The Strokes – ‘Future Present Past EP’ Review

The Strokes dabble with sounds from throughout their career on a satisfying return

For [a]The Strokes[/a] – a band who often seem damned by what they do, what they don’t, and, above all, what they did 15 years ago – the past, present and future are loaded terms. The past has always been something to escape from, even as their fans clamour for a return to it. The present has been defined by so-so solo records and periodic, nostalgia-driven festival appearances. And the future always boils down to a question they’re constantly asked, but rarely able to answer with much certainty: will The Strokes make another album? Even this surprise four-track EP – their first new material in three years – doesn’t offer any guarantees. “If the collective will can be summoned and corralled,” is about as far as Julian Casablancas is willing to go right now.

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The real question, perhaps, is should The Strokes make another album? After all, their contractual obligation to do so ended with 2013’s ‘Comedown Machine’, a record they didn’t play a single show, or do a lick of promotion, in support of. Moreover, when you hear the individual members talk about their day-job, it’s usually with some mixture of reluctance, caginess and resignation, making the greatest, most impactful rock ‘n’ roll band of the past 20 years sound like a sparkless marriage being held together for convenience. ‘Future Present Past’ feels like a lot of things – a trial balloon, a point-proving exercise, a strange thematic experiment – but more than anything else, it feels like an attempt to answer that question.

“Untame me, it’s not my midlife yet,” demands Casablancas on the opening line of ‘Oblivius’, a song whose skittering hi-hat, duelling, intricately-layered guitars and falsetto vocal places us squarely in the present, or at least the relatively recent past of ‘One Way Trigger’. This is The Strokes as we’ve come to know them, a more ambitious, retro-progressive version of themselves, full of moving parts that don’t always seem to synch up – but they do here, and perhaps even moreso on drummer Fabrizio Moretti’s remix, which ekes out the track’s subtler, more psychedelic nuances. ‘Threat of Joy’, meanwhile, is the kind of song you thought they’d forgotten how to write: an unabashed throwback to their early days, built around an infectiously-simple riff that recalls the likes of ‘Someday’ or ‘When It Started’, with some playful ad-libbing from Casablancas thrown in for good measure.

It’s ‘Drag Queen’, however, that unexpectedly proves the most compelling cut, and points towards where that “collective will” might be heading. The song’s claustrophobic density and dissonance owes something to Casablancas’ last solo album, 2014’s ‘Tyranny’, though there are also elements of PiL and Joy Division at work here, particularly in the industrial hum of Nikolai Fraiture’s bass and the frontman’s wild, uninhibited vocal. Perhaps the highest compliment you could pay this EP is that if you didn’t know who it was and had no preconceived notions about what it should – or shouldn’t – sound like, you’d think you had stumbled across something very special indeed. With ‘Future Present Past’, The Strokes have gone where we, and perhaps even they, never thought they would: back to the future of rock ‘n’ roll.

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