CD Review of Journey to the West by Monkey
Recommended if you like
The Gorillaz, Phillip Glass, and the background music you heard during the Summer Olympics
Label
XL
Monkey: Journey to the West

Reviewed by James B. Eldred

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I
n America, the Gorillaz are probably the most well-known simians outside of Kong (Donkey or King). But in China (and most of Asia for that matter), the there is a monkey so well-known, respected and revered that you don’t even have to call him by his name (which happens to be Sun Wukong). You just have to say Monkey.

Monkey is the main character of Journey to the West, a classical Chinese novel from the 16th century. Many Chinese consider it to be the greatest novel of all time, and it’s been adapted countless times into live action and animated TV series and movies (one starring Stephen Chow), comic books from Japan and China, and even a few video games.

Maybe sensing that they were never going to eclipse the popularity of this furry kung-fu phenom, Jamie Hewlett and Damon Albarn (the creative force behind the Gorillaz) decided to turn their unique simian-friendly creative genius to Journey to the West. The result was a critically acclaimed live-action stage adaptation of the story that Hewlett described as a “circus opera.” Hewlett, who is also an accomplished comic book creator, designed the look of the opera, while Albarn composed the original music.

Want to see it? Too bad -- the run is over, and there’s no DVD yet. The only release from the production is this soundtrack, which features Albarn’s complete score. On its own it’s an interesting collection of music, but unless you speak Mandarin (all the music here is in Chinese) or have seen the opera in person, there will be little meaning behind it.

Most of the tracks here are short, usually less than two minutes long, and many of them are instrumental. Some are classical, using traditional Chinese instruments, while others are more modern and experimental, combining the instantly recognizable sound of Chinese opera with ambient electronica, Asian pop, and the kind of music you’d hear playing during the final fight of a cheesy ‘70s kung fu flick.

The pop songs are the ones that work the best on their own, isolated from the stage production. “Heavenly Peach Banquet” is classic Asian pop through and through, while the slightly more classical “The Living Sea” combines modern pop music structure and vocals with classical Chinese stringed instruments.

Most of Journey to the West is a tease, though; many of these songs are less then two minutes long, and many others hover around the one-minute mark. Many of these are the instrumental tracks which, if expanded, would probably be the most engaging and entertaining of the album. “Monkey Travels” and “Out of the Eastern Sea” have an eerie Phillip Glass vibe to them, and they’d be great if they weren’t so damn short.

But even if those songs were longer Journey to the West would probably still feel as if it was an incomplete work -- and that’s because it is. Listening to the music, no matter how much you like it, will only leave you wanting to see the live-action performance, and since that’s no longer touring and there’s no DVD of it, that’s just frustrating.

Still, the music from Journey to the West is intriguing, and if nothing else, it proves that Albarn has a long career ahead of him in the Chinese opera if that whole platinum-selling, critically acclaimed pop music thing stops working for him.

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