Fans of Damon Albarn will recognize 1999 as an important developmental year for the musician. The singer had cast off his earlier influences and began to experiment with new sounds as the front man of Blur. Albarn also began to collaborate with producer William Orbit and brought this electronic influence into Gorillaz, his new passion project with artist Jamie Hewlett. In the middle of these two projects, between the electronic and the unplugged, he would collaborate with composer Michael Nyman on the soundtrack for a little-seen horror film based on the Donner Party massacre of the 1840s. While many interviews mention Ravenous only in passing—if at all—when discussing the singer’s career, the soundtrack can be viewed as the missing link in understanding Albarn’s development as a musician.
Two narratives surrounded the 1999 release of 13, the sixth album by the British band Blur. One was the breakup of Blur front man Damon Albarn from his longtime girlfriend and fellow musician Justine Frischmann. Contemporary reviews of the album were quick to point out the “intimate” nature of Albarn’s lyrics, noting that the lyrics were now “coming from a previously unvisited place in his emotions.” This was in direct contrast to Albarn’s earlier work, which Melody Maker critic Ben Clancy noted owed to Albarn’s training as an actor and an inclination to adopt “characters and poses.” In the fallout after Albarn and Frischmann’s breakup, Albarn moved into a London apartment with mutual friend and artist Jamie Hewlett; the two would later go on to co-create the experimental electronic band Gorillaz, which represented a new direction for the songwriter.
The second narrative surrounding 13 suggested that Blur was moving away from their Britpop roots; or, as one headline in The Observer cleverly noted, “Blur, inventors of Britpop, give up on Britishness and pop.” This theme of experimentation was found in a variety of reviews. In a Boston Globe article, music critic Jim Sullivan wrote that 13 was no longer the “Kinksian kind of observational pop” that had previously defined the band. To this point in their career, the members of Blur had spent more time keeping in front of current musical trends than making personal music. Some noted that the band’s new sound seemed influenced by low-fi American artists; in the same aforementioned article, Sullivan quotes Albarn as showing up to the studio with thirteen “folk” songs, ready to head on a journey.
While everyone agreed that Blur’s sound was taking a new direction, there was little agreement as to which direction that might be. Albarn had looked into his heart and found its folksy center. Lead guitarist Graham Coxon, who Guardian reporter Caroline Sullivan described as being “simply allowed to do whatever he chose” on the album, had pushed his grunge influences into the recording process as a means of exerting his artistic control on the band. The sound of 13 was further complicated by the presence of new producer and electronic artist William Orbit, who had recently rejuvenated Madonna’s career with his work on Ray of Light. In the time-honored tradition of creative differences, Coxon would leave the band before recording the band’s 2003 album, Think Tank. Albarn and Orbit would remain; unsurprisingly, the album featured Blur’s biggest mixture of folk and electronic to date.
But before there was Think Tank or Gorillaz, there was Ravenous, arguably the first demonstration of Albarn’s new musical aesthetic. While many film and music critics dismissed Albarn and Nyman’s score for Ravenous as a catchy soundtrack to a period nasty—one reviewer in particular noted that “in the context of the film they may well have done an excellent job, but that’s about as far as it goes”—both film and soundtrack have found an audience within dedicated genre fans. The pieces composed by Albarn combine period instrumentation with contemporary aesthetics without feeling overly-anachronistic. As the late Roger Ebert wrote in his review of the film, the sound track “calls attention to itself (common) but deserves to (rare).”
It may never be clear how much of the Ravenous soundtrack belongs to classical composer Michael Nyman and how much belongs to Albarn. A 1999 issue of Sound on Sound tried to narrow it down, quoting sound engineer Tom Girling in saying there were twenty-six musical cues in the film, of which Nyman wrote fourteen and Albarn wrote twelve (although Girling notes that Albarn’s cues were considerably longer). In the following excerpt from The Observer, Nyman outlines the material provided by each musician:
“Damon had never done a film score before, so there were lots of things he was totally unaware of. He responded to the film’s more gruesome moments, and I was grateful for that, because my music doesn’t really respond to those situations… Damon had evolved a musical language, full of weird sounds and textures.”
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Albarn’s preference for “weird sounds and textures” would later become an integral part of his work on Gorillaz, but here the musician re-creates the looping form of electronic music within the context of nineteenth-century folk music. Alternating notes played on the banjo serve as the background for “Boyd’s Journey”; this loop is rooted underneath a simplistic melody and harmony featured on squeeze box and violin. Alternate between this track and “Tender” from 13 and you see an artist confident in his folk arrangement but still experimenting with his electronic influences. While Nyman may have provided the cultural context for the arrangement of the pieces, there is an undeniable pop influence on several of these tracks that comes directly from Albarn’s time with Blur. One may not agree with Melody Maker critic Ben Clancy in his review of the Ravenous soundtrack, but he does support my point: “You can take the boy out of the crap band, but you can’t take the crap band out of the boy.”
If “Boyd’s Journey” is the departure from the low-fi, Americana-tinged pop of 13, then tracks such as “Saveoursoulissa” should be viewed as Albarn’s arrival into Gorillaz. Here the music abandons all pretense of the low-fi and fully embraces its electronic influences. “Saveoursoulissa” in particular would not feel out of place on a William Orbit solo album; the digital static and distorted ascending and descending lines suggest that Albarn was paying close attention to Orbit’s production process, where sound engineer Tom Girling notes that both Orbit and Albarn would use Pro Tools to capture as many different noises as possible. If we use Nyman’s quote as proof that the longer and darker pieces were composed by Albarn, then the rhythmic percussion of “The Cave” can also be viewed as pioneer dance music, another indicator of the style that would become Albarn’s calling card in future works. Not surprisingly, William Orbit would include “The Cave” among the tracks he would remix for the British album release.
And so while Ravenous does not make for an instinctive pivot point in Albarn’s career, digging a bit into the composition reveals a musician beginning to construct an identity around electronic and low-fi compositions. I originally listened to Albarn’s pieces of music completely out of order; I heard the soundtrack to Ravenous, then was introduced to Gorillaz, and finally explored Blur’s discography once I identified Albarn as the common factor between all three projects. As such, I may have a stronger appreciation of the Ravenous soundtrack than most. I still enjoy Blur and Gorillaz, but I may never love the two bands as much as I love their dark intersection in Albarn’s first film score.