing crescendos I’ve ever heard.  The genius of this song can’t be described in words, and talking about it with musically-inclined friends inevitably devolves into the kind of gushing normally reserved only for the likes of Radiohead.  This album is worth a listen for the glory of that five minutes alone.

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