This article previously appeared on Crossfader
Genre: Art Rock
Favorite Tracks: “QYRRYUS,” “Permanent High School,” “My Friend The Walls,” “Pink Ocean”
Julian Casablancas plays the game his way. From the time he and his Strokes bandmates burst onto the scene in 2001 with the instant classic IS THIS IT, Casablancas has been one of indie’s superstars, albeit a rather unwilling one. He’s managed to toe the line between complete disdain for the music industry while still readily participating in the spectacle. It’s been apparent since the infamous Nardwuar interview—conducted just a couple weeks before their debut record—in which Casablancas refuses to entertain any question not directly related to their music. Last week, in the promotional run-up to his new band The Voidz’s sophomore album, VIRTUE, James Corden interviewed Casablancas in what was meant to be a fun, lighthearted segment before the band played one of their singles. Corden teases Casablancas for his pocket-laden vest and Casablancas responds, “We’re living in an invisible war, my friend.” It’s a rare moment of genuine spontaneity in a medium that is generally reserved for stale, scripted exchanges masquerading as candid. This is Casablancas in The Voidz era. Gone are the days of watered-down compromise: he’s saying exactly what he wants.
VIRTUE opens with the lead single, “Leave It In My Dreams.” It’s poppier than anything off their debut and could almost pass for an ANGLES track with its bright, summery guitars if not for its crunchy, compressed drums and the blended vocal mix. The sonic diversity of this album is immediately evident seconds into the second track, “QYRRYUS.” The band calls it their Cyber-Arabic-Prison-Jazz song, which actually kind of makes sense. The guitars cover a wide variety of sounds ranging from shrill wailing to dark pulsing rhythms to scratching turntables. Casablancas’s vocals are all over the place as well, with a drowsy drawl intermittently interrupted by quick quips of, “Hot track / Hot dress” and nearly unintelligible Auto-Tuned crooning.
“Pyramid of Bones” kickstarts the political nature of the album. The track and its music video pull no punches; set to a thrashing glam metal instrumental, Casablancas sings about the history of injustice carried out by white people in America. He speaks out against the country’s murderous imperialism and parallels the similarities between slavery and the police state. The video is even more direct, with animation criticizing corporations hoarding wealth and comparing white business men to the KKK. “Permanent High School” and “ALieNNatioN” slow the pace down a bit with chiller instrumentals that are closer to hip hop than rock, both lifting lyrics from “Pyramid of Bones” to expound on their themes, with “ALieNNatioN” being particularly critical of police brutality foreign intervention.
The front half of the album ends with “All Wordz Are Made Up,” a fitting bookend to the opener’s tropicalismo influence. The bright, soaring track is followed by a somber acoustic ballad, “Think Before You Drink,” a cover of Michael Cassidy’s song in which Casablancas recounts the ways he was lied to in school as a child and how his teachers whitewashed history, justified past and current wars, and ignored the problems of industrialization. While the original contrasts the somber lyrics with a fun, playful instrumental, this version is dour on all fronts, which makes for a less interesting experience.
Back in October, The Voidz played on a Brazilian late night television show, The Noite, that looks a million times more fun than anything the U.S. has to offer. They debuted “Wink,” a track that was expected by many to be the lead single, but ended up being an album cut that subverted expectations. The studio version’s drum track sounds like you’re walking past a gritty techno club in Berlin and the vocal layering is especially disorienting. Since collaborating with Daft Punk on “Instant Crush,” Casablancas has been fond of vocal layering and Auto-Tune. “Wink” is his most adventurous in this regard; at moments he’s singing completely different lines in different registers at different volume levels with different filters. It’s a whirlwind that doesn’t seem like it would complement the bright, poppy guitars and the churning, metallic drums but it’s one of the most cohesive works on the record.
“My Friend The Walls” is an Auto-Tune, an OK COMPUTER outtake and a Strokes song mashed together. Casablancas’s verse vocals are so washed out by Auto-Tune it’s practically just a synth, but the song breaks into a ROOM ON FIRE-esque chorus and comes shooting through the clouds with perfect clarity. The long, droning outro gives way to “Pink Ocean,” which sounds like a lo-fi version of Soulwax’s “Let It Happen” remix. It’s one of the more existential works on the record, with Casablancas repeating, “I want out of this world” across all five-and-a-half minutes.
The following three tracks dip back into the political well; Casablancas takes shots at the NSA and NRA on “Black Hole,” an aggressive track that would’ve fit better on TYRANNY, while “We’re Where We Were” compares today to the dawn of Nazi Germany: “New holocaust happening / What, are you blind? / We’re in Germany now, 1939 / The oblivious, you’ve still got blood on your hands / If you don’t think it’s wrong to kill an innocent man / We don’t remember, it’s much easier this way.” It’s a verse that ties together the album’s theme of waking up to the atrocities and injustices that the general public is blind to, both willfully and unwillfully. It condemns the passé nature of our society that has the capability to recognize and address the problems present in the world but fails to do so out of laziness.
We’re in an invisible war.