In 1967, The Velvet Underground & Nico released their self-titled album. It reportedly sold only 30,000 copies in its early years. It peaked at 171 on the Billboard charts. It did not achieve commercial success. Nor critical acclaim. As an active band, The Velvet Underground did not become popular.
Many years later, The Velvet Underground has been credited as one of the most influential bands of all time. In 2004, Rolling Stone ranked the band at 19 in their list of “100 Greatest Artists of All Time”. Their third album, The Velvet Underground, did not even reach the Billboard’s Top 200 albums chart upon it’s release. And now it is heralded is a classic, 10/10 record.
What happened? Why was The Velvet Underground a forgotten, unsuccessful band in their heyday, yet praised as genius so many years later? Lou Reed’s group took rock music and infused avant-garde, casting off the shackles of modern music, experimenting with unheard sounds, delving into dark subject matter, and creating music like nothing the world had ever seen. It was weird. It was different. People weren’t ready for it. People have an idea of what music should be and what music should sound like, and The Velvet Underground did not align with these ideas. They took music in a new direction. They opened Pandora’s musical box, inspiring thousands of bands, paving the way for new genres, and creating timeless sounds that are praised and adored to today.
As a general rule, what’s popular isn’t usually good. The masses don’t know good. They are told what is good. They are told what to like. Unable to recognize genius when it stares them in the face, or sends sonic vibrations through their eardrums. That is until, you know, some day people start saying, “you know… this is actually pretty damn good”. People are followers. But they caught on eventually.
The same will happen with Julian Casablancas & The Voidz debut album, Tyranny.
Upon it’s release, the album was met with critical backlash, scoring an unflattering 4.9/10 from music critic superpower, Pitchfork, who called the album “a spectacular failure“. Most other critics followed in panning the album, deeming it unlistenable and “too ambitious”. Their initial shows were met with disappointment with crowds jeering for Julian Casablancas to play more Strokes songs.
Ah yes, The Strokes – rock icons of the 21st century, an inspiration to dozens of bands you know today, and the group behind one of the best debut albums ever, Is This It, an anthemic garage rock youthful classic, defined by a rugged New York aesthetic. The sharply energetic guitar arrangements, the infectious melodies, and the disaffected growl of their drunken frontman. That’s who The Strokes were. Throughout the decade, the band proceeded to release increasingly unsuccessful albums, with fans and critics alike demanding the band return to their garage rock origins. Drug problems, power struggles, touring fatigue, and critical backlash cemented The Strokes as has-beens. A group out of ideas, squeaking by on former glory. Turmoil within the band ensued. Most of the members embarked on solo projects, which had their moments, but never captured you like the band’s early work.
So when Julian Casablancas announced a new solo record with a band of musical pirates called The Voidz, I was unsurprisingly not enthused. Julian’s first solo album, Phrazes for the Young, had a few cool tracks and some interesting arrangements, but the sum of its parts yielded… meh.
I had no hopes or expectations leading up to the release of Tyranny. Because The Strokes’ early work was essential music of my youth, of course I’d check it out and hopefully hear a few cool tracks to listen to and forget about a month later. What I did not foresee was an album that I’d listen to almost daily in 2017, nearly three years after its release. This album has never left my ears, nor my mind. I promise you… not one week has gone by in the past three years in which I didn’t feel the urge to listen to Tyranny.
So, yesterday on July 31st, when musician Ryan Adams decided to lash out at Julian Casablancas in a childish Twitter rant, I felt compelled to write this article. In the following Tweet, Mr. 1989 took the time to poke fun at Tyranny for it’s lack of success:
I sold more t shirts last night than people who actually made it thru a single Voidz song, bro
– Ryan Adams (@TheRyanAdams) July 31, 2017
While I am only one person, the play counts in my iTunes library indicate that some people actually listened to “a single Voidz song” quite a few times. Oh, and I haven’t used my iTunes in two years. Some of those numbers would reach the 1000’s if there was a way to record the number of times I’ve played songs from Tyranny.
It didn’t start that way, however. I didn’t hear these songs one time and declare it a classic. On first listen, the album is a sensory overload, jam packed with erratic noises, covered in layers upon layers of musical texture, which all surround the nearly inaudible vocals from Julian Casablancas. Tyranny is not an easy record to digest. In fact, on the opener “Take Me in Your Army”, Julian forewarns listeners – “this is not for everybody, this is… for nobody“.
So, the critical backlash kind of makes sense. Recently Julian tweeted, “gearing up for new TheVoidz actually. will have new music for everyone to publicly judge soon”. The transparency of this Tweet puts you in the shoes of the modern musician; you pour your heart and soul into a record and some schmuck at your local Starbucks listens to it once, says “this isn’t The Strokes”, and publicly trashes your album online. What they didn’t understand was that Tyranny was a weird guy you met one time at the bar – He seems quiet and standoffish, he’s wearing an assortment of clothes that make him look like a homeless junkie who can’t decide whether he wants to be 70’s leather-clad punk or a futuristic Marty McFly, he smells bad and is probably just coming down from last week’s acid binge. Not a very accessible guy, an easy target of judgement, and someone you’d avoid when he comes over and starts talking to you about Area 51 with breath reeking of cheap whiskey and Marlboro Reds. But if you’d just hang out with the guy a few times and look past his rough exterior, you’d realize that he’s insanely charismatic, brilliant, with quite a lot to say. He’s one of the coolest dudes you’ll ever meet.
In spring of 2014, the ensemble of musical misfits put out a few promo videos on Youtube, including this album preview to dip listeners’ toes into the stormy musical ocean of Tyranny:
An issue I have with most modern music is the lack of identity – the musical conformity, the copy-and-paste aesthetic of the month, then endless sea of unoriginality and bland. Early on, the aesthetic was defined with Julian Casablancas & The Voidz. Glitchy Robocop-esque 80’s vibe combined with grindhouse horror and the beauty of Blade Runner. The track list was revealed, with song titles like “M.utually A.ssured D.estruction”, “Nintendo Blood”, and “Father Electricity” to conjure up images of a some sort of post-apocalyptic nuclear holocaust with an earth engulfed in a never ending heat lightning storm.
I was anticipating the music, although with a high degree of skepticism. Then one day in the summer, I check my Twitter feed and see that Julian & The Voidz have released an 11-minute single entitled “Human Sadness”. Upon first listen, my initial response was “WTF did I just listen to”. It was like my first taste of hard liquor. I couldn’t stomach it. Like that first sip of whiskey, it had a sharpness like nothing I’d ever experienced before. Our conscious experiences and expectations define how we react to new stimuli. You know biting into a slice of cheesy pizza with steam coming off of it might burn your mouth. You know stepping into the snow will give you chilly goosebumps. You know being punched in the face will hurt. You know pressing play on a song should sound like some song you’ve heard before. This band sounds kinda like that band. The new Arcade Fire sounds like an ABBA rip-off. And so on. But when you listen to “Human Sadness”, there is no comparison. There is no precedent. This song is new ground in the world of music. Sure, it has elements of things we’ve heard. But there’s no real way to describe it. Perhaps “November Rain” meets a bad acid trip while sticking a fork into an electrical socket.
Without reading the lyrics in text, Julian’s chorus on the song sounds like desperate screams from a man trapped in a tank of electroshocked water. “Human Sadness” is grandiose and indulgent, sampling Mozart’s “Requiem” for a moment of beautiful exposition before before Jake Bercovici’s bass line takes you on a trip through the cosmos, as if your spirit has left your body, floating through memories and regrets as your life plays out before your eyes. Beardo and Amir Yaghmai’s guitars layer the song with angst, as Julian soberly sings in reflection before growing increasingly desperate as he sings, “never wanna spell it out, I just want to say that it is all my fault“. It takes its time to swell with the anxiety of loss before exploding into the angry second act.
is it not true, the things that we did?
come here at once and look what they did
come here shut down and tune in tonite,
learn the words that they teach you without you realizing it
come here sit down and watch some tv
Through heavily distorted vocals, this part by Julian bleeds with frustration towards media brainwashing – turn on the tv, believe what you’re told, do as you’re told, like what they tell you like, and don’t think for yourself. The song progresses like a person going through stages of grief; sobbing in sadness, lashing out in anger, falling down into a dark pit of grieving hysteria, and finally accepting what is as “Human Sadness” takes you on a ride through violent rapids, followed by periods of stillness, only to drop you off a waterfall of emotion and sound.
“Human Sadness” is undeniably self-indulgent, and makes no attempt to hide its ambitions, even if they may delve into cheesy at times. But what makes the song so compelling is the raw emotion felt throughout. Despite the Mozart sample, the arcade game sound effects, and the long guitar solo, the song contains a sense of realness. According the those involved, the recording process was difficult because of the emotion poured into the song – some of the members broke down several times during the recording. That’s genuine.
“Human Sadness” is the centerpiece of the record. And if that would be the only memorable song amongst an album that never hit that same high point, I’d take it. But that wasn’t the case. The second single, “Where No Eagles Fly”, was released later with a music video.
“Where No Eagles Fly” is a synth-punk smash. The bass line once again sets the scene, but this time broods like some sort of ominous villain in a slasher flick. It mixes industrial beats with with sharp guitar melodies, surrounding Julian’s brilliant spoken-word lyrical couplets, once again stabbing mindless consumerism in the heart:
“the wolf will cry sheep as they take him away,
we plot in our sleep but follow orders all day”
In a gritty VHS horror aesthetic, the song bursts into a screaming fit of beat-driven ferocity. “Where No Eagles Fly” has the same swagger as the 2001 Strokes with the volatility of a homemade nail bomb, driven by Alex Carapetis’s propulsive drum beat and the sinister guitar melodies.
After “Where No Eagles Fly”, I was properly primed for the ensuing madness of the full length LP.
“Take Me in Your Army” is a dystopian futuristic exposition for the forthcoming album. It is perhaps the most minimal track on Tyranny. It drifts along the surface of machine-like percussion as Julian’s falsetto lazily soars into the sky like an alien abduction beaming him up from earth to enter a new realm of existence, both musically and spiritually.
Then “Cruch Punch”, an early favorite, and one of the more accessible tracks on the album and cements the album’s protest theme. It’s a rock song that has gone through a blender with radio snippets and a touch of erratic “weird” sprinkled in. It churns along before the anthemic chorus, where Casablancas desperately yells, “I can’t live on a farm forever, please just tell them I’m done” like a man in front of a podium, gone off the deep end, pleading to get as far away as possible from everything he hates. But still, it retains a level of control that will slip by the album’s end.
The two tracks on the album that weren’t instant hits for me were “M.utually A.ssured D.estruction” and “Business Dog”, two more straightforward punk metal tracks fueled by corporate angst. Initially I had thought to myself, maybe without these songs the album would feel more concise and digestible, but after enough listens, they seem as essential as any, providing the fiery energy to balance the unorthodox kaleidoscope of sound of the albums longer songs. “M.A.D.” is the sound of screaming into a pillow to release anger, and “Business Dog” is a fun punk romp. An attack on the state of modern politics and corporate greed, respectively.
“Johan Von Bronx”, initially dubbed “Ego”, continues the themes of anger and frustration but shifts the focus on from society and points the finger internally. This song is downright menacing, brooding through like a mysterious hooded figure walking through a back alleyway, only illuminated by a dim streetlight. It’s reminiscent of early Strokes song, “Alone, Together”, trading the feeling of drunken frustration for psychedelic paranoia as the final chorus ends with Julian screaming, “My ego is out of control, YES I KNOW”. If Tyranny is a bad acid trip, which it absolutely is, “Johan Von Bronx” is the moment of self-actualization.
As I’ve previously stated, some art takes time to reveal itself. The prime example of this on Tyranny is “Father Electricity”, perhaps the weirdest song on the album (which is quite the feat). While many fault Casablancas & co. for being too self-indulgent and jamming this record with too many different ideas, “Father Electricity” is the is proof that sometimes these insane ideas can yield the most potent outcomes. Continuing with the “psychedelic trip” theme of many of these songs, this track is like coming up on MDMA in some sort Amazonian jungle dance party. At once, the drugs, or the music, feels overwhelming and chaotic. Like a thunderous tropical storm of drums and schizophrenic guitars with lightning crashing all around as your mind does backflips in a hysteric craze. Suddenly, just as your brain feels like its about to explode, the storm reaches a screaming halt – a calm sweeps over you and you’re trapped inside a bubble of nostalgic synth beauty seeing vibrant purples and blues and greens and reds. Like locking eyes with the love of your life, but instead of being right in front of you dancing, they’re across the room. You swim through the crowd to fight your way towards them, but when you arrive they’ve disappeared. Like a nightmare. A gorgeous nightmare.
You are everything I see
Every time I blink: despair
Lock the doors and hide the keys
And wake the doctor, call a priest
Born out of electricity, I wait for you in the second life
A sense of yearning for someone or something so close to your grasp, but you just can’t quite reach it. It balances chaos with beauty. And contain’s some of Julian’s most profound songwriting. It’s the track that gets overshadowed by the behemoth “Human Sadness” and the infectious “Where No Eagles Fly”, but this is the song that proves the genius of Tyranny. And perhaps “Father Electricity” is the opus of the album.
“Xerox” is a sort of post-apocalyptic interlude, spiraling through a hellish ennui in a withdrawn, sinister “snake convincing Eve to eat the apple” sort of way. Touching on temptation and the fragility of human virtue. It’s calmly ominous and foreboding. In fact, it is foreshadowing for the madness of Tyranny‘s final two tracks – “Dare I Care” and “Nintendo Blood”.
If the paranoia of the preceding album was relatively kept in check and balanced by moments of beauty, it reaches its climax at “Dare I Care”. With inaudible stream-of-conscious writing and maniacal musical arrangements, this song is full blown, this guy has lost his fucking mind. Like a man going through mental breakdown in a straight-jacket running around and slamming his body into the padded walls, screaming for someone to let him out. Julian channels his frustration towards expectations and pressures and critics, before giving a middle finger and yelling, “I don’t care anymore, I don’t dare anymore”. It’s a big fuck you to everyone expecting him to be a slave to their expectations of him. It’s him saying, “this is who I am, deal with it or leave me the hell alone”.
“Nintendo Blood” ends the album on a video-game synth note of sentimentality, at first calmly swooning through fears with the sounds of exasperation. That is, until someone doses the song with a few hits of acid as his singing turns into robotic screaming:
The moon is cracked I think it looked at me and grinned
The room is packed I look around and now it spins
Cyborg, I need to sit down, I need to shut up
Universe everything’s wrong, I think I fucked up
It’s as if Julian woke up from a nightmare and penned these lyrics. Pure stream of conscience, unadulterated paranoia. Like the rest of the album, the music and Casablancas’s often confusing lyrics contain the surrealism of David Lynch film. It’s the stuff of nightmares. Like a bad dream in which you’re screaming at someone to tell them something, right in front of their face, but they can’t hear you. It’s the sound of creative genius. This is the sound of a man buried in alive in a coffin, screaming, pounding and clawing to get out.
Tyranny is an angry album, a protest album, but aggression and weirdness allows for some of the most gorgeous moments in music to occur. This is an album crafted by someone with something to say, or rather, everything to say. It is the album of a lifetime. Actually, it’s the album of a century. A rare gem that says fuck it all and allows an artist to delve into his own fucked up subconscious and bleed raw emotion onto record. Tyranny is a flaming supernova of emotion, ranging from anger to paranoia to desperation to joy to love. It’s the marriage of the violence of metal and the contagious melodies of pop. Well, pop that his been doused in a bath of hydrochloric acid. Yes, this album is experimental, it is different, and it is raw musical pandemonium, but the greatness of this album doesn’t merely lie in its ambitions – the greatness of Tyranny is the pay-off, the final product: a collection of songs that are both infectious and unforgettable.
To me, this isn’t just a record you look at objectively and say “this is great” but don’t find yourself coming back to all that often. This is the music that I wanted to hear. It’s music that I needed to hear. On repeat. Walking to class, in the car, lifting weights, lying in bed at night. Since its release, no other collection of songs has captured my interest like these ones. Three years later, I can still look at Tyranny as a towering monolith that all other music will be compared to. And nothing has come close.
Julian Casablancas made his mark on music long ago. He will forever be remembered as an indie-rock icon. A drunken frontman for an inescapably cool band. But he isn’t a one-trick-pony: what this album does is exposes the creative genius of Julian Casablancas. There is no denying this. I know this album better than perhaps any I’ve ever listened to. I understand it. Most don’t. But that’s okay, it isn’t for everybody. But for those who want to take the voyage into the unrestrained psyche of a musical mastermind, who allowed himself the freedom to make the album he was born to make, you may just find that between the bleeps and bloops, screams, and walls of overwhelming sound, Tyranny is one of the best albums ever created.
And it will be recognized as such. Even if it takes thirty years.