On the first track of his side project, Julian Casablancas + The Voidz’ 2014 debut Tyranny, The Strokes frontman unapologetically declared, ‘This is not for everybody, this is for nobody.’ Such a lyric, underlined by the dissonant and cheerless Escape From New York-via–8-Bit Blag Flag musical backing of his collaborators, served as a defiant mission statement for the entire album. Casablancas, ever a self-conscious and self-reflexive musician, minced no words and wasted no time in asserting that those searching for more of the deceptively simple, sassy singalong rock that established The Strokes as one of the most popular and preeminent groups of the 00s Indie Rock scene should look elsewhere (probably in the series of albums released by his bandmate Albert Hammond Jr.). Instead, they were warned to strap in for a maximalist slugging of the senses, wherein one of the most adventurous and creative composers of the 21st Century pushed every single aesthetic element that he had been utilising and pursuing throughout his entire career – incorporation of bizarre, well-crafted harmonies, unhinged aggression, goofy, yet infinitely lovable and resonant, lyrics – to their breaking point, which was, it turns out, also their ultimate point. For those paying attention to Casablancas’ career trajectory, it became abundantly clear from Tyranny’s slimy, abrasive, anti-Spectorian Walls of Sound, that, after being stifled and repressed by the more collaborative nature of the process behind The Strokes two latter day albums (he wrote and arranged almost all of the tracks on the group’s first three LPs), the Voidz project was the fulfilment of Casablancas’ desire to follow his vision no matter how alienating the results were; somewhat perversely and self-indulgently, the album was made to satisfy just one person: its creator.
Arriving three and a half years later, Virtue, the sophomore effort of the group (now just wearing the moniker The Voidz, as if to dismiss claims that it is a ‘side project’ in the traditional sense) is the anti-Tyranny. All that unbridled experimentation and exploration has been distilled into something that is much more recognizable and palatable. Although artistically, it’s coming from the same place fundamentally, Casablancas and his new group, have purposefully tamed the unwieldy beast of creativity, presenting the results of their exploration in a much more neatly presented package so that their audience can enjoy what they discovered as much as they did.
While Tyranny sounded jet black, maybe navy blue or crimson in its brightest moments, the fifteen songs that comprise Virtue, with their new wave sheen-meets-chic lo-fi production, form an iridescent sonic rainbow. The Voidz, working playfully in a number of genres as disparate as 80s Arabic Electropop (‘QYURRYUS’), Sabbath-esque Sludge Metal (‘Pyramid of Bones’), Strokes-esque Pop (‘Leave it in My Dreams’), Hip Hop-tinged Pop (‘ALieNNatioN’), and Folk (‘Think Before You Drink’), filter their schizophrenic, demented leanings through something that was not present at all on their debut record: good old-fashioned, entertaining, post-post-ironic fun.
Importantly, they do so with musical proficiency, and while it may be blasphemous to fans of the more established and popular of the two Casablancas-led bands, it must be said that The Voidz make The Strokes look like the garage band they always were. Several players in the group are virtuosos (Amir Yhagmai on guitar cannot only shred when required, but employs highly-inventive, unorthodox techniques on standouts like ‘QYURRYUS’, while Alex Carapetis, a revelation, on drums, plays an exhilarating percussion solo on ‘We’re Where We Were’, and is expressive, though in-the-pocket, throughout). The rest are unique, highly-creative players (Jeramy ‘Beardo’ Gritter’ – guitar, Jake Bercovici – Synths and Bass, Jeff Kite – Keyboards). The versatility of each of these former session musicians allows for Virtue to be one of the most cohesive non-cohesive albums since The Beatles’ White Album (Casablancas recently noted that he prefers his albums to sound like mixtapes, rather than Albums.) While relatively-lacklustre, uninspired cuts such as Lazy Boy, Black Hole, and Leave it in My Dreams are simply too bland to not stick out on an album that features a track like ‘QYURRYUS’, they still remain interesting due to quirky guitar solos and the dynamic rhythm section; the commitment of the musicians and brilliance of the musicianship tie the album together deftly.
Casablancas, too, unsurprisingly rises to the standards set by the group, sounding more engaging and skillful than even his youthful self on Is This It seventeen years ago. By way of studio trickery to achieve many vocal effects, the frontman also sounds like a different singer on nearly every song, adapting to the requirements of the genre in a similar way to his bandmates.
Lyrically, Casablancas is still concerned with the Big Questions: What Does Human Existence Matter?; When Will Society Wake Up To The Corruption That Proliferates It?; Why Is Ed Sheeran Popular When Aerial Pink, and (lowkey) The Voidz, Aren’t? When read on the page, his musings on existentialism, politics, morality, and culture are often laughable, but that’s the point; they don’t exist on the page, they’re designed for The Voidz’ off-kilter music, for which they are wholly appropriate. Indeed, Casablancas can spout an hilariously-artless line like ‘Just because something’s popular don’t mean it’s good’ or hyperbolically compare the current state of race relations in the US to that of ‘Germany’ in ‘1939,’ and it can work due to the overall kitschy-ness of the Voidz aesthetic; context is everything. Apart from an unremarkable acoustic cover of an obscure, socially-conscious song by Michael Cassidy, ‘Think Before You Drink,’ Casablancas never plays it straight, and neither do the Voidz.
For all the talk of working proficiently within genre, the innovations that characterize Virtue cannot be ignored. The album is one which conflates mainstream aesthetics with innately-uncommercial elements. Everything from production choices (check the grating, disintegrated snare sound and overly-stoned vocals on the otherwise accessible ‘Wink’), songwriting and structure (the outlandish, futuristic, effect-slathered verses of ‘My Friend the Walls’ contrast more than sharply with the trite, endlessly-catchy ‘whoa-oh-oh’s in the chorus), and tracklist sequencing (the dreamy opener ‘Leave it in My Dreams segues jarringly into ‘QYURRYUS,’ a song that will send many fans of Is This It diving for the skip button on Spotify), demonstrate and embody this aesthetic of hybridity. And, such an aesthetic is a highly-interesting, warm, and amusing one. Thus, the political messages put forth by Casablancas, and the stranger musical elements, become infinitely easier to digest.
Virtue, unlike Tyranny, does not sound like it was conceived as a masterpiece. While its predecessor required patience and investment to appreciate, Virtue is almost instantly gratifying. Therefore, it remains unclear which will be viewed as the ‘greater’ work in the future. After all, Casablancas warns on ‘Wink’ that ‘Playin’ it too safe is dangerous.’ But, for now, if The Voidz’ ultimate goal, as they have stated recently in innumerable interviews, was to cunningly sneak into the mainstream, to heroically smuggle innovation into a space wherein conformity is not just preferred, but enforced, to compellingly wrap the ‘dangerous’ in the ‘safe’ so that they can reshape what the mainstream is? Mission accomplished.