In NPR’s First Listen write-up for Julian Casablancas and the Voidz’s new album, Tyranny, Casablancas admits the record was about doing “weirder, darker” music. If that was the sole aim for Tyranny, then mission accomplished because at the very least, the record is at least a bit more engaging than the bland garage band-isms of his 2009 solo effort, Phrazes for the Young.
But unfortunately, Casablancas and the Voidz seem to let the weirdness guide the songs on Tyranny rather than the other way around. There are quite a few times on this over-stuffed record in which an editor is needed to trim at down some of the fat. All 12 of the songs here are filled to the brim with layers upon layers of unhinged guitars, synths, drum machines, world music instrumentation, samples, computer bloops and bleeps and much, much more. Oh, and let’s not forget Casablancas’ voice, which is often manipulated beyond recognition.
It’s quite a lot for listeners to wrap their head around even on repeat listens. Not to mention that many of the songs overstay their welcome with bloated run times – a problem that also plagued Phrazes for the Young. If not paying attention to which song is which, it’d be easy to think the scatterbrained mess is just one long track.
That’s not to say every song on Tyranny is a failure. When Casablancas and the Voidz rein in the weirdness and, yes, venture into more straightforward Strokes-like territory, it works. “Crunch Punch” is lead by a detuned guitar riff and offers a semblance of a chorus. Even better is when Casablancas’ vocals shine through during the fairly catchy bridge section. Single “Where No Eagles Fly” works in a similar manner as a deconstructed version of the Strokes’ “Juicebox” with its backward bass riff, frantic synth flourishes and Casablancas’ abrasive vocal delivery.
Even more surprising is how the album’s longest track at nearly 11 minutes, “Human Sadness”, succeeds in being a blatantly over-the-top epic. From the Flaming Lips-like orchestral pop at its outset to the second half’s colossal guitar solo that would definitely sound right at home on a Daft Punk record, the song is as big as it wants to be.
Unfortunately, Tyranny’s nine other cuts don’t fare as well. The heavily digitized Latin beats of “Father Electricity” get rather tedious at times especially when coupled with Casablancas’ mediocre attempt at scat singing. “Dare I Care” features the vocal tone equivalent of a drive-thru speaker while jagged guitars and synths travel all over the place, and the song’s only true moment of fun is the lo-fi, funky coda. “Nintendo Blood” is a quite disheveled take on ‘80s space-pop that comes off sleepier than likely intended, and the record concludes with the arty noise piece, “Off to War…”, which, for an album chock full of unhinged rhythms, is devoid of any cadence whatsoever and makes for a sour conclusion.
Going full circle, if the aim of Tyranny was to simple make something weird and off-kilter, then Julian Casablancas and the Voidz did an admirable job. But many listeners of this record will have been predisposed to Casablancas’ work with the Strokes – tightly crafted and catchy pop songs. The problem here is that Casablancas is unable to find the sweet spot between the two approaches. While the songs are definitely different and eccentric, there’s a real lack of a notable melodies or hooks, and while the effort is there, Tyranny just doesn’t feel very memorable or significant.