Swinging From The Trees – Japer Reviews: Monkey: Journey To The West

Monkey: Journey To The West
XL Recordings

I’m a fan of Damon Albarn.

That means I love the music of Blur, The Good, The Bad & The Queen and Gorillaz.

I think the man’s a creative genius and I believe that long after Oasis and the Gallagher brothers have gone the way of the Dodo bird, Albarn will be recognized as one of the greatest British musicians of his day.

It’s no accident that I picked up his latest creation, Monkey: Journey To The West. I’m a completist at heart and all the speculation and rumour in the months leading up to the summer 2007 stage release of Monkey (yes, it was a project for the stage first) said that it was going to be the next Gorillaz project.

Well, no. Not really. Actually, not at all.

It’s something vastly different; a confidant artistic reach, an evolution of everything that has come before by the participants. Really, the only thing Monkey shares with Gorillaz are musician Albarn, visual artist Jamie Hewlett and a fictional simian ancestry.

Monkey: Journey To The West was created as an opera, based on a 16th century Chinese fable that reads a little like Homer’s Odyssey. In the story, a disparate group of characters are put together and sent on a quest of redemption. Along their travels, they encounter various strange and perilous obstacles as they eventually attempt to make their way home. Of course, this is a Chinese tale so instead of Greek goddesses and cyclops, Monkey incorporates monks, dragons, Holy Scriptures and kung-fu! Albarn composed the music to the opera while Hewlett provided the visuals including stage, character and costume design as well as video animation. Renown Chinese actor and director Chen Shi-Zheng oversaw the stage production.

The strength of Monkey is its ability to incorporate so many different artistic elements into a single experience. Billed as a “circus opera,” the performance, in addition to the aforementioned music and visual designs, also integrated Chinese singers, acrobats and martial artists – a veritable feast for the senses! But the production didn’t stop there. When it premiered in Manchester, England in 2007, there was also the addition of Chinese cultural educational workshops. A new production in London currently includes Asian gastronomic delights before the show.

When it comes to the music CD, the strength of Monkey is also its greatest weakness. This is an opera meant to be seen, heard and experienced. We lose so much when all we get is the music.

Don’t get me wrong. The music is good. Albarn has composed 22 different pieces utilizing traditional Chinese instrumentation including wood percussion, finger symbols and lutes and mixed them with contemporary western elements like drum machines, brass and computer-generated noise. There are times when the music does sound like Gorillaz – world-beat-meets-electronica but there are also many moments that sound like 16th century Chinese compositions.

It’s all interesting, but, more importantly, and to the detriment of the CD, we miss the narrative of the tale.

There isn’t much to the lyrics here – what is sung is sung in Chinese and it’s hard to distinguish the sounds and understand some form of story mainly because the tale is so (pardon the pun) foreign to western culture. To bridge that gap, a listener also needs to see the visuals play out before them. I’m sure a DVD of a Monkey performance is not far from hitting store shelves and I would much prefer that format than just the CD of the music.

There are, however, songs that are strong enough to stand on their own without the support of visuals. Heavenly Peach Banquet is a beautiful, haunting and delicate vocal placed over plucked synthesizer sounds. It’s a Chinese harmony sounding distinctly like British pop and it’s a revelation to hear. Monkey Bee does the same, building a neurotically sweet vocal loop into a deep bass, post-punk oompah.

If you’re an admirer of world-beat electronica or just a Damn Albarn fan, you’ll enjoy Monkey: Journey To The West.

Still, if you can’t see the show live, which is probably the best way to experience Monkey, it might be prudent to wait for the eventual DVD release where you’ll get the full brilliance of the artistic production. An act of patience, I know, but what’s better than a real-life, contemporary fable?

To find out more about the production, the music, the story and the characters, visit the website at www.monkeyjourneytothewest.com.

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