It is fair to say that Julian Casablancas + The Voidz’ first record together wasn’t showered in praise when it was released in 2014. “Like a toddler orchestra let loose in a rehearsal lock-up,” wrote one detractor. “An acid bath of guitar squeals and off-beat drum machines,” said another. Our very own Kevin EG Perry, meanwhile wrote, “this isn’t always an easy listen”. So you might assume that this tsunami of negative reviews can only mean one thing: Julian went off the rails to create the most unlistenable-to, anti-Strokes record he could. But I disagree, and, now the album’s just been released on vinyl, it’s time to re-assess.
Sure, a rambunctiously brave 60-minute metal/prog-rock/ambient/world music/punk opera might not be what I (or other Strokes purists) was expecting, but it showed an unwavering imagination that was refreshing. We can complain that it doesn’t replicate The Strokes’ debut ‘Is This It’ (you know, the record that changed the musical landscape for a decade – no pressure) or we can allow him to move on.
If you dismissed ‘Tyranny’ after a few listens, go back to it. Give it a chance. At just over the hour mark, it took almost two years to write and was recorded with producer Shawn Everett (Weezer, Har Mar Superstar), working through the night in a studio above New York’s iconic Strand Bookstore.
Fusing Health’s creative madness with Black Flag riffs – and a few Mario Kart spooky-track sound effects for good measure – Julian created a wildly energetic post-rock genre all of its own. The neo-reggae mash-up of ‘Father Electricity’ slows to a captivating romance – “You are everything I see, every time I blink, despair” – while the 11-minute epic ‘Human Sadness’ has a commonality with the raw intensity of Kanye West’s ‘Runaway.’ ‘Where No Eagles Fly’ is the most Strokes-esque (just) if you’re still hell bent on disallowing the man his creative journey. ‘Business Dog’ is evidence of the record’s protest underscore, sounding like the apocalyptic thrash-metal band his love of studded sleeveless jackets was made for.
Ever since Julian swapped his Converse for neon hi-tops, we knew he was no one-trick pony. He does things his way. As serious as ever, he believes in his vision, from the labyrinthine sounds and increasingly more accomplished lyrics to the artists he supports on his own label Cult Records (home to brilliantly overlooked bands like Cerebral Ballzy).
Witness The Voidz live and you’ll see a very happy Julian at the helm. At a secret show underneath London’s Waterloo Station in December, it was like witnessing a different frontman. Playful, talkative, upbeat.
But The Voidz isn’t just something Julian needed to get out of his system. It suggests he is firmly in control of his future. The secret is now out that the first two Strokes records were arranged almost in their entirety by Julian, whereas three to five were a collaborative affair – but the latter attempts weren’t on the same level. Nowhere near it, in fact. “I maybe wasn’t as iron-fist-y as I had been in the past, but that was on purpose,” Julian told Rolling Stone in October. “That created all these issues. I wouldn’t want to fight or argue about it. I was like, ‘You like it better that way? Fine.’”
So the cacophonous complexity of ‘Tyranny’ might just have put him firmly back in the driving seat of The Strokes’ sound once more. No more simply “keeping the peace”.
And the question on every fans lips… what will The Strokes’ sixth record sound like, if there even is a sixth record? When they take to the stage at Big Guava festival in Florida at the start of May, all ears will be on them. Julian giving the strongest hint to new music in 2015 during an NME interview, “We’ve turned a page. I think we have some magic left.”
There might have been a surprise slot at Governor’s Ball in New York last year, but The Strokes haven’t played in the UK since Reading & Leeds 2011. ‘Comedown Machine’ wasn’t toured, raising questions of a band at war, not helped by Julian’s comments in American GQ last year: “It wasn’t so equal, but it was the illusion of equal, so I think it fucked with everything.” Pretty damning, but then interviews don’t come easily for the tentative talker. Add to that a split from RCA Records and The Strokes didn’t appear to be in the best place.
What have the rest of the band been up to in the past 12 months? Albert Hammond, Jr. is currently co-producing The View’s comeback and put out a charming solo EP on Cult Records, so he and Julian are still close. Fab Moretti doesn’t appear to have been working on new music since Little Joy, but Nikolai Fraiture has just formed a new band, Summer Moon, which, timing wise, might not bode well.
Assuming there will be future Strokes music, a little more of ‘Tyranny’s’ dense alchemy is just what it needs. Fans don’t simply want an ‘Is This It’ pastiche. Even if you couldn’t embrace ‘Tyranny’s’ assault on the senses, it has at least taught us that Julian is back in control. So The Strokes’ next record has a lot to live up to. And not because we want it to. But because he does. And he’s the boss.