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