NEW YORK (AFP) - The epitome of the British sound two decades ago, Blur has made an unexpected return not with new takes on England but with inspiration from Asia.
Blur - who, along with arch-enemies Oasis, formed the vanguard of the 1990s Britpop scene - on Monday releases its first album in 12 years, The Magic Whip, written primarily in Hong Kong.
Blur - who reconciled with estranged guitarist Graham Coxon - stays true to its guitar-rock base but offers a 21st-century update with electro touches and futuristic elements on songs such as Thought I Was A Spaceman.
The album came about after the band reunited for shows - including the closing ceremony to London Olympics in 2012 and the Coachella festival in California a year later - but found itself stranded in Hong Kong when a festival fell through in Japan.
The band began to write together, with lead vocalist Damon Albarn soaking up the imagery of the formerly British financial hub.
New World Towers offers almost a stream-of-consciousness form of Britpop as Albarn, looking at the skyscraper in central Hong Kong, sings to a steady rock backdrop, "Green, green, the neon green / New World Towers / Carved out of gray white skies."
At a press conference about the album at a Chinese restaurant in London, Albarn said he felt "a strong emotional connection to China" and wrote of his daily impressions of Hong Kong.
"Everything was related to being on this quite claustrophobic island with millions and millions and millions of people," Albarn said.
BRITPOP TAKE ON NORTH KOREA
The album also touches on current events. There Are Too Many Of Us returns to the theme of claustrophobia but is focused on Sydney, which Albarn visited during last year's hostage standoff at a chocolate cafe.
Albarn also wrote about a personal trip to North Korea - a potentially risky artistic decision after Kim Jong-Un's regime was accused of attacking Sony Pictures for its unflattering depiction in the movie The Interview.
But the song Pyongyang is less cartoonish than the movie. Albarn sings that "the pink light that bathes the great leaders is fading." "Out here it's turning blue / The silver rockets coming / And the cherry trees of Pyongyang / But I'm leaving," he sings.
Blur brings Asian imagery even to more typical pop matters.
My Terracotta Heart brings the metaphor of earthen clay to a song about relationships and loss, as Albarn sings, "When we fly tomorrow over the Java seas / My younger man will be there with me."
Albarn drew a parallel between The Magic Whip and David Bowie who moved to Berlin in the 1970s.
But whereas Bowie's Berlin Trilogy of albums showed the glam rock legend's pull to electronic-infused Krautrock, Blur's Hong Kong influences are much less obvious on the musical level, with the band inspired not so much by Asian form but by urban atmospherics.
FUTURE PLANS UNCERTAIN
The band teamed up for the album with Stephen Street, who worked on classic works of The Smiths and produced most of Blur's discography.
Blur won a major following in the 1990s with albums such as Parklife and Modern Life Is Rubbish that were driven by guitar but offered a tight, smooth aesthetic in contrast to the rawer grunge scene that dominated the United States.
Blur has nonetheless branched out previously from its Britpop roots. The last album, 2003's Think Tank, was recorded largely in Morocco with Middle Eastern elements reinforcing the anti-war themes.
Albarn has also pursued a diverse range of side projects, including an upcoming musical based on Alice In Wonderland.
Blur's reunion come as rumours mount that rivals Oasis will reunite after reconciliation between notoriously fractious brothers Liam and Noel Gallagher, the latter of whom recently released a second solo album.
But as for Blur, the band said its album was unplanned and it was unsure of future plans.
"There was just suddenly this opportunity to get into the studio together... rather than trying to make a big comeback single under loads of pressure," bassist Alex James said.