x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Rocket Juice & The Moon

Damon Albarn's latest project confirms he is one of the music world's greatest visionaries.

Damon Albarn's new supergroup Rocket Juice & The Moon's eponymous album showcase his trademark experimentation.
Damon Albarn's new supergroup Rocket Juice & The Moon's eponymous album showcase his trademark experimentation.

Rocket Juice & The Moon
Rocket Juice & The Moon
(Honest Jon's)

Love him or hate him, you have to give the Marmite-like musician Damon Albarn credit for his consistent experimentation. No one would have blamed him for sitting back on his Britpop laurels back in the late 1990s but now, after dabbling in everything from Malian music (the imaginatively titled Mali Music) to pop opera (Doctor Dee), and forming bands such as Gorillaz and The Good, The Bad and The Queen, the faux-sulky, mockney boy who led Blur is one of the music world's genuine visionaries.

Yet even in his new supergroup, Rocket Juice & The Moon, that diffident voice, by turns mournful and petulant, is absolutely distinctive and his trademark lo-fi electronic noodlings pervade the album. In fact, the often deliberately gauche improvisations work brilliantly in this setting: when you take the Africa '70 drumming legend Tony Allen – the man to whom Fela Kuti himself attributed the sound of Afrobeat – and add one of the greatest living bassists, Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers, you've got the foundation for some seriously spacy Afrofuturism.

The rudimentary techniques and technology of the synths on the original Afrofunk and disco of 40 years ago have a peculiar humanity that much of western disco lacked, and Albarn relishes and plays with those imperfections and off-rhythms in a way that offers the same humanity to today's robotically perfect beats.

The song There, which features the Malian musician Cheick Tidiane Seck (another Kuti collaborator, and a member of Albarn's ever-changing touring troupe Africa Express) offers an irresistible rhythm that combines the laid-back swagger of Gorillaz with a gently driving percussion from Allen – though its fantastic combination of synth tones calls for a good sound system: anything less and you'll feel like your eardrums have been sandblasted.

The choice of guest musicians here, too, reflects his early advocacy of Afrobeat, a genre that has suddenly tipped into hipness: he has his choice of the masters of Afrofunk and soul – including the incomparable Erykah Badu – but he also champions new artists, including M.anifest. The Minnesota-based Ghanaian rapper brings a real grit in his contributions, which are in both English and Twi (the principle language of Ghana) – that authenticity, heart and soul that Albarn still somehow struggles to convey.

On Follow-Fashion, probably the finest song on the album, M.anifest is joined by the superb young Malian singer Fatoumata Diawara in an unforgettably delicate combination, with Allen pushing things along with almost viscous percussion work.

Yet, as with most experiments, there are moments that simply don't work. Probably the most spectacular is the song Extinguished, whose nicely rhythmic chord progression, synth improvisation and declamation by Seck is suddenly invaded by what sounds like The Clangers performed on a Moog. I won't lie: I giggled through it. Even on the fourth listen.

The point is, though, by that fourth listen, I was still intrigued. This is risky music that demands listening and re-listening. It isn't background sound. And while the shortness of its 18 songs means it can never reach the transcendental madness of a 16-minute Africa '70 jam, it still feels like a natural development and modernisation of one of music's great genres.