Saturday, May 12, 2018

album review: 'virtue' by the voidz

Let's talk briefly about being weird in music. 

And this is actually a topic I don't think gets enough attention, mostly because for something to be called out as 'strange' or 'weird' there's at least some element of surprise, and in the era of 'nothing surprises anybody anymore' thanks to the Internet, the bar for weird gets pretty high. And for a critic it gets even higher, and not just because of the insanity you can dredge up out of /mu/ or Bandcamp, but because there is a grand tradition of outsider artists that have existed outside the mainstream where their brand of oddity might be just as catchy, but also brings with it elements that the public majority just are not willing to process. And yet again, in the Internet era where it's so easy for influences to crossbreed and mutate or become memes, the public might seem more willing to embrace these outsider acts... but it becomes a balancing act, both for the artists and the fans, because for as much as you want your favourites to do well, you know that artistic eccentricity can get eaten alive by the industry.

And then bridging between artist and fan you have someone like Julian Casablancas, frontman of The Strokes and his own defiantly odd band The Voidz. And I'll freely admit that he didn't flip that 'weird' alarm for me with records like The Voidz' debut Tyranny in 2014 - offkilter and paranoid and scattershot, absolutely, but it was also overlong and not quite as challenging as it thought it was. But it wasn't that record that compelled any interest from me so much as a series of manic interviews before this record that revealed Casablacas was a huge fan of Ariel Pink - which made sense, especially when you start digging into certain thematic parallels, but it was also telling that while Pink might be the genuine article and an act like MGMT be the studied devotee, Casablancas was the fan that didn't always grasp the intricacies but adored the aesthetic. Now reviews of Virtue were suggesting this could be changing, at the very least in terms of sonic fidelity and tone, but given this record also came with signing to RCA and producers most well-known for working with The War On Drugs, Weezer, and Beyonce, I had my doubts about this. But hey, it's nearly an hour long, surely they could have gotten things working, right?

Honestly, not really. And that's frustrating to hear because you can tell that Julian Casablancas was at least looking towards sounds and experimentation that had promise with Virtue... and yet repeated listens gives me the feeling that looking was all he really did, because while this album doesn't feel compromised, it does feel like a half-measure towards tones that other acts have executed more effectively, falling into that awkward grey zone where it's not weird or challenging or well-written enough to rise to more, but not quite catchy or well-composed enough to compensate. I'm not saying it's bad by any means - there are definitely solid cuts overall on this record, and I can see it finding an audience - but man, it just did not connect more deeply for me.

Now to its credit, I see where this record could have worked, most of which comes through in the content, which feeds off of the paranoia that filled Tyrant but takes it in some new directions. For one, while there has always been some socio-political subtext beneath The Voidz's work, this record moves a fair amount of it into the text and gives it the meaty melodic grooves to back it up - 'Pyramid Of Bones' confronting the legacy of colonialism is potent, but the reason it's a great track is because Casablancas doesn't hold back and it's a kickass rock song! But Casablancas is more interested in the broader picture, specifically framing around a complicated, nuanced truth in comparison with the ease in which lies are sold and swallowed - it's why it can be easier to believe in conspiracy theories than complicated systemic rot and flawed people. That's why 'ALieNNatioN' is such an ugly, complicated track - it starts at wartime abuses of power and drills deeper into police brutality and the insecurities that drive people to buy weapons, and shows not just the bad actors in the system, but also the revelation that those systems are fragile and those profiting within know it. And it's an interesting parallel Casablancas then draws with the music industry: it's easy to buy the 'lie' presented in the mainstream surrounding the human condition instead of the ugly, complicated truth, and he doesn't let the audience off the hook in that consumption. 

And yet if that was the entire core of the album's content, I'd probably get behind it more... but Casablancas starts introducing elements that undermine his point and pathos. For one you get songs like 'Permanent High School' and 'Lazy Boy' where you hit the sharp realization that any self-awareness he has about his art falling outside what is accepted... well, it's limited, to say the least, and you can tell he still hasn't fully processed the long shadow that The Strokes' early success left over his desire to make weirder material. And then when we do get tracks midway through like 'Wink' that want to drag the listener into that darker, challenging territory... you just get a yawning pit of increasingly empty nihilism that starts pressing my patience, especially by the time we get 'Hopelessness' that ends the record on a really downbeat note. And here's the ugly truth: dig a little deeper and you realize there just isn't much insight or weirdness that Casablancas is bringing to the table - it equivocates to teenage melodrama and I'm not he realizes how true that is, while not seeking to either tap into righteous teenage fury or transcend the nascent, self-obsessed angst and immaturity that lies at the roots of 'Lazy Boy' or 'Leave It In My Dreams' instead of just curling into a ball when confronted with very real issues. And that's not even getting into how it undercuts your support of disrupting those systems when your thematic parallel just makes it all about yourself!

And what's exasperating about it all is that it doesn't really understand The Voidz' strengths, because while I like the experimentation on this record, it's hard for me not to feel like a heavier, more straightforward act could have stuck the landing a lot more consistently. Yeah, the flirtations with Green album era Weezer with the liquid guitar phrases is pleasant enough on songs like 'Leave It In My Dreams' and 'Lazy Boy', and while it doesn't quite nail the gummy, cassette-era ooze of sound you get from an Ariel Pink project, I respect the effort on songs like the lumpy faint twinkles of 'ALieNNatioN' and the muted warping synthpop of 'Pink Ocean' - but if you're contrasting them with the glam-metal noisy chaos of 'Pyramid Of Bones' or the garage pickups of 'Black Hole' or the hardcore punk drumlines and explosive power of 'We're Where We Were', or even the faux-industrial touches behind the massive groove of 'QYRRYUS' - which could have been one of the better songs here except for that massively autotuned outro - or the hints of the old Strokes sound on 'Wink', it's not even the same ballpark, the band just sounds more comfortable building their instrumentation off a stronger foundation! And this is where we have to talk about production, and why cohesion matters: this record clearly wants to sound like more of an ugly patchwork of sounds, especially with the inclusion of increasingly lo-fi and muddy tones and shrill squeals as we delve deeper, but the mixing doesn't often know how to balance this in order to accentuate the melodic grooves effectively. Take 'All Wordz Are Made Up' - it's got some dub-inspired groove and there's a solid guitar line, but the fidelity is way too clean to fit with the atmosphere, especially when you introduce those higher vocal layers. And it gets especially jarring when right after that, we get a lo-fi acoustic cover where Julian Casablancas recontextualizes a smooth late 70s pop tune into a bad Bob Dylan impression, especially when you realize that if this record was sequenced properly, it could have hit with more impact. And that's probably that hurts Virtue the most - it has fragments of a cohesive arc both in its content and sonically, but it compromises it through whiplash genre digressions that aren't even especially challenging but feel obtuse and underwhelming in this track ordering, especially when this album ends on such a downbeat, nihilistic note.

So as a whole... look, folks, this record has been on my schedule for a long time, and I really hoped that by giving it this review in full I'd have more to dissect... but the truth is that it's just kind of flat. It's got a few decent cuts, but otherwise I'm just not all that impressed by content that doesn't delve deeper and messy production that doesn't stick the landing more effectively. I will argue there's more longevity with this in comparison with Tyrant - it's got enough variation and standout moments to be worth that - but otherwise I'll admit I found more enjoyment when Albert Hammond Jr. made The Strokes lite with Francis Trouble earlier this year - yeah, it was by far more basic and less ambitious, but it had stronger individual cuts. So for me, this is a solid 6/10, recommended for the fans, but if you want something truly weirder, the newest MGMT record is still fresh - hell, so is that Ariel Pink record from last year. Frankly, I'd check those out first.

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