The genre-clashing turbulence of "History Song," the first track off The Good, the Bad & the Queen's self-titled debut, is the first indication that this latest British rock band goes against the musical grain. The song is a boiling stew of styles stirred into a thick, layered three minutes of sound that, to say the least, starts things off quite strong for the band. It is the perfect introductory song, because it exemplifies what the listener should come to expect from the album - that is, the unexpected.
The Good, the Bad & the Queen is the latest vehicle for Britpop mastermind Damon Albarn, who enjoyed previous success with his creations Blur and Gorillaz. Albarn is one of those musicians like Josh Homme (Kyuss, Queens of the Stone Age) and Dave Grohl (Nirvana, Foo Fighters) who have a seemingly endless stream of creativity that can transcend multiple bands and lineups, thus proving that the inventiveness of these individuals is too much for one band to contain. Like Homme and Grohl, it seems Albarn can do no wrong. Whether it's the Flaming Lips psychedelia and Beach Boys harmony in "80's Life," or the Danny Elfman-sounding Halloween gloom of "Bunting Song," Albarn creates his own boundaries and then perpetually destroys them.
The subsequent logical question for the listener is how is this band different than Albarn's two previous incarnations? Well, for one, the experimentation takes a more traditional, instrument-based trend.
Gorillaz' first two albums fused rock with dance, hip-hop and techno; The Good, the Bad & the Queen explore more deeply the different facets within rock, all the while throwing in such curveball styles as polka, classical, avant-garde and burlesque. Often the album feels like the soundtrack to some twisted, off-kilter cabaret.
The Good, the Bad & the Queen is more a rock album in the traditional sense than anything Albarn has created since his Blur days. That's not to say it isn't a unique rock album; "Northern Whale" is the closest thing on the record to the Gorillaz' latest, containing some lost remnants of "Feel Good, Inc." However, despite the post-recording efforts - the record is produced magnificently by Danger Mouse - the set seems a bit more organic than that band. Albarn's voice is often joined by hazy harmonies, and the instrument choices tend to lean towards theclassical, including prominent pianos and string arrangements along with the more characteristic synthesizers and electronics. Think Arcade Fire meets Postal Service to describe this distinctive marriage of sounds.
It's comforting to know that there are people like Albarn making music today. It's not just the music he creates that makes him a great artist, but the intensity and fervor that he possesses for his latest creation. That's the difference between a superior musician and a superior artist. The musician can master a sweeping arpeggio or memorize a complex composition, but he may never understand the human element of the music, something the artist personifies. Albarn understands this and that is why, no matter how many personas he takes on or styles he challenges himself to master, he will always make interesting music.