At the height of Blur's popularity, Damon Albarn casually let it be known that he harbored a desire to create musical theater -- a revelation that wasn't exactly a surprise to anybody intimately familiar with the theatricality of Blur's Brit-pop trilogy, particularly portions of The Great Escape which felt as if they were designed for the stage. Albarn abandoned an explicit music hall bent in the aftermath of Blur vs. Oasis, first digging deeply into American indie rock and then getting ever artier, eventually abandoning the very idea of bands themselves in favor of conceptual projects like The Good, the Bad & the Queen. His score for Chen Shi-Zheng's stage production Journey to the West -- based on the ancient Chinese novel Journey to the West -- fits right in with these conceptual works, reuniting him with Gorillaz cohort Jamie Hewlett, who designed the visuals for the opera, while recalling elements of his 2002 Mali Music exploration and traces of his eerie collaborative score with Michael Nyman for Antonia Bird's 1999 film Ravenous. Albarn relies heavily on Chinese instrumentation and harmony on Journey to the West but the score, as a whole, is considerably less explicitly worldbeat than Mali Music, as Albarn weaves in many familiar motifs from his oeuvre, including stiff pre-programmed two-step drum loops, post-punk synths, waves of dreamy textures, circular carnivalesque chords, and the occasional blast of cathartic noise. What he most emphatically does not rely upon is anything remotely pop -- no pop song structures, hooks, or harmonies -- a decision that reads perhaps a bit more bold than it plays, as this is a symphonic suite that is meant to be experienced as a whole, not parsed out in bite-sized bits. This also does mean that Journey to the West is perhaps best experienced on-stage, as it was meant to be heard in tandem with Chen Shi-Zheng and Hewlett's visuals, but heard as its own work, it's hard not to admire, if not exactly embrace, Albarn's achievement here, as his work is not only ambitious, it is serious and understated, the work of a true composer.
AllMusic Review by Stephen Thomas Erlewine