Monkey – Journey To The West

To most of us, ‘monkey’ means “furry little creature” or “furry little former Brit-rock darling” (see: The Monkees). But to Blur frontman Damon Albarn and British comic book artist Jamie Hewlett (creator of the Tank Girl comic strip), “monkey” means an elaborate stage adaptation of a 16th century Chinese novel, Journey To The West, and their first major collaboration since their groundbreaking work on Gorillaz. An artistic dream team in their own right, Albarn wrote the score while Hewlett’s duties includes set design, animation and costumes. With the help of Chinese actor/director Chen Shi-Zheng who wrote the adaptation, Monkey: Journey To The West has wowed audiences in the theatres of England and Paris, as well as stateside in the Spring of 2008 at the Spoleto Festival in Charleston.

The production is completely over-the-top, but I suppose grandeur is anything but discouraged in modern art. With a deluge of Chinese martial artists, almost 100 acrobats, Shaolin monks and vocalists, Monkey is a carnival for the senses. Plus, there’s additional help in the music department from Demon Strings and Sense of Sound, as well as members of the UK Chinese Music Ensemble. Judging from reviews of this show, it seems like an explosion of color, music, art and dance that is as dazzling to the eye as it is aurally pleasing. To the acclaim of critics, Albarn, Hewlett and Shi-Zheng will continue showcasing ancient Chinese culture with a modernized spin for all to experience.

And of course, a soundtrack has been released to accompany this ambitiously creative endeavor that will, no doubt, invigorate the world of musical theatre in ways that have yet to be seen. Boasting 22 songs with titles that coincide with specific scenes, some tracks are full length soundscapes that tell a story while others serve as intros, outros, interludes and little musical vignettes.

On “The Dragon King,” the musical arrangement could easily work best during a climactic battle scene on the big screen; in fact, it would not be surprising if Hollywood came knocking on Albarn’s door to compose scores for untitled animation projects, or even big-budget, artistic action movies similar to King Kong, 300, and films of that ilk. The beauty of the soundtrack is that, stylistically-speaking, the music spans a multitude of genres right before the next costume change.

Several tracks border on [Far East] Asian underground (“Monkey’s World”), while others feature beautiful string arrangements set to serene Chinese vocals (“The Living Sea”) that instantly transports listeners back to the ancient times described by Hans Christian Andersen in his fairy tale “The Nightingale.” To contrast some of this album’s darker electronica, “Heavenly Peach Blanket” showcases soft-spoken female vocals laced with Chinese dream pop (perhaps, a new musical genre?) that is ethereal and atmospheric. Pretty soon you’ll feel like the Emperor of China entranced by the mystical song of the nightingale, ordering his courtiers to seek the exotic bird for his palace.

From the success of Gorillaz to Monkey, Albarn is doing more than spreading his simian love. Lush, rich, and conceptually grand, Monkey: Journey To The West demonstrates Albarn’s desire for opportunities that push the musical envelope further. From lead singer of a now defunct Brit-rock outfit to brilliant composer, Albarn shows the boundless creativity that comes from having such lofty goals.

If inventive musical stage productions pique your interest, I recommend listening to this record but caveat emptor: this is not everyday tunage for your morning commute. Instead, this album may inspire future plans of witnessing firsthand the marriage of Auburn’s Asian-inspired orchestrations with Hewlett’s avant garde visuals, just to hear the music in its proper context. Until then, let’s hope Journey To The West makes it to your favorite Opera house because I will definitely be there, ticket in hand.

Monkey: Journey To The West is available now on XL Recordings.

Tracklisting:
01. Monkey’s World
02. Monkey Travels
03. Into the Eastern Sea
04. The Living Sea
05. The Dragon King
06. Iron Rod
07. Out of the Eastern Sea
08. Heavenly Peach Banquet
09. Battle Into Heaven
10. O Mi to Fu
11. Whisper
12. Tripitaka’s Course
13. Confessions of a Pig
14. Sandy the River Demon
15. March of the Volunteers
16. The White Skeleton Demon
17. Monk’s Song
18. I Love Buddha
19. March of the Iron Army
20. Pigsy in Space
21. Monkey Bee
22. Disappearing Volcano

Monkey: Journey to the West: website

Written by: Mona Sheikh

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