Initially, I had a hard time getting excited about a new Julian Casablancas album in the year 2014. As much as I loved all The Strokes albums and everything Strokes-related that was released before 2010, their two most recent albums were depressingly half-assed. Both the somewhat decent Angles and the somewhat dreadful Comedown Machine sounded like the band was torn between appeasing fans by ripping off old hits or starting a new career as an extra coked-out A-ha cover band. They sounded dead inside, like the extended hiatus they took after 2006’s excellent First Impressions of Earth had only ended because they needed the money.
Then it turned out that the frontman Casablancas had a separate band, The Voidz, that he had been secretly practicing and recording with for years now. Naturally I approached the album cautiously, with the attitude that another disappointment would be the last time I wasted my time on his music. And boy, was I in for a surprise. It doesn’t take a genius to realize that the reason that The Strokes have been on autopilot for the past decade is because Casablancas has been saving all his energy for this beast of an album. Tyranny is not just one of the best records of the year – it might just be the best work of his career.
“Take Me In Your Army”:
Opener “Take Me In Your Army” sets the bizarre tone immediately, with a slinking, lo-fi R&B aesthetic that falls somewhere in between the title track from Prince’s “Sign O’ The Times” and Radiohead’s “Lotus Flower”. While Casablancas croons much of the song in what is barely more than a whisper, the actual title of the song is sung in some of the most crystal clear, soulful falsetto he’s ever attempted. The transition is so jarring that you might feel the need to check the album credits for additional vocalists. And here lies one of Tyranny’s greatest assets: the quantum leap forwards in Casablancas’ singing abilities. He has always been able to sing well, but no one ever really knew that until First Impressions, mainly because his severe cocaine addiction had limited his range on the first two albums.
Now that his drug habits are long behind him, he can hit notes like never before, even if the production and extremely lo-fi recording methods make it hard to understand a lot of the lyrics. But when you can make out what he is saying, you can tell he’s pretty pissed off. Like the album’s title implies, much of the lyrics deal with oppression and inequality, but the focus is often more on the corporate world than it is on politics. “Future, future’s come to this / Everybody cheats I guess / Let’s go down to Mexico / There’s a couple guys I know”, he screams with all the fury of a hardcore punk singer over a climax of guitars and analog synthesizers at the end of “Where No Eagles Fly”. Casablancas’ distaste for corporations goes beyond just his lyrics; not only is Tyranny entirely self-recorded and produced by the band (with mainly analogue equipment), it’s being released through his own independent label, Cult Records (which also released Karen O’s Crush Songs earlier this month).
No one really knows how long The Voidz have been together, but it makes sense to assume that they formed some time during or after the tour for Casablancas excellent 2009 solo effort Phrazes For The Young, since drummer Alex Carapetis and keyboardist Jeff Kite were also part of the touring band for that album. While Phrazes For The Young had a very experimental flavor to it, Tyranny really takes it to the next level, with influences ranging from death metal (“M.utually A.ssured D.estruction”), to Latin funk (the epic “Father Electricity”) and Cramps-style garage punk (“Crunch Punch”).
There’s even a bit of 70’s style stadium rock buried somewhere in the brutal, 11-minute-long break-up anthem “Human Sadness”, as he wails, “he wanted it more than me I suppose / I was in a rush to wait in line” over guitar so massive, they put Muse’s entire career to shame. But the best songs are the ones that blend multiple genres together. “Dare I Care” begins as an ugly, distorted groove with Casablancas’ vocals sounding like a mix between an Islamic call to prayer and drunken slam poetry. But as it builds towards what sounds like another angry punk chorus, intensely melodic guitar arpeggios burst out of nowhere, in what is probably the catchiest, and most surprising moment on the whole album. “Nintendo Blood” does the exact opposite to great effect, beginning as a sweet pop song and ending somewhere much closer to noise rock.
“Dare I Care”:
Who would have thought that 2001’s prince of mainstream garage rock would reinvent himself as 2014’s king of underground prog rock? This is not an album you listen to once and know exactly how you feel about it. It’s like a sonic version of a David Lynch film; it’s so intentionally ugly that you might not realize how great it is until the third, even fourth time you listen to it all the way through, and even then you might not really understand what it is about it, that you like. It’s a tangled mess of a masterpiece, and you shouldn’t be ashamed if you don’t like it the first time around, because you aren’t supposed to. I went in to this album with minimal excitement about its existence and emerged with the hope that Julian Casablancas would finally stop pretending like he still wanted to be in the Strokes and just play with The Voidz from now on. But of course, he doesn’t care what anyone wants. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.