Julian Casablancas is back with The Voidz – and they’re going to try and warp your mind. Described as “futuristic prison jazz” by the acclaimed frontman, Virtue draws listeners in with a bubbly introduction before sending them hurtling through an unpredictable chasm of post-rock experimentalism.
The opening track, “Leave It In My Dreams”, is a charming opening tune featuring bright, chorus-laden guitar arpeggios and whimsical vocal melodies which instantly remind you of US goth-surf rockers The Growlers. Casablancas’ angsty hooks, which pop in and out of the bright counter melodies, sit comfortably in the mix but don’t smack you in the face with particular urgency. The average listener could very easily be drawn into thinking Virtue is yet another stock-standard indie-rock record after hearing the first track, which is why many will be severely taken aback by the follow-up number, “QYURRYUS”. It immediately opens with a heavily effected, Middle Eastern inspired vocal melody alongside incoherent lead vocals, inside a heavily bass-driven rhythm section featuring electronic drums. The violent shift in tone is obviously a ploy used by the band to send a clear warning of the next 55 minutes of chaos, but the bold attempt at throwing listeners an artistic curveball will be lost on most. In mere seconds, the LP flips from colourful guitar lines and tasteful vocals to in-your-face electronica. While many will praise “QYURRYUS” for its audacious attempt at shaking things up, it just doesn’t fit.
It is followed by another complete shift in timbre with “Pyramid of Bones”, a guitar-heavy track with a catchy riff played throughout the piece. Thick drums feature heavily on “Pyramid of Bones”, showing off the explosive Alex Carapetis (Wolfmother) on the skins. “Pyramid of Bones” is by no means a poorly orchestrated track – its thumping tempo gives off an energy you can’t help but move your head to – but the addition of off-colour death growls midway through the piece firmly places it in the genre of metal, meaning you’ve already jumped between three significantly different musical styles in the first eight minutes.
The album finds its feet and plateaus around the fourth track, “Permanent High School”, which opens up the door for the true power of Casablancas’ psychedelic songwriting to take over. Later, “Black Hole” serves as a big moment for the record. Powerfully muddy guitar sections attack the speakers between verses featuring distorted vocals. “Black Hole” is one of the best tracks to utilise the album’s lo-fi approach, giving off a psych-punk flavour with rattling, industrial percussion making you feel like it was recorded in a trash can (in a good way).
The punky tangent to Virtue returns with “We’re Where We Were”, a track which uses dramatic transitions and dynamics to keep you drawn in. Momentary lapses in the dirty wall of Ramones-esque guitar lines open up a chasm for Casablancas’ highly-political vocals to break through, “if you don’t think it’s wrong to kill an innocent man, we don’t remember, it’s much easier this way.”
Arguably the most powerful moment on the record comes at its very end with “Pointlessness”, a fitting six-minute closer, featuring expressive instrumental sections highlighted by moving chord progressions and tasteful production. “Pointlessness” opens with a much more emotive Casablancas singing over a moody synth harmony. Periodic layering of percussion and brighter synthesiser throughout the lengthy verses give the track a comparative sense of purpose after a confusing ride through the erratic – and sometimes goofy – album.
Unfortunately, Virtue is an album you have to put effort in to love. Diehard fans of Julian Casablancas’ work with The Strokes and his 2009 solo LP Phrazes For The Young will simply be over the moon with fresh content from the iconic US frontman, but most listeners picking up Virtue will be left more exhausted than inspired by the 58-minute journey. To put it frankly, this is an art project which too often walks the tightrope between brilliance and unashamed indulgence. A track or two will definitely find its way onto your playlist if you give the record time, but the jarring introduction will struggle to keep most on its rocking vessel for longer than 20 minutes. It will force you think its songs through before enjoying them completely, which isn’t always a bad thing for bands to do. But repeatedly googling lyrics and constantly pulling the needle back a track or two definitely is. The obsession with squashed vocals can sometimes be the key to pushing psychedelic records over the cliff, but you can’t help but feel the incredible chops of Casablancas were left under-represented throughout the LP.